Runners

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com


Part Six

JD hadn’t been sure how he’d be able to wait until the weekend, but when Saturday arrived he felt unexpectedly scared. Well, not scared, because that would be babyish. But he felt something—and it made his stomach twist into knots and made his fingers clumsy as he tried to do up the buttons on his new shirt.

“You’ll love it with Buck,” Julie said, finishing them off for him. She wasn’t at work today but she’d come in to say goodbye and see JD off.

“I know, but…”

“And I’ve seen the photo of your new room. It looks fantastic.”

JD had the photo in his pocket. He pulled it out now. “The walls are blue, see. Vin and Ezra did the picture of the horses, and that big bear is from Chris.”

“Chris is Mr Larabee?”

“Yes.”

“That must be why it looks such a fierce growly one.”

JD had to laugh when she said that, and he felt a bit better. “It’s a proper brown bear. It’s not like a toy.”

“No, I can see that. And what’s this box?”

“Buck says it has lots of Lego in. Some from Mrs Potter and some from Mrs Travis and some from all Buck’s secretaries. Julie, how long do you think Buck will be?”

“Shall we look along the hallway?”

JD was okay at walking now, though his legs ached quickly. He and Julie looked, then made sure he’d packed all his cards and presents, the ones Buck hadn’t already taken home for him, then looked again.

Buck had just stopped to speak to the nurses as he came in. There wasn’t time for that today!

“Buck!” JD shouted, the excitement rushing back into him. “Hi, Buck! I’m ready!”

“You certainly are,” Buck said. “Well, shall I have a cup of coffee and a nice chat with Julie?”

“No!”

“You really think you want to go straight away?”

“Yes! Did you get the things I told you?”

“All of them,” Buck confirmed.

“You can help me give them to everyone.”

He’d told Buck to bring chocolates and flowers and a special present for Julie. By the time they’d given those out and everyone had said goodbye and some of them had hugged him in a rather embarrassing way—and some of them had hugged Buck in an even more embarrassing way—it was definitely time to go.

“Do I have to have the wheelchair,” he complained. “I can walk okay now.”

“Even ATF agents have to have a wheelchair to get out of here,” Buck said.

“Anyway,” Julie told him, “you want to save your energy for when you get home.”

That was true, really. He gave in, and secretly wasn’t sorry. He still felt tired quickly, and Buck had had to learn lots of exercises to do with him to get his muscles strong again. It would be better not to be too tired when he got to the apartment.

“Is there an elevator?” he asked Buck as they finally pulled up outside it. Buck had kept up a running commentary while he drove, so that JD would know exactly where he was.

“There is,” Buck said. “And Josiah is there holding it for us.”

JD could see Josiah now. He waved to him as Buck swung him up to carry him in.

“I can walk,” he said again, but holding on tight.

“Hey, it’s a rule you have to carry someone into their new home.”

“That’s girls. When you marry them.”

“Is that right? Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll put you down just outside the door, and you can walk in and surprise Nettie.”

JD did that. Nettie dropped the spoon she was using to stir something in a pan. “JD! I didn’t hear you all coming!”

“We kept quiet so as to give you a surprise.”

“Well, it’s a very nice surprise. You’re walking so well now.”

“Vin says I could beat Ezra in a race, but that’s because Ezra’s ankle isn’t better. I couldn’t beat Casey yet. Where is Casey?”

“Didn’t Buck tell you? She’s gone to spend the day with Chris. I think she might be a bit too tiring for you on your first day home. She might come for a little while tomorrow to play.”

“I’ll see what games I’ve got,” JD said. Buck pushed open the door to the small blue bedroom. It was exactly like the photo Ezra had taken. JD found his hand sliding into Buck’s as he stared at it all.

“Like it?” Buck asked.

JD turned around and hugged him hard. “It’s great!” He couldn’t help the tears slipping down his face as well, though, however hard he tried.

Buck sat down on the chair and lifted him onto his lap. “Hey now, you just cuddle up a minute and get your breath back.”

“It’s just… I wish my mom could see it,” JD struggled to tell him. “She used to say one day when she was better she’d paint my room all blue for me and maybe put a little shelf up for my books. I wish she could see it.”

“I wish she could too,” Buck said, holding him tight. “But I got one thing that might help. Vin and Ezra had a picture in that rucksack of theirs that Vin said was your mom.”

“It got all torn at Mr Garriocci’s,” JD whispered. “I picked the bits up, but I couldn’t put them together again. Ezra thought it was safest to keep it in my envelope and try when we could take it to a proper shop.”

“Well, we did that,” Buck said. “It took a long time, but Josiah picked it up a couple of days ago, and we thought it would look good by your bed.”

He picked up a little package that JD hadn’t noticed on the bunk and gave it to him. JD fumbled with the paper around it. His picture of his mom looked as good as new, and it was in a white frame with blue flowers at the top. He clutched it, and Buck, and hid his face in Buck’s shirt so Nettie and Josiah wouldn’t know he was crying.

Buck rubbed his back gently and didn’t seem to mind how long it took him to feel okay again, and JD stayed like that a while. Then the picture frame started to dig into his chest, and he sat up again and looked properly at the photo.

“I’m going to put it on my shelf,” he told Buck.

“It’ll look just right there,” Buck said, steadying him down onto his feet.

JD put the photo where he could see it when he woke up in a morning, and moved the books a little to make room for it. There were two he’d already read, but all the others were new to him. He turned from there to look at the games and then to pull out the box of Lego.

Buck sat there and helped when JD asked him until Nettie called them to have soup for lunch.

“I think you should have a rest now, JD,” she said as he finished the bowlful. “Let Buck tuck you up on the bottom bunk for a while, and then you can help me put all your cards up.”

Having a rest seemed an awful waste of time, but that wasn’t the sort of thing you said to Nettie. He curled up on the bunk with the bear, which felt much softer than it looked.

“Not many people who go to sleep wrestling a grizzly,” Buck said.

“I’m not going to sleep, just having a rest.”

“That’s fine,” Buck said. “I’ll go help Nettie clear the dishes, and come back in a few minutes then.”

It was a long few minutes. JD’s eyes kept closing. The bunk bed was much more comfortable than his bed in the hospital had been. He wrestled his grizzly a bit closer and fell asleep.


“Peso didn’t bite her,” Vin said angrily. “Wasn’t even hardly a nip. Just a warning. I told her Peso didn’t like being fussed. Weren’t like th’ other horses weren’t out. She could’ve fussed with Beavis. He don’t care.”

Ezra listened to the loud sobs coming from the kitchen. “Perhaps Peso hurt her feelings.”

“I told Chris it wasn’t like Peso had done anything and he still shut him back in his stall.”

Ezra’s sympathies in this instance were with Chris, who was trying to calm Casey down—and succeeding apparently. The sobs were definitely lessening in volume.

“Never broke th’ skin,” Vin said. “Wouldn’t’ve happened if she done what I said.”

His grammar was deteriorating fast under a strong sense of injustice. Chris came in, looking harassed, with a tear stained Casey clutching a large chocolate bar. Ezra thought of pointing out that Nathan and Rain were due to arrive at any moment, but decided it would probably be better to mention it to Casey rather than Chris. She would appreciate the necessity of consuming it before they saw it.

“I want a word with Vin,” Chris said. “Would you look after Casey for a minute, Ez?”

It was obviously incumbent upon him to rise to the occasion. “Perhaps I could take your photograph and show you how we can adapt it on the computer and print it?” he suggested to her.

Casey nodded, sticking out a chocolate coated tongue at Vin behind Chris’s back. Evidently it was not only Peso who had hurt her feelings.

Ezra swung across the room on his crutches and picked up the camera. “Would you like to pose for me outside or indoors?”

