Runners

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com


Part Eight

It was late afternoon when they finally got back to the ranch. Vin and Ezra were both asleep—in Vin’s case the painkillers probably had something to do with it; Ezra was simply exhausted.

“Want me to take them?” Josiah asked. Orrin had given up on getting any work out of them for the day, and Chris had been glad to have him along.

“Thanks. My back’s reminding me I’ve done my share of carrying for today.”

He unlocked, and Josiah lifted Ezra carefully up, getting a drowsy mumble but managing not to wake him properly. “Put him on his bed,” Chris said. “With any luck he’ll go straight back to sleep.” Maybe Ezra would get some real rest, too tired for any nightmares. Then again, thinking of Ez’s face as he saw the blood smeared across Vin’s ribs, maybe not.

“Where do you want Vin?” Josiah asked, leaving Chris to make sure Ezra was settled.

“In Adam’s room. The doctor said he’d probably be a bit feverish, and he’s too sore to sleep well. I’d rather he didn’t disturb Ezra—and vice versa if Ezra talks in his sleep.”

“He does that?”

“When he’s dreaming, yeah. Long words too!”

For the moment though, both the boys were peaceful. Josiah stayed to help with the horses. Chris saw several messages on the answer machine but decided to leave them. His only plan for this evening was to sit down with a cup of coffee and whatever was handy in the fridge.

The phone started ringing before they’d even got out to the barn. Chris answered it, and found it was Evie Travis. When he realised why she’d called he began to understand why there were so many messages.

“Chris, I just had to ring and congratulate you,” she said. “I’ve spoken to Orrin. He can be horribly unreasonable about work, but he understands that you and the boys need some time now. It must have been a very stressful day, but I gather you’re all home—and such a happy outcome.”

Chris thanked her politely, and hoped Orin wouldn’t blame him. He’d barely replaced the phone, when one of the ATF secretaries called, and then a neighbouring rancher, some retired judge he hardly knew. He hadn’t realised quite how many people were taking an interest in what happened to Vin and Ezra.

“News travels fast,” Josiah said. “A lot of people were rooting for you.”

Josiah was doing his bit by talking to Buck on the cell phone. Buck was complaining he’d been left out of the loop.

“I thought Nettie would have told him everything,” Chris said, listening to a message from the pastor at the community church. “How does Buck manage not to know the details, when the whole of the rest of Denver seems to?”

“He thinks you should have a party,” Josiah relayed.

“That’s not such a bad idea,” Chris said, and enjoyed the dumbfounded look on Josiah’s face. “Tell him I think we could get something arranged for next Saturday, and I’ll talk to him about it later.”

As his next two callers were Gloria Potter and Mary Travis, the timing of this decision worked out quite well. He just mentioned the idea, and everything was swiftly taken out of his hands except inviting people. Gloria was thrilled at the idea of helping to feed everyone, and Mary offered to take charge of all the organising. It looked like all Chris would have to do would be to rebuild the barbecue and take his credit card to the store.

It also had the advantage that for the rest of the evening each time someone called he could simply invite them to come on Saturday. As the reaction of most people was the same thunderstruck astonishment as Josiah had shown, it curtailed the calls nicely.

“Buck called again,” Josiah said, as Chris finished an interesting conversation with someone he thought must be the wife of the leader of Team 6—he’d missed that vital moment at the beginning when he would have found out. “He says to tell you he’s invited Inez for you and told her to bring her two cousins.”

Chris ran this one back and forward and still didn’t quite get the point. “Did he say why?”

Josiah grinned. “Off hand, brother, I’d say it’s because they’re around sixteen and very pretty girls,” he said, opening up for Chris a whole world of future problems he’d never even thought about. Well, maybe it would take Vin and Ezra’s attention away from whether or not he was interested in Mary Travis…

“Nate called, too. Said he’d bring a meat thermometer if you were barbecuing, and Rain’s going to call Gloria and offer to bring a salad.”

It was like one of those controlled explosions, Chris thought. You just pressed a button and it seemed to happen of its own accord.

Between calls, they managed to get the chores done, and to check on Vin and Ezra from time to time. They debated waking them up to give them a proper meal, but Chris decided they needed the rest more. He wished they’d taken the time when they first came in to get them undressed and settled for the night; he was beginning to think now that they might sleep straight through if they weren’t disturbed.

When Josiah finally left, Chris thought of switching back to the answering machine, but there were a couple of people he did want to speak to, and one of them, Sally Logan, he was sure would call.