Outside would probably be the better option. The voices in the kitchen were already rising too audibly, Chris laying down the law and Vin defending a lost cause. “I don’t give a damn,” Chris was saying forcefully. “It’s time Peso learned some manners.”

Ezra hurried Casey along towards the bathroom. “I suggest a wash before Nathan arrives,” he said. “There’s Ben and Jerry’s and some cookies for dessert later so it would be a pity to let the remains of that chocolate bar show.”

Casey washed quickly, just enough to remove any trace of chocolate. “Let’s go and take the photo,” she said. “Can you do lots of different ones?”

“I can, and I can show them to you so that you choose the ones you like before we print them.”

It was unfortunate that they had to pass the kitchen again on the way out, and that Vin was not giving in gracefully. Not at all gracefully.

“Vin said the ‘f’ word!” Casey said, wide-eyed. “That’s a really bad word.”

Ezra ushered her hastily on. He felt slightly wide-eyed himself, though he hoped it didn’t show. What had happened to Vin’s usual world view that Chris was always right? And, worse, when had Ezra himself come to adopt it? No, it wasn’t quite that bad, but he did find that he was assuming there was no need to worry. Chris would be able to handle this—though possibly not without some more ‘really bad words’ being hurled about. Luckily these were not audible out in the yard.

“Where shall we take your photo?” he asked.

Casey was distracted by the sight of Nathan’s car approaching. “There’s Nathan and Rain. I’m going to tell them about how mean Vin’s been.”

It was beneath Ezra’s dignity but… “I think it might be better if they didn’t know about Vin, especially the ‘f’ word, as we’re not going to tell them about the chocolate bar,” he said.

Casey was a reasonably bright child. She understood the implications, and decided that getting her own back on Vin was not worth a day without any more treats. “Okay,” she said reluctantly. “But you get Vin to say sorry to me.”

“On Peso’s behalf?”

“No! Because he said I was a silly little girl and it was my own fault Peso nipped me!”

“Vin is sadly lacking in tact and diplomacy,” Ezra said. “I shall make sure he apologises. Now, as you and I are the only people here polite enough to welcome guests properly, shall we go and invite Nathan and Rain to join our photo session?”

“Until Vin and Chris have stopped swearing?”

“Exactly.”

Fortunately, Rain had brought a small present for Casey, a little plush pony to celebrate the riding lesson that was booked later. Looking at it, the two of them didn’t notice Vin walk angrily from the house and over to the barn without a glance at anyone. Nathan saw him and said softly to Ezra, “Argument?”

“Peso nipped Casey and was imprisoned without trial.”

“Never knew a horse that deserved it more.”

“I know, but Vin believes Peso is blameless and misunderstood.”

Chris came out, and visibly tried to lose the glare when he realised everyone was there. “Nate. Didn’t hear you come.” He took in the sight of Casey now chattering happily and added, “Thanks, Ezra.”

“What time do you want to go over to Sally’s?” Nathan asked.

Chris glanced at his watch. “Casey’s lesson’s at three, so we’re not in a hurry.”

“That’s good. Rain’s been looking forward to seeing around the ranch again.”

Ezra waited where he was—he could only manoeuvre the crutches on a hard surface. He thought Vin might regain some semblance of sanity and come out of the barn, but Vin was still there when they all came back, and still there when it was time to leave.

Chris spoke to Ezra quietly while Casey showed Rain her riding helmet. “Vin doesn’t have a choice about coming with us. Think it might go better if you point that out to him rather than me?”

“Probably,” Ezra conceded. “Chris… I realise this may not be the best moment to say so, but one of the things that I found… different about Vin when I first met him was the fact that he can’t help standing up for those he sees as victims.”

“I know, but he has to see Peso isn’t the victim here,” Chris said. “Peso bit a small girl. He’s a bad mannered, cantankerous disgrace.”

“Vin’s fond of him.”

“It’s the only good thing you can say for the horse. Go and see if you can persuade Vin that an afternoon in the stall isn’t the equine equivalent of Alcatraz and lets go out.”

Ezra found Vin grooming Peso until he shone.

“Time to leave,” he called from the doorway, deciding not to risk the crutches inside unless he had to. “In case you’ve forgotten, the word ‘custody’ still features in our relationship with Chris. He doesn’t have a choice any more than you do.” Maybe that was a little unfair, but he thought it might jolt Vin back into some kind of more rational frame of mind.

Without answering, Vin cleared up and came. For once Ezra couldn’t guess his thoughts at all from his face, and Vin remained quiet and remote all the way to the Logan ranch. Casey had decided to go in Nathan’s car, so the Ram was almost completely silent.

“You remember to bring the camera?” Chris asked Ezra when the ranch was in sight.

“Yes.” Ezra had discovered an unexpected pleasure in photography, and although the camera theoretically belonged to both of them, he was the one who usually carried it.

“Good. While Casey tries riding, I’d like you two to photograph some pups. Sally has a Labrador bitch who produced a litter recently. Thought it might be nice to thank Sally for fitting Casey in at short notice by taking some pictures of them for her.”

Ezra glanced at Vin, but Vin might have been on another planet for all the reaction he showed. Well, in that case he would speak for both of them.

“It’ll be a pleasure,” he said.

If Josiah was right about laying up treasure in heaven, Ezra considered that his conduct today should have improved his own bank balance considerably.


Martinez had been brought up according to a code which held that even if your work required crime, intimidation and violence, family was sacrosanct. He tried to keep that in mind when he had dealings with Raoul. The boy might be spoilt, dishonest and vicious, but he was his nephew.

“It was easy. I told you it would be,” Raoul said dismissively. “For me, that is. It would be very difficult for you. Shapiro says everywhere is being watched.”

Martinez checked the bills. Shapiro had paid up in full. He counted out the payment he’d agreed on with his nephew.

“For the next job, I want ten percent,” Raoul said.

“That’s a lot of money for running an errand.”

“It’s an errand you can’t ask anyone else to do.”

Martinez had half expected this. “The money we agreed on to you, and the balance of the ten percent to your mother,” he offered.

Raoul looked at him in disbelief, and refused with such an obscene comment about his mother that Martinez hit him hard across the face before thinking what this might lead to.

Raoul picked himself up from the floor and wiped the blood from his mouth, “That makes it fifteen percent,” he said coldly.


Buck wasn’t sure JD should be sleeping so long. Nettie said it was fine, Josiah said it was fine and JD sure looked peaceful enough tucked up in the bunk, but he still felt he needed to check on him every half hour or so. After the last time, Josiah had suggested a game of chess.

“I don’t know,” Buck said. “I want to listen out for JD.”

“I wouldn’t call chess a noisy game,” Josiah pointed out mildly.

“Buck Wilmington, if you go and risk disturbing that boy one more time, I’m going to send you out of the apartment altogether,” Nettie said much less mildly. “Play the chess.”

Buck tried. He stared at the board and just about kept his concentration from wandering back to the bunk bed. He wasn’t a bad chess player, but even on his best days Josiah could beat him easily. Today, he wasn’t putting up a show at all. He made himself look at the pieces—his own side sadly depleted—and tried to think of something that would make defeat less of a rout.

“You’re losing.”

Buck nearly jumped out of his skin. JD had padded out silently in his socked feet and was standing watching them. He looked rather tousled, but bright and wide awake. Buck held out his arm for JD to come and sit with him. “Want to help me?”

“Is that okay?” JD asked Josiah politely.

“I think he needs some help,” Josiah said equally seriously. “Do you know how to play?”

“Oh yes. We had a neighbour who liked me to play with him. He was really old—older than you—and he didn’t have a TV but he liked to play chess a lot.”

Buck soon found JD really could play—surprisingly well, in fact probably better than Buck could. He let him play a second game with Josiah on his own.

Nettie saw his expression as he watched and patted him lightly on the arm. “Don’t worry,” she said softly. “He may be a very bright child, but what he needs are the things you can give him, especially a loving home. Let his teachers enjoy educating him.”

“I don’t think he’ll be asking me for help with his math!”

“There’s more to life than schoolwork. You’ll teach him a lot of things that matter more. Now, I must say goodbye for today. I want to do my own chores and some baking for us all before Nathan and Rain return my tomboy.”

“They’re spending the day too? Chris asked for help did he?”

“Well, they offered but I think he was glad to have Rain along. He said he wasn’t so used to little girls, and I got the impression he had some additional reason for going to the Logan ranch.”

She finished collecting her things together, and said goodbye to JD. “I’ve left a pot roast in the oven,” she told Buck. “Josiah will see to everything else. You just enjoy yourself with JD.”

Buck grinned. Unlike most of Nettie’s orders, that one should be quite easy to carry out.


Tom Carrington had been abandoned by his wife again—just for the weekend this time. The new grandchild was proving better at crying than sleeping and his two-year-old ‘big’ sister had decided that if there was a competition for mom’s attention she was going to win it, whatever it took. Tom’s daughter had been on the phone to her own mom, which meant here Tom was—back to getting his dinner out of the freezer and putting it in the microwave.

Still, it was a good opportunity to come into the office on a Saturday and get ahead with some paperwork. He’d been receiving far more files and reports than he’d expected concerning Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish. The pile was on the desk in front of him now. Quantities from Chris Larabee, a man he’d been sure would be averse to paperwork of any sort; quantities from Nettie, who’d already asked him if he was up-to-date on what she’d sent him; statements and testimonials he certainly hadn’t solicited—though Larabee probably had as they all seemed to be in the boys’ favour—from an extraordinarily diverse range of people. He picked one up at random. Did he need to know that the boys were ‘shaping up well with the hosses’ and who on earth had a name like Yosemite anyway.

Well, it had better be Nettie’s first. He respected her opinions, and he really didn’t want to admit again that he hadn’t yet read her reports. After that he’d probably wade through the material Chris Larabee had sent him. There was another file, too, which he would have to take into consideration. He hadn’t been expecting anything more from Denver PD, but what seemed quite an extensive collection of papers had come from there late the previous afternoon. He was surprised it bore no name or contact number.

He pulled across a pad of paper—he still liked to make some notes longhand—and settled to a long morning of reading.


Chris watched Casey with approval. She sat well and listened to instructions carefully, and her experience with Peso didn’t seem to have made her any less confident this afternoon. In fact, he suspected Casey and Peso had long since forgotten the incident. Unlike Vin.

“I can remember my first riding lesson so well,” Rain said. “I’m really enjoying watching her—all that solemn concentration. If you want to go check on the boys, Nate and I will be glad to stay here with her.”

Chris did want to. He’d left them being introduced to the litter of pups by a big freckled girl a little older than they were, who worked for Sally at weekends, and he wanted to see how they were getting on with them. He made his way around the building to a large, comfortable room at the back of the property where the pups and their mother had some peace away from most of the visitors.

He didn’t go straight in, but stood slightly to one side of the window, where he could see without being seen. Ezra and Vin were on their own now with the pups and he smiled as he watched them.

Ezra had managed to ease down to floor level, his crutches stretched out beside him. The one female of the litter was trying to climb up his chest to lick his chin. Vin was lying flat on his back encouraging the other three pups to tussle with him.

Chris heard footsteps behind him, and turned to see Nathan. He gestured to the window, and Nathan grinned as he looked in. “That’s a nice scene.”

“Yeah.”

“Rain sent me after you—wants to know if she can borrow the camera and take a few photos of Casey.”

“I should have thought of it,” Chris said. “I’ll get it in a minute.”

“Shame to disturb them,” Nathan agreed.

It was. Ezra had slid further back, onto his elbows and the pup had finally, ecstatically managed to reach his face. Vin was rolling around the floor, the other three yipping excitedly as they played with him.

“I don’t reckon Ezra’s ever had the sort of unconditional love that pup will offer,” Chris said quietly, thinking aloud. “And Vin had to grow up a hell of a lot too fast to have time for rough and tumble games.”

Nathan nodded. “Think you’re right,” he agreed. “You trying to tell me you’re planning to take on a pup now as well as everything else?”

“Two,” Chris said. “One apiece. I called Sally before we came, and none of them have homes yet. A couple of dogs would be good for security at the ranch. What do you think?”

“I think you’re a glutton for punishment,” Nathan said. “But it’d be a real good thing for those boys.” His hand dropped warmly on Chris’s shoulder. “Go for it. We’ll all help out if we’re needed. Boy-sitting, horse-sitting, pup-sitting…”

“Thanks.”

“Now, I’m going to be in trouble with Rain if I don’t get back to her soon with that camera. And don’t forget to see the boys wash—hands and faces—when they’ve finished.”

They went in, negotiating the dog-proof gate, and while Nate went back to the riding lessons, Chris joined the boys on the floor.

“What do you think of the pups?” he asked, fondling Bonnie, their mother, who he’d known for years.

“They’re quite… beautiful,” Ezra said.

It was the least cynical thing Chris had ever heard him say. “Yes,” he agreed. “They are. And this little lady’s really taken to you.”

Ezra stroked the little pup who had squirmed back into his lap and curled up there. “Evidently she has good taste.”

Vin was still silent. Not exactly sulking, Chris thought, but shaken that he’d lost his temper so thoroughly. He didn’t push him for an answer.

“They’ll be ready to leave their mother quite soon,” he told Ezra. “Of course, a pup’s a lot of work, to care for, to train properly and so on, but these will be good ranch dogs when they’re grown.”

Ezra looked at him quickly, the hope for once unguarded in his eyes. “For our ranch?” he asked, too intent on the answer to notice the words he was using.

Chris noticed. “Our ranch,” he confirmed. “None of them are spoken for, so I’ll be telling Sally we’d like to take a couple of them. Guess you’ve had more time with them than I’m likely to spend. Why don’t you choose?”

Ezra’s habitual poker face was failing him utterly. He almost grinned. “I think the ranch could do with a civilising female presence,” he said.

“I think she’s chosen you,” Chris agreed, looking at the possessive and contented way the pup had settles on Ezra’s lap. “She looks like the best behaved of the bunch, too.”

He waited, but Vin still wasn’t looking at him. “What about you, Vin?” he asked. “Got a preference among these three?”

Vin hesitated, then picked up the smallest of the litter, who was headbutting his mother. “This ‘n,” he said. “Looks like th’ runt, but I reckon he’ll be the toughest.” The pup was certainly unafraid, playfighting with Vin’s hand and struggling to get down.

Chris took him, and felt the compact strength of the little body. He liked the pup’s bright alert look and his eager movements. “You a tough guy?” he asked, as the pup tried to launch himself back at Vin. “Let’s see how you do when the odds are fairer.”

With one swift movement he had Vin flat on his back on the floor, and dropped the pup on his chest while he pinned him there. The look of utter astonishment on Vin’s face almost made him laugh aloud, but it would have been drowned out anyway by the excited yipping of all the pups as they hurled themselves enthusiastically back into the scramble.

Bonnie huffed her disapproval and went to lay her head in Ezra’s lap, next to her one well-behaved offspring. Vin suddenly forgot his darker mood and started wrestling like one of the pups, testing his strength against Chris’s and trying to get free. He would never have managed it, but the end of a padded crutch—Ezra was taking sides—caught Chris in the ribs and unbalanced him. Vin and the pups pounced together, and all of them rolled across the floor.