“You’re popular tonight,” she said when she finally reached him. “That must be the fifth time I’ve tried. Everyone wanting to congratulate you?”

“Even people I don’t know.”

“You’ve got more friends than you think, Chris. Now, do you still want me to come over in the morning like we planned?”

“Now it’s all settled, yes. I’ve got a couple more days off, anyway—thanks to Orrin’s boss.”

“I didn’t think he had…” She caught up with him. “Oh, I see. Well, if Evie’s on your side you can’t go wrong.”

He wrapped up the call by inviting her over to the party, and it was no surprise to find she liked organising social events on a mega scale. He added her to his party planning sub-committee and left her to fight it out with Mary who was going to be the chairwoman.

The other person he wanted to speak to, Vic Price, he had to call himself.

“Sorry, Chris,” Vic said. “I thought you might like an evening off. I wanted to speak to you though. Martinez has definitely gone. We’ve traced him to the border but I’m afraid we didn’t catch up with him. I think we can assume that Varon’s over the border too. Rawlings is still critical, but they’re sounding a little more hopeful.”

“Do you know why Rawlings was at the City and County building?” Chris asked.

“I’m making a good guess, and I wanted to talk to you about it off the record. Rawlings had just been to see Jose Guzman.”

“Shit.”

“It’s not that bad. There wouldn’t have been enough evidence to bring a case, not on Guzman’s word. Rawlings was going to take what he’d got to the judge though.”

That wouldn’t have been good… especially not at the last minute like that…

“It didn’t happen,” Vic said. “But we should work out the best way of dealing with this so it’s not a problem for Vin in the future. I think you and I can manage it.”

“I owe you,” Chris said. Several times over, he thought. Maybe if they went back to Josiah’s church, he’d say a particular ‘thanks’ for Vic Price.

He added another three to his party list—Vic had a thirteen year old daughter, and a wife who was longing to meet Chris and the boys—ended the call and switched hastily to answer machine. There were just over sixty names on the list, and he still had to add in his own team and whoever they brought. And thinking of that, he decided perhaps he would make one more call, though he could do it from his cell phone while he was locking up. Buck seemed to be taking up the idea of this party with characteristic enthusiasm. He’d already invited Inez and some of her family. Chris had better find out how many more he’d asked, and call a halt before things got completely out of hand.

He found he was grinning, though, as he dialled the number. A couple of months ago, anyone suggesting a party at the ranch would have been living very dangerously indeed. Now he was… almost… looking forward to it.


Ezra was deeply asleep. Chris managed to take off his socks, pants and shirt and tuck him under the quilt, all without waking him. That brought back memories…

Vin was hot and restless and half awake—and that was something Chris hadn’t seen before. Vin normally went from asleep to alert in a heartbeat. Now he was drowsy and irritable and a little confused.

He was trying to sit up when Chris went in, clutching at his side when the movement pulled at his stitches.

“Want a hand?” Chris asked, sliding an arm under his shoulders to sit him upright more comfortably. He’d put his own T shirt on Vin at the hospital to replace the blood-covered one, and now through the thin material he could feel how hot Vin was.

“The doctor said you might have a bit of a fever tonight,” he said, feeling Vin’s forehead with his other hand. “The meds should help with that as well as the pain. I’ll go get them and a drink for you.”

“‘M getting up,” Vin said.

He wasn’t, actually, he was leaning heavily on Chris, too sleepy to get his feet to the floor, but the intention was there. “You want the bathroom?” Chris asked.

“Want t’ see m’ horse.”

“Vin, it’s the middle of the night.”

“Should’ve woke me b’fore.” He tried to rub at the dressing on his side and Chris hastily caught his hand.

“I need t’ see Peso,” Vin said again.

“Peso’s fine. I took care of him myself. You can see him in the morning.”

“Did y’ tell him?”

“That you were here to stay. Yeah.” He’d felt a complete fool doing it, but he’d known that if Vin had been awake that would have been one of the first things he would have done. He and Ezra swore the horses understood what they told them.

“He understand?”

“He stopped trying to take lumps out of me.”

Vin sighed a hot breath of relief. “He’s been frettin’. He’s sens’tive.”

Peso was about as sensitive as an old leather boot, but Chris didn’t say so. “Peso’s fine,” he repeated. “You going to lie down now?”

Apparently not. He tried to ease Vin back into a comfortable position, but Vin struggled to stay upright, trying to see in the darkened room.