“Chris Larabee, you’re a born trouble maker! I can hear you stirring things up from half way across my ranch.”

Chris sat up, dislodging pups and hastily straightening his jacket and hair.

“It’s good to see you,” Sally Logan said warmly. She was maybe ten years older than Chris, and had been a good friend to him and to Sarah.

He’d cut himself off from so many friends, not out of any conscious choice but in an instinctive withdrawal from the pain of remembering…

Sally helped him to his feet with a grip as strong as his own, and he knew she didn’t blame him for it any more than she’d have blamed an injured animal for snarling at her. He hauled Vin up in his turn and they both helped Ezra up onto his crutches.

“Sally, this is Vin and Ezra; boys, Mrs Logan.”

“Ma’am.”

“Mrs Logan.”

Chris had every confidence in Sally. He left her to talk to the boys about the pups and hurried back to Casey’s riding lesson in time to watch her finish. Rather to his surprise, she ran straight to him. “Chris! Was I good?”

“You were,” he said truthfully.

“Rain took some pictures of me. Can I go and learn how to look after the horses now?”

It was a good idea. All Sally’s horses were well-behaved. Maybe he should send Peso over here for etiquette lessons. By the time Casey had finished with the horses and Vin and Ezra had looked around the rest of the ranch, there was barely time to get back and eat before Nathan and Rain needed to take Casey home. Chris watched her demolish ice-cream and cookies. Well, the chocolate bar had been a long time ago, and anyway, it wasn’t his car.

When they’d all gone, and the evening’s chores done, he caught up on some mail while Vin and Ezra watched TV. With the immediacy gone out of the day, he had time to think about the morning’s argument. He could just let it go; he wasn’t a great believer in raking up things to talk through them. Depended whether it was going to bother Vin as unfinished business…

He answered an email from Price about some more of the slow trickle of information they were getting out of Henderson, then walked back to the den. Vin was on his own.

“Ez’s tired,” he said. “Went to bed.”

Chris strolled along to make sure the day’s exertion hadn’t left Ezra’s ankle uncomfortable. Although the doctors said it was healing well, they weren’t talking about taking the cast off for at least another week, and even then it would ache when he was tired.

Ezra was already half asleep. He’d printed off a picture of ‘his’ pup, Chris saw, and had it on the bedside table.

“Ever owned a dog?” Chris asked, picking up Ezra’s crutches and putting them in easy reach.

“No, mother dislikes them—hairs, drool, dirt, her list of objections is extensive. However it was always something I always… thought would be interesting. Mrs Logan says we can go over to visit until the pups are ready to leave their mother.”

“We’ll do that.” He thought about it. “Sally’s a damn good cook, too.”

Ezra smiled. “We must time our arrival right.”

Chris was almost out of the door when Ezra added, “Chris… thanks.”

“I reckon I’m going to enjoy the pups as much as you and Vin will. Night, Ez.” He left the door open, though he thought Ezra would sleep well enough tonight.

After that, it was back to the den. For the time being, he’d given up trying to get Vin to sleep in a bed, but he liked to check that he’d settled down. Vin was still sitting cross-legged on the couch, his usual ease transformed to stiffness. Chris tossed up mentally, then went on in.

“Want to talk?” he asked, joining him on the couch.

Vin looked at him. “Can’t shut Peso away every time a kid comes to th’ ranch.”

“Don’t think that’ll be necessary. You look back to this morning and tell me why Casey was out there just with you.”

“You had t’ answer th’ phone.”

“And if you’d waited, Casey would have done the same.”

“When do I ever wait? Anyway, y’ didn’t yell when we went.”

“My mistake,” Chris said drily. “However one reason for that would be the fact I didn’t happen to notice you go. Another would be that I’d already said it’d be best if I introduced Casey to the horses.”

“I didn’t take Casey, she followed me.”

“Did you tell her to come back to me?”

Vin shrugged. “Didn’t pay her no never mind ’til she started t’ fuss with Peso. She didn’t stop when I told her though.”

“Think maybe if I’d been there she’d have stopped when I told her?”

“Hell, th’ whole world stops when you tell it,” Vin said, not happy at this step-by-step way of being put in the wrong. “JD always done what I told him. I kept him safe okay, didn’t I?”

Chris avoided this sidetrack. “Getting back to this morning—Casey being out there and getting nipped by that…” he caught himself, he wasn’t looking to stir things up further “… getting nipped by Peso, what did you do next?”

“Told her it was her own fault.”

“That make matters better did it?”

“You know th’ answer to that.”

“Yeah, but I’m making sure you do. It made matters worse. Even so, it’d all have been forgotten in five minutes as just one of those things—but arguing with my decision about Peso, that dug you in a whole lot deeper.”

Vin looked at him, blue eyes meeting Chris’s with that sense they both had of knowing and being known. He’d be a leader one day, Chris thought, but he still had some things to learn. Vin looked down first.

“Maybe I pushed it a bit far,” he conceded at last, then added with a hint of a smile, “being as you’re used to folk jumping soon’s you say jump.”

Chris grinned. “I’m the leader of the pack around here and you remember it! You’re just a young pup like that little squirt you chose at Sally’s.”

“He’s goin’ t’ be a great dog. I’m goin’ t’ call him Connall. Know what that means?”

“No.”

“Means strong like a wolf. M’ granda’s dog was called that.”

“It’s a good name,” Chris said softly, pleased to see the ease back in his manner.

“He was an old dog by then,” Vin said, remembering. “When granda had the stroke, some friend or other took him in. Never saw him again.”

“Glad you can call Connall for him, then.”

“Yeah.” Vin was silent a moment, apparently thinking. “Th’ judge then wanted to split us up even though we were family,” he said eventually.

Chris did the ten second couch-to-bed conversion for him, pushing the cushions along and tipping Vin onto them. “Got a whole lot of people telling the judge this time that you’re in the right place,” he said.

Vin rolled himself in the blanket, and didn’t object when Chris tucked the throw over him as well.

“Night, old dog,” he murmured.

“Night, pup.”

Chris decided to write another long letter to the judge before he went to bed himself, just to make sure the guy was clear on things. Maybe he’d ask if the review could be earlier. However much reassurance he offered, he doubted if either Vin or Ezra would really be confident in the future until it was over.


Monday morning wasn’t Vic Price’s favourite time of the week. His wife had taken one look at his face at breakfast time and promptly poured his coffee into the mug which said ‘Sometimes I wake up grumpy in the morning—and sometimes I let him sleep’. He’d made an effort though. He’d managed to communicate in a reasonably civilised series of grunts from the PD entrance up to his office.

That was when the phone call from Judge Carrington really sent the day to hell.

He listened, first with confusion, then with growing anger to the judge’s series of questions about the papers he’d recently received from Vic’s department.

Rawlings! He knew at once it had to be Rawlings who’d done this. It was going to be damn hard to prove, though, and even if he did there was nothing illegal about putting in some extra work; Rawlings would claim some misunderstanding had led to the file going to the judge.

In fact, he realised Rawlings must have thought that if Carrington did come back with questions, Vic would just go along with it rather than look a complete fool who didn’t know what was going on in his own department.

The thought made him angrier than ever. Rawlings had made a mistake on that. Vic had looked a fool before, and could live with it a hell of a lot better than with knocking those kids’ chance of making a fresh start.

“I didn’t authorise that file,” he said plainly to the judge, “I haven’t seen its contents, but I can tell you, if they’re negative they don’t reflect my view of the boys.”

There was a pause, and the judge sounded polite but surprised. “I’d call the situation … unusual… then, Captain Price.”

“So would I, and I’ll be looking into it. In the meantime, I’d be grateful for the relevant information, so I can see what’s been said and give my version.”

“I’ll see it gets to you,” Carrington said. “I’ll wait for your comments before I mention the contents to anyone else—except the part about whether the boys are being adequately supervised, which I’ll have to follow up straight away.”

Vic slammed the phone down—once the judge had safely finished the call—but he’d had time to think and he decided not to go after Rawlings. There was very little he could do, and it would be better if Rawlings didn’t know he’d heard anything about it. Let him think he’d succeeded, and he wouldn’t be looking to try some other malicious trick.


Orrin Travis was the next recipient of the judge’s Monday morning zeal. Mrs Carrington, seduced by the charms of her new grandson, had failed to return after all. Tom never slept well when she was away, and although his legal training made him much too wise to say so, he really felt life went better when a woman made the breakfast.

“I got into the office at seven,” he told Orrin. “Better coffee here than at home. Now, this call’s off the record. I’ve had a report—seems it’s anonymous and unauthorised which I don’t like, but it makes an allegation I don’t feel I can ignore. As you know, when I put Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish in Chris Larabee’s custody it was on the understanding that they would be with him or one of his team at all times, and he agreed to that in writing. This report I’ve had accuses him of leaving them unsupervised, though it doesn’t give times or dates.”

“I sent you a report about the weekend Chris was injured,” Orrin said. “The boys were briefly missing then, but it was understandable in the confusion, and like I said, they were doing their best to contribute to catching whoever put the hit out on him—and did do so.”

“Leaving that aside, is it your impression Larabee’s stuck to the terms of the custody?”

“I’d have said someone was with them twenty four seven,” Orrin said, “and it’s been a damn nuisance working around it. Worth it, because Chris is getting back to be the man he used to be, and I’m more glad than I can tell you to see that. But it’s played hell with his team’s availability.”

He paused, and added in rather a different tone, “Actually, that’s just reminded me of something. There was one evening… I had to call the whole team in at short notice, and I told Chris I could arrange for the boys to spend the night in juvenile hall if there was no other alternative. He vetoed that pretty firmly, but he and the team turned up and frankly I didn’t ask what he’d arranged. They’d all been at Wilmington’s apartment. I thought he might have left them there; if he trusted them, I wasn’t going to query it. They were here as normal next morning.”

“They evidently aren’t trying to run away, in spite of their record.”

“Mary says it’s as if Chris has them on an invisible line,” Orrin said. “She’s teaching Vin, so she sees quite a bit if them. She says it’s rather touching, considering what a tough first impression they give—they always want to know exactly where he is and when he’ll be back if he goes anywhere.”

“That’s interesting, and it ties in with some comments Nettie Wells has made. Thanks, Orrin. That does seem to put it in perspective. Ask Larabee to call me though, even if there’s only been some trivial incident like the one you mentioned. If someone’s got their knife into him, it’s better we do everything by the book.”

“Well before you go, I hope you got my letter recommending any outstanding charges against them should be dropped as they’ve given information that’s helped our case against Varon and the police corruption investigation.”

Tom was only half way down the pile on his desk—and another long letter from Larabee was waiting in his email—but he had read this one. “I saw Vic Price had signed it as well.”

“I can send you more detail if you like, and statements from some of the other departments involved.”

“No! No, that’ll be fine. Your judgement and Price’s is good enough for me. If I want to follow anything up, I’ll call the departments myself. Just get Larabee to get in touch with me.”

Switching gear briefly, he made a date for Orrin and Evie to eat with him at his favourite Italian restaurant, then he went back to his paperwork. He had plenty of other cases he needed to attend to as well, but they were relatively routine. This one was unique—and he wanted to be confident that whatever decision he made was the best for both the boys and the community.


Monday morning was proving complicated for Team 7. Buck was taking JD out to the ranch to spend the day with Gloria Potter, and was bringing Vin and Ezra in with him. That had freed Chris up for an early morning meeting, but meant Buck was a couple of hours late coming in. Nathan and Josiah were willingly picking up the slack, but they knew there was a limit to how long Orrin Travis would be able to avoid calling on all of them for a major new case.

Chris came in looking angry and went abruptly into his office to make a call. He tried a couple of times, apparently couldn’t get through, slammed out of the door and went to get himself a coffee.

“Problem?” Josiah asked, when he’d got it.

“It’s that slimy little bastard Rawlings,” Chris said. “At least, I expect that’s who it is. Someone’s told the judge Vin and Ezra haven’t been properly supervised. Well, barring the weekend I lost the Ram, which everyone’s already made statements about, the only time they were on their own was that evening at Buck’s apartment.”

“Did the judge give you a hard time?”

“I haven’t managed to get through to him yet—that’s what I was trying to do. Orrin told me to call him. I don’t expect it’ll be a real problem, but I don’t like the idea of someone going behind our backs to make trouble.”

He cut off abruptly as the door opened and Buck came in pushing Ezra and Vin ahead of him. “How did you two take so long?” he was asking them. “I’ve brightened the lives of two secretaries and our prettiest undercover agent in the time it took you to get to this floor.”

Josiah wondered if they’d been standing outside the door listening. There was nothing in their expressions to suggest they had been, but Chris seemed to have no doubts. “All right. How much did you hear?”

They glanced at one another. Ezra, who thought that telling the truth showed a lack of creative thought, said, “I’m afraid we lingered to admire Buck’s technique. At a distance, of course.”

Vin never lied. He just avoided telling the truth when he didn’t want to by resorting to silence or misdirection. “What was there for us t’ hear?”

This should have made Chris’s already bad mood worse, but for some reason it didn’t. “This isn’t something that’ll affect the judge’s review,” he said, as if that was the subject of the conversation. “It’s not a problem for you two at all. If it’s a black mark for anyone, it’s for me. I left you on your own, and it was a wrong call. You stayed where you should, and Orrin says we’ll make it clear to the judge that it’s to your credit you could be trusted. I’m not worried about it, I just don’t like someone trying to stir up trouble for us. I’ll call the judge and tell him what happened and that’ll be an end to it.”

Vin and Ezra were silent; they looked to Josiah as if they were only half-convinced.

“Did you get JD settled in all right?” Chris asked.

“Yeah—real excited to see the place,” Buck said. “Gloria says her mother’s picking up her own two and she can stay as long as we need her.”

“Good, because it’s time we did some work. Buck—you go over to the PD. Price has got CCTV footage and some shots his own men have taken of the places we thought Martinez might go. He hasn’t shown, so we’re looking for a common denominator, someone he might be using to do the jobs for him. Nate—Orrin’s handed me a file on some arson attacks that might be related to a scam, probably relabelling cheap booze as quality brands. Can you take a look through it, and give me a summary. Josiah—meeting with IA about Henderson’s buddies at midday.”

He settled Vin and Ezra with some schoolwork at Buck’s desk and lingered a minute, then gestured to Josiah to come into the office.

“Keep an eye on them,” he said quietly once the door was shut. “I can’t get it through to them that the judge isn’t the enemy. Or maybe they just don’t believe something could work out for them…”

“I think that might be closer to it,” Josiah said. “One way or another, that’s what they’ve learned from life. You lose people, you can’t trust anyone but yourself, the system’s there to help the ‘good’ kids, not them. It’ll take them a while to believe something different. They’re learning to trust you—that’s a pretty big step. I’ve heard good things about Judge Carrington. Why don’t you tell him they need to know what’s going to be arranged for them, and ask him to bring the review forward.”

“Already did that,” Chris said. “Mailed him Saturday night. When I call him, I’ll ask him if he’s had time to think about it. Got a few other things I want to ask him as well. You go watch the boys for me, and don’t let them brood.”


“This one,” Buck said, pointing at the slightly blurred image on the screen of Vic Price’s laptop.