“Where’s Ez?”

“Asleep in his bed. You’re in Ad… in the other bedroom. I didn’t want to wake Ez when I came to give you your meds.”

“I c’n sleep on th’ couch,” Vin said quickly, trying to push Chris’s arm away so that he could stand up.

“Not tonight. I want you comfortable in a bed tonight.”

Vin shifted, trying to make out his expression in the dark, and couldn’t quite smother a grunt of pain.

“Vin—just stay put while I go get your meds and we’ll talk after that, okay?”

Chris switched on the small lamp, its shade a pattern of horses racing, and looked at Vin in the light—to see if he’d understood, and more important, was going to cooperate. Vin was flushed and heavy-eyed and looked too tired to move at all, but Chris wasn’t going to underestimate him. “Don’t get up before I come back,” he said, making it an order.

He’d left the things he needed out on the kitchen table, and it only took him a minute to fill a glass with juice and water and to pick up Vin’s medication. Vin was sitting on the edge of the bed, but he hadn’t actually gotten up. He looked as if it had been painful getting that far.

Chris gave him the tablets and the drink, and wasn’t surprised when the glass rattled against Vin’s teeth. He’d gone from hot to shivery, and didn’t protest when Chris pulled up the quilt around him.

Chris took the glass when it was empty, and sat down beside him. “You know, Vin, I put you in here tonight because this is where I wanted you. Sleeping on a couch, that’s what you do when you’re staying with a friend for a few days. It’s not what you do at home. Now that we know you’re here for good, it’s time you had a room of your own.”

He realised wryly he’d dropped into the tone of voice he sometimes used to coax a young horse, but it seemed to work. Vin relaxed a little against him. “Y’d kept this room, though…” he said, obviously not sure how to say it.

“Yeah, I’d kept it,” Chris said. “But I never came in it. For a good while I couldn’t even stand to open the door, and I shut just about every memory of Adam away with it. I rather keep the memories than the room. And you’ll like the horses…”

Of the carvings on the window sill, more than half were horses, and the large print on the wall was a wild Palomino. Vin looked at them silently. He and the quilt sagged sideways a little. “Maybe t’night,” he said, losing the end of the word in a yawn.

That was good enough for Chris. “Tonight’s a start,” he agreed. “We’ll talk about it properly some time when we’re both wider awake. Now, let’s get you out of those jeans. You’ll sleep better if you’re undressed and under the quilt.”

Vin was losing the battle to stay awake. He let Chris help him out of the jeans. They were stiff with dried blood around the waist, an ugly little reminder of how much worse things might have been.

“You more comfortable on your back or front?” Chris asked. The bulky dressing was going to make almost any position slightly awkward.

Vin blinked at him, too sleepy now to think. Chris settled him more or less on his back, fetching a couple of spare pillows to prop him in place. He pushed back Vin’s hair so that he could feel his forehead again. “You’re no hotter anyway,” he said.

“Y’ll wake m’ early?” Vin mumbled, maybe still thinking of Peso.

“Earlier than I wake Ez,” Chris offered, hoping that Vin was too drowsy to see the catch in that. Vin’s forehead wrinkled slightly, as if he knew there was something wrong with that answer, but he fell asleep before he’d worked it out.

Chris sat for a long time on the side of the bed, thinking.

“Are you okay with all this, the calls…” Buck had asked earlier, understanding better than anyone else could the echoes it would bring. Buck had been here the night after Adam had been born. Sarah had had to stay in the hospital for a couple of days, and Buck had come out to the ranch to keep him company and drink to the baby. There had been a whole lot of people calling to congratulate him then.

It was about as different a situation now as he could imagine, and there was very little that Vin and Ezra—unprotected, hardened, damaged by life—had in common with Adam as a baby or a child. But the one thing they did have in common was the one that mattered: they were Chris’s to care for—not because the judge said it, though that made life easier, but because something in Chris said so, every time he looked at them.

He rested his hand against Vin’s face again, and found him no hotter, maybe a little cooler. The house was peaceful for now. Ezra would probably wake up before morning, and Sally planned to be over first thing. Chris went to snatch some sleep while he could.


Ezra stretched out luxuriously. He appreciated his bed with the true appraisal of a connoisseur, and had no intention of getting out of it until a civilized hour. Today, civilized was going to be not far short of lunch time. He wouldn’t refuse breakfast in bed of course, but he wasn’t sure if anyone else on the ranch had grasped that concept.