“He looks young for it,” Vic said. He picked up the sheaf of stills on his desk, and flipped back through some other footage on the screen. Half an hour later, he’d decided Buck had to be right. They’d placed the youngster at four of the places they were watching; there was only one other face that had even come up at two of them.

“A different night every time,” Buck said. “Looks like if he is our guy he’s only doing one job at a time.”

“Probably can’t be trusted. Has to hand over the cash and take his cut before they give him the details of where to go next.”

Vic was fairly sure the kid was a new player. He didn’t recognise him, and a hasty trawl around some of the other cops added to the impression that they hadn’t taken him in for anything.

“He’s not committed any crime we know about, yet,” he said.

“You can set up surveillance.”

“Yeah. We’ll certainly do that. There should be a good chance of picking up his prints while we’re doing it, as well. I’ve got one other idea… Varon seemed to put a level of trust in Martinez that he didn’t in the rest of his partners, or Henderson for that matter. We think that’s because they were related, second cousins or something. Maybe this kid is also family?”

“It’s certainly worth a shot,” Buck agreed.

“I’ll get someone onto it, and set the surveillance up. We still have five places from the original list where the kid doesn’t seem to have shown up. Oh, and Buck, maybe you could take a couple of these stills to show to Vin and Ezra. After Henderson, we’re still having to work damn hard at getting any confidence back from people who might have been prepared to talk to us, and although we’ll ask around, we may not get much help in IDing him. Those kids of Chris’s were sleeping rough around here for years. They may have some idea who he is if he’s local.”

“I expect you’ll be telling that judge who’s reviewing their case that they’ve been a lot of help to the police,” Buck said pointedly.

“Already have,” Vic said. “Plenty of us down here are just decent cops working our butts off, who’d like to see those kids make good. You can tell Chris that!”


After more than a month of having other people at the ranch, Chris still found it strange to come back late in an evening and find lights on, noise, signs of life… Sometimes he had to stop a minute, regain control of his thoughts before he went in.

Buck, whose lights had been behind him all the way home, pulled in and caught up with him as he paused outside the door.

“Takes you back,” he said softly.

“Yeah.”

He’d be okay once he was inside—today and the boys would fill his mind again—but yes, it took him back to what he’d lost.

Buck, who must have been itching to go inside and see JD, stood still and silent next to him and put an arm around his shoulders. Chris didn’t try to stifle the pain any more, just let it come. Sometimes on the other side of it there was something precious: the memory of Sarah calling a welcome from the kitchen; Adam’s bare feet running to the door if the car had woken him.

It was late though, too late to linger and think. Nathan had come out with Vin and Ezra three or four hours earlier, to relieve Mrs Potter and take care of all three boys while Chris, Buck and Josiah spent the evening with Vic Price and his men, on stake out. Their evening had been long, dull and unproductive; Nathan’s had probably been hectic.

They could hear JD, talking excitedly in the den, as soon as they reached the hallway. He didn’t sound tired, but it had been a long day for him. Chris had already suggested to Buck that they both stay for the night rather than have the long drive home.

Nathan came out almost as soon as the door closed. “Hi—Vin said a minute ago he heard the Ram, but I thought he’d made a mistake. Buck—JD’s asked me every ten minutes for the last two hours when you’d be getting here. Chris, Gloria left a casserole—enough for about a dozen people—I’ll heat some up for you.”

Buck was already past him, following JD’s voice to the den.

“Come and sit down and eat,” Nathan said to Chris. “You look tired. I keep telling you, you should have taken more time to recover after that crash. Are you still getting headaches?”

“Not as many,” Chris said, truthfully. They were less frequent, and less painful, and he was generally satisfied with his fitness, but by this time of night he was always glad of a rest, and tonight the hours sitting on stake out had left him with a lingering pain behind the eyes and stiffness everywhere. He sat down at the kitchen table and relaxed while Nathan rapidly produced casserole, hot bread and a bowl of salad.

Vin and Ezra came in, snagged a handful of hot bread each and failed to wheedle any chocolate cake out of Nathan.

“Mrs Potter will be disappointed if it appears not to have been appreciated.”

“She says we’re growin’ boys.”

“The rather small—I could justifiably say minuscule—portions we had earlier were almost insulting to the cook.”

“Mightn’t bring no more if she thinks we don’t like it.”

“‘Any more’,” Nathan said, “and if you’re worried about not enough of the cake being cut, I’ll take some home with me and Buck can do the same.”

“Buck’s staying,” Chris said with his mouth full. Listening to Vin and Ezra talk nonsense had encouraged his appetite. “We thought it was a bit late to be driving JD about. Buck’s leaving him with Nettie tomorrow, but he can do that from here just as easily as from home.”

“That’s good thinking,” Nathan said. “Well in that case, Vin, get Buck to come and eat. There’s more than enough.”

“I’ll take JD and get him ready for bed after,” Vin said, going with a regretful glance at the cake.

“I could warm the casserole for Buck,” Ezra offered politely to Nathan. “You must be eager to get home.”

Nathan grinned. “I’ll wait ’til Buck and Chris have finished eating, and put the cake away for them.”

Ezra gave in graciously and went off to help Vin with JD, while Buck came and ate like a starving man.

“Damn, that’s good. Gloria cook for you every night?”

“No, you just got lucky. JD okay?”

“Loving it. Gloria’s spoiled him all day and he’s had Vin and Ezra playing games with him tonight. Don’t seem tired at all.”

“He had a long nap this afternoon,” Nathan said, cutting them a small slice of the cake each. “He’s getting tired now though. He’ll be half asleep by the time you get him to bed.”

“Well, that won’t be long now,” Buck said, swallowing the last of his cake. “Where’s the real piece, Nate? That little thing wasn’t a man’s helping.”

“Don’t you start. Chris—no one gets any more until tomorrow, all right? It’s far too rich for big helpings.”

“Tomorrow,” Chris agreed briefly. Sometimes it paid not to say too much. He and Vin liked a slab of cake with an early morning coffee. In anyone’s book that was ‘tomorrow’ but he guessed that cake for breakfast wasn’t what Nathan had had in mind.

“No sign of the guy you were watching for?” Nathan asked. “What did Vin call him—Raoul?”

“He thought that was the name.”

Vin had looked through the stills Vic Price had sent, and said, “He’s a real nasty piece of work, Chris. Not sure of his name. May be Raoul, but I only heard that second hand. Lives with his ma in one of the nicer apartment blocks, but he comes on the street to buy drugs—weed it was mostly, maybe the harder stuff now. Saw him drive his car up onto the sidewalk and hit a dealer once because he didn’t like the way the guy had spoken t’ him.”

“That’s why you say he’s a nasty piece of work?” Buck had asked.

“No. Saw him try to burn a cat once—just t’amuse himself when he was hangin’ about waitin’ for someone. He coaxed it near. I never guessed what he had in mind. Thought he liked it, which was damn stupid of me. Knew better when he tipped some lighter fluid over it and set it on fire.”

Chris had passed the name and the scanty details on to Vic Price, but this evening their best hope had been to watch the places where ‘Raoul’ might go, if he really was working for Martinez or Varon.

“He didn’t show up anywhere tonight,” he told Nathan. “Which means the same approach again tomorrow, unless we come up with a better lead.”

Nathan nodded. Sometimes, surveillance just did take time and patience. “Well, I’m going home,” he said. “I’ll be in the office early Chris, so you don’t need to be in before nine. Get a proper rest.”

Vin, reappearing, picked up on that. “Chris okay?”

“Looks to me like his head’s aching some and he’s stiff where his muscles are still healing,” Nathan said with irritating accuracy. “Nothing a good night’s sleep won’t cure.”

“We’ll see t’ it,” Vin said. “Him ‘n JD both. I put JD in th’ shower, ‘n Ez is getting him dry and ready for bed.”

“I am ready,” JD called, coming in. “Look Buck. Ezra lent me some cool pajamas.”

With an enormous effort, Chris managed not to laugh. JD had escaped only half dry, and his damp hair was spiking up. The pajamas might have looked moderately cool on Ezra, though they were his least favourite pair. On JD, with the legs and cuffs turned over several times, and the jacket hanging nearly to his knees, they just looked comic.

“Well, you’re definitely the smartest guy at the sleepover,” Buck told him. “Hope you washed your feet, though.”

He scooped JD up and turned him upside down to pretend to look at them.

“Buck! Put him down. He’ll be sick,” Nathan objected.

Chris rescued his coffee and pushed his chair back out of the danger zone.

“Please refrain from ripping the pajamas.”

“Don’t go botherin’ Chris. He’s tired.”

Buck tipped JD back to the right way up, and sat him on his knee. “I don’t know. All a guy gets is criticism. Well, you certainly look clean enough for bed.”

“I’m glad we’re sleeping here,” JD said breathlessly. “You didn’t tell me we were going to do that. There’s lots of rooms though. I went exploring when Mrs Potter was cleaning. Can I sleep in the one with the wooden animals on the window sill?”

The silence that fell was so sudden and so complete that although JD had asked the question in all innocence, he knew he’d said something wrong. The eagerness left his face and he looked at Vin and Ezra to find out what he’d done.

Something twisted painfully in Chris at the thought of another child sleeping in the bedroom—but the feeling eased as he imagined Sarah’s reaction to it and to the tousled small boy on Buck’s knee. He’s no idea what he’s just asked. Pick the poor kid up and tuck him up in bed. It doesn’t take anything away from Adam to see another child loved and happy. He wished he could hear her saying it.

“Sure you can sleep there, JD,” he said, getting up a little stiffly. “How about you come along with me and see the room properly.”

JD brightened immediately and slid off Buck’s knee to come with Chris. It was amazing how affectionate and trusting he remained, in spite of the experiences of the past year.

“Stay and finish your coffee,” Chris told Buck. He was going to find it easier doing this without any of the others along worrying about how he was feeling. The floor was cold, and he swung JD up to carry him. Small for his age, he didn’t feel much heavier than Adam had done.

JD wrapped his arms around Chris’s neck, and Chris could feel that under the bounce he was a good deal more tired than he first seemed. “Chris,” he whispered. “Why did everybody stop talking?”

Chris opened the door to Adam’s room with his free hand. “I used to have a little boy,” he said. “This was his bedroom. He and his mom were killed in an accident. They were just quiet because they were worried I’d feel sad thinking about it.”

The simple explanation satisfied JD. “Because you miss him a lot,” he said as Chris, still holding him, leaned down and pulled back the quilt. “I miss my mom.”

He held on tightly to Chris for a minute, perhaps thinking about his mother now, and Chris wasn’t sorry just to hug him and swipe his own face dry on the shower-damp hair. When JD sighed and sniffled, he set him down in the bed. JD wiped his nose on the pajama sleeve. He suddenly looked exhausted.

“Time you were asleep,” Chris said, hearing the echo of his own voice saying the same words a lifetime ago. He eased JD gently down onto the pillows and pulled the quilt up.

“I’ll call Buck along to say goodnight,” he said, tucking him in snugly.

JD’s eyes were already closing. Chris shouted to Buck and intercepted Vin and Ezra in the hallway. “Leave Buck to settle him down. He’s tired out. You can see him in the morning—in fact, he’s all yours, especially if he wakes up early.”

“He’s all Vin’s,” Ezra said promptly. “They can watch Barney together.”

“Y’ shouldn’t just put kids in front of th’ TV,” Vin said. “I seen a program about it.”

“And you don’t see any irony in that statement?” Ezra asked.

“I’ll look after JD though,” Vin said, pursuing his own line of thought. “You sleep in, Chris. And go t’ bed now. I’ll keep an eye on things.”

“And I’ll keep an eye on Vin,” Ezra offered.

“You can go get some cotton wool for yer ears. I bet Buck snores.”

“Has Nathan gone?” Chris asked, trying not to laugh at the expression on Ezra’s face.

“Yep. ‘N he said you were t’ go t’ bed at a decent time and get at least eight hours sleep.”

Well, that was typically sneaky of Nathan, to have gotten Vin rather than Buck to nag him. He found it hard to say no to Vin. And his bed did seem kind of appealing just now…

“I should give in gracefully,” Ezra said. “Otherwise Vin will go on… and on… and on!”

“Buck’ll check round and lock up with me,” Vin said.

“We will be retiring to sleep almost as soon as you.”

Chris’s only plan for the evening had been to check his email and see whether the judge had written—Carrington had promised to do his best to move the review forward, and said he’d get back to Chris once he had a new date. There was no real need to do that now, especially not if Vin and Ezra were going to be hovering. He wasn’t planning to mention it to them until it was fixed.

“Y’ look like you need some sleep,” Vin said. “If I had a horse lookin’ kinda peaky like you, I’d be worryin’.”

“Chris is just tired; he’s hardly about to come down with colic.”

“I was thinkin’ of strangles.”

“Or strangles, whatever peculiar ailment that might happen to be. Nathan said he just needed a good night’s sleep.”

“And I’m tryin’ t’ make him see that! Puttin’ it another context t’ make him look at it more open-minded.”

Chris was going to have to ban those programs about educational psychology. And Yosemite’s cheerful chats about horse ailments. “All right, Vin, you’ve convinced me,” he said hastily. “Tell Buck to make sure everywhere’s secure, and don’t be late into bed yourselves.”

At least worrying about him seemed to have taken their minds off worrying about the judge. He set his alarm for just before six. He could go through his mail and do any other chores then, and with luck Vin would be too busy with JD to notice. Eight hours sleep was far too much. It was good to put his head down though. He was asleep within about ten seconds of hitting the pillow.

He woke feeling surprisingly well rested, to find Vin had just come in to bring him a cup of coffee. The level of light, and the satisfied look on Vin’s face made him glance quickly at the clock. Eight a.m. That was practically mid morning. And what the hell had happened to his alarm. No, scratch that. He could guess exactly what had happened to it.

“Nathan says you don’t need to be in ’til ten,” Vin said. “Here. Coffee.”

“Did you turn my alarm off?”

“Nope. Y’ look better though. I saved y’ some cake. Buck said we could have th’ cake for breakfast. We made JD have cereal first. Buck’s just gone with JD so we thought y’ might like a coffee.”

Chris drank his coffee, and once the caffeine had worked its magic it occurred to him that Vin, anticipating his question, would have got Ezra to switch off the alarm. By then it seemed kind of petty to bring the subject up again, and anyway, he wanted a shower and to get into work.

Nathan took one look at him when he reached the office, and said, “You see. You should listen to me more often. Don’t try and tell me you can’t feel the difference.”

Chris wouldn’t have given him the satisfaction, but he could see Vin and Ezra were pleased with themselves.

“I do feel better,” he admitted. “Though I’m not sure being wide awake doesn’t make the prospect of paperwork worse.”

The sense of being more comfortable in his muscles and more alert stayed with him through the day. That night, the extra edge to his reactions probably saved his life.

As he had done the previous night, he drove around with Vic Price, keeping an overview of the five places that were being watched. For two hours it was the same routine, then Lorde and Walters, watching a house the PD suspected of being a base for drug dealers, called in that they thought they had a positive ID on a young man who’d just gone in.

“Follow him when he comes out,” Vic said, “but stay back. We don’t want to spook him. I’ll be on my way over.”

“Lorde’s new to this,” he added to Chris. “Walters is experienced, though. He knows this area well.”

It might perhaps have been that which caused the problem. Walters took the front place in picking up Raoul—if it was Raoul—as he came out.

“Walters is on him,” Lorde’s voice came quietly. “Raoul’s just turning down the sidewalk… No, he’s stopped. I think he’s answering his phone. He’s… oh, shit, he’s made Walters I think… He’s got a gun!”

The shot was audible even as he finished speaking.

“Officer down! Officer down!” Lorde’s voice was horrified, but he went on immediately. “Get back up and an ambulance. I’m going after…”

“No!” Vic Price cut across him. “We have four teams converging on your area. Stay with Walters until back up arrives. We’ll cordon off the streets.”

None of the men on surveillance had been far away, and Raoul was sighted in minutes. Vic and Chris had reached Lorde and the injured Walters by then. Walters looked bad to Chris, bleeding too heavily from the leg wound he’d sustained. “The kid just turned and fired,” Lorde said. He was white and shaken. “No warning, nothing. Put his phone away, turned around as if he was going to say something and fired. He aimed low, too, so he must have been cool enough to guess Walters might be wearing a vest.”

The ambulance arrived just as Josiah came on to say they’d sighted Raoul and he’d doubled back. Markham, one of Price’s men, was next, narrowing down the area. Raoul fired at him as well, but hit a passing car which crashed into a store window. In the chaos, he briefly got away, but was sighted again heading close to the street they were in. Chris had a mental map of these streets in his mind. There was a link…

He moved automatically to cover it, and by the time he got there, was almost too late. He ran into one end of the narrow street as Raoul entered the other. Once again, there was no hesitation at all. Raoul saw him and shot simultaneously. Chris had seen it coming and dived for the inadequate cover of a doorway, firing as he moved. He didn’t know where Raoul’s bullet went, but it didn’t hit him—and there wasn’t a second shot.

Slowly, half suspecting treachery, he approached the sprawled body.

It was no trick. The kid—and he was only a kid—was dead. Chris’s shot had been deadly accurate, and he lay looking slightly surprised, blood welling sluggishly from the wound in his chest.

Fuck.

Chris called it in. Price’s men came. Routine happened. All Chris could think was that they’d lost their lead to Martinez and the kid he’d shot was only a few years older than Vin and Ezra.

“He nearly killed Walters,” Josiah said quietly. Chris hadn’t even seen him arrive.

“He’s not even old enough to drink.”

“You fired in self defence.”

Chris knew all the things Josiah would say. He’d have said them himself to anyone else. It didn’t make him feel any better.

“You didn’t have a choice, Chris.” That was Vic Price. “The paramedics say if they’d been a couple of minutes later Walters would have bled out, and the driver of that car is dead.”

It was much later when Chris finally drove home. He’d got two days off duty while the paperwork over the shooting went through. He felt tired and depressed and there was too much blood on his hands. He hated the thought that if everything had worked out differently, maybe a few years from now Vin or Ezra could have ended up like that. Not killers, never with the crazy readiness to shoot that this Raoul had shown, but on the wrong side of some gun battle.

Nathan was waiting when he got in. Chris told him half the truth: he was tired; he didn’t like having to shoot to kill. “I just want to get some sleep,” he said, and knew Nathan would fall for that.

“That’s the best thing you could do,” Nathan said. “The boys went to bed a couple of hours ago. You get some rest. It’ll give you a better perspective on it all in the morning.”

When he’d gone, Chris went to look at the boys. Vin was an untidy heap on the couch, Ezra a neat one in the bed, emitting the faintest of polite snores. He thought of them sprawled in a street, bleeding.

He hadn’t deliberately left the bottle of whisky in the bedroom cupboard; he’d forgotten it when he tipped out the ones from the study. By the time he remembered it, it didn’t seem tempting to him, and was well out of sight of the boys.

He needed a drink now.

He took the bottle and went along to the kitchen for a glass. Drinking it out of the bottle was just a bit too much like the men who slept on street corners. He poured a triple, drank it and poured another.

“Thought it didn’t work,” Vin said quietly from the doorway. If he’d ever been asleep, he looked awake enough now.

Chris managed not to jump, outwardly. The anger bubbled up in him. Why the hell was this Vin’s business? But he remembered only too well that first night Vin had been at the ranch, and the look in Vin’s eyes now was not so much a challenge as an assessment. Had what Chris said been true, adult to adult, or just something you told a kid?

“It doesn’t work,” Chris said, suddenly too weary to stay angry. This was one road he never wanted Vin to follow him down. He tipped the second glass back into the bottle. “But some nights you fool yourself into thinking it might.”

Vin nodded, a silent acceptance, and dropped the subject. He was the only person Chris knew who could just let something go. He came into the kitchen now and sat on the edge of the table next to Chris. “Recorded the game for you. Want to watch it?”

It sounded better than trying to sleep.

He watched the game, and drank the coffee Vin brought him, and some of the tension went out of him.

“Heard y’ had t’ shoot Raoul,” Vin said quietly at last.

Chris didn’t ask how he’d heard, though it worried him sometimes that Vin and Ezra had so little concern about listening in to conversations. “Yeah,” he said briefly.

“He liked hurtin’ things,” Vin said. “I told you about th’ cat. Didn’t tell you I got in a fight with him once because he cut a girl. He was paying her, but he hurt her and she scratched him and then he went wild. Marked her face fer life. Think he’d’ve killed her if I hadn’t stopped him. I was thirteen then; he couldn’t’ve been more than fifteen. He had a nice home, too, by all accounts. And money. He just went wrong anyway. Someone had t’ stop him sometime.”

Maybe it was because Chris was dog tired now, maybe it was Vin’s simple conviction, but somehow he could listen to him where he hadn’t given Josiah or Nathan a hearing.

“Maybe,” he said, which was a bigger concession than anyone else would have gotten from him.

“Nathan says you’re home t’morrow.”

“Yeah.” He hadn’t thought about it until now. Suddenly it seemed a blessing, and the ranch a haven. “We’ll take the horses out, and give Sally a call.”

They hadn’t had a chance to go over and see the pups again. It would be good to do that. He’d some chores he’d been putting off, too. He’d wood to chop and a gate that needed mending.

“Ask her if I can take Connall a chew toy,” Vin said. “M granda’s dog was too old fer toys, but he had an old slipper he’d slobber on sometimes. Ez wouldn’t ha liked it.” He paused, and laughed softly. “Wouldn’t ha liked th’ way th’ dog snored, neither. He made enough fuss about Buck.”

Chris yawned. He had no idea what the time was, but it was probably nearer morning than midnight and he realised he was dead tired.

“Here,” Vin said, generously shoving one of the cushions in his direction. “Y’ can have that end and half th’ blanket and I won’t put th’ TV on ’til you’re awake.”

Who could refuse an offer like that? Chris found that the haunting image of Vin and Ezra that had bothered him on the way home dissipated under the reality of the untidy den and the talk of dogs. He looked at Vin who met his eyes steadily. There was no way, even seeing him behind a gun, he wouldn’t have felt that connection. He still wished he hadn’t had to shoot Raoul, but he could sleep now.

And did.


It was typical, Rawlings thought. If anyone else had shot two people dead within a couple of weeks there’d have been questions asked everywhere. Just because it was Larabee, it was practically rubber stamped ‘hero’. Of course, this punk kid had needed taking out, but it would have been nice for Larabee to come out of it with his shining armour tarnished a bit.

It made him think a bit though. He called up what he could find on the earlier shooting, the one in which Eli Jo Chavez had died. Hadn’t he heard someone in forensics say something didn’t add up? It might be worth looking into, while Price was busy and out of his face.

Continue on to Part 7 of 8