The sun was shining into his room and yesterday’s fears and violence seemed light years away. He had a fuzzy recollection of being half awake at some time when it was still dark, of the shreds of a blood-stained nightmare, of Chris sorting reality into its proper place and sending him back to sleep with a quiet word. Even that seemed a long time ago now.

His lingering concern about Vin had been removed when he heard a lively and extremely early discussion between him and Chris about the advisability of going over to the barn. He wasn’t sure who had won; pulling the quilt up over his ears had muffled them both adequately. It was still early now by the standards of normal human beings. He settled down comfortably for a prolonged doze.

“Ez?”

Prolonged, Ezra said to himself. No one could reasonably expect him to get up for hours.

“Ez, I know yer awake. I got something for y’.”

There was no smell of coffee… or hot pastry…

“Here!”

He felt a weight on the quilt next to him. He thought at first Vin had sat down… but Vin was unlikely to scrabble at the quilt… and extremely unlikely to lick him on the chin.

He opened his eyes sharply and Rosie yipped with pleasure and excitement as he sat up. He caressed the silky fur of her head and gave up any idea of sleep. It would be ungentlemanly to ignore her.

“Ms Logan brought them an hour ago,” Vin said. “They’re ours now.”

“They’re old enough to leave their mother?”

“Chris says we could’ve had them last week, but he wanted t’ wait until we knew we were staying.”

“Vin!” That was Chris going past. He didn’t sound as if he thought Vin was too fragile today. “I told you not to take the pup in there. Get her off the bed before Gloria comes.”

“Mrs Potter doesn’t come on Tuesdays,” Ezra said, lifting Rosie up so that she was, technically, off the bed.

“She’s coming this Tuesday,” Chris said.

“She wants to talk t’ Chris about th’ party.”

Party? He was quite certain no party had figured previously in their conversations. However, a more urgent consideration was that he would really prefer to be dressed before Mrs Potter made an appearance. Reluctantly he handed Rosie back to Vin. “Remember she’s a lady, not a hooligan like her brothers. And go away. I’m getting up.”

He saw Vin wince slightly as he stooped to put Rosie down. He started to look at him with a silent question, then decided not to bother. He’d done that yesterday and effectively been told a lie.

“Ez?” Vin asked, looking as if he was remembering the same thing.

“I’m sure if you weren’t healing well, Chris would be far more concerned than he appears.”

“Ez, I’m sorry I didn’t tell y’. When it first happened, all I could think was I didn’t want t’ miss my turn talkin’ t’ th’ judge, and then y’ saw Rawlings and y’ looked kind of shook up.”

“I would have helped you however I felt.”

“I know, but y’ might not’ve been able t’ fool J’siah after.”

There was possibly just a grain of truth in that. Ezra would admit he had not been at his normal, resourceful best. But even so…

“Maybe I weren’t thinkin’ too straight either,” Vin said.

Ezra was softening a little but then he remembered what that nightmare had been about; he was sure that never, in his whole life, would he forget the moment when Chris unzipped the bomber jacket and revealed Vin’s blood-soaked chest.

“I thought you were dying,” he told Vin. “Well, I did until you started arguing with Chris, anyway.”

“I’d be mad with y’ if y’d done it t’ me,” Vin said. “Ain’t much to say but sorry, though.”

“There is always ‘another time I will remember to trust my friends’.”

Vin flushed slightly. “Y’ know I trust y’. C’mon Ez. Y’ain’t perfect neither.”

Ezra was briefly tempted to claim perfection, but he remembered the first day they’d been at the ranch, when he had—not quite intentionally—absconded without Vin. There had been occasional lapses on both sides over the years they’d been friends. He knew he was going to forgive Vin anyway, so maybe it would be as well to make peace on his own terms, before Vin began thinking too hard about the past.

“Perhaps if you take it upon yourself to make some slight amends?” Ezra said, seeing an opportunity here. “For instance, if Rosie should happen to forget herself…”

“Widdle y’ mean?”

“Where do you get these expressions? Yes, I think I mean ‘widdle’.”

“You want me t’ clear it up? Yeah, okay. It don’t worry me. Only thing is, I can’t bend too good just now; I turn awkward and it… Ow!”

Vin had been indicating what happened if he bent down and broke off with a yelp to lean dramatically against the door clutching his side.

Ezra was out of bed and reaching out to help before his brain caught up and reminded him just how unlikely it was Vin would admit to it if something was really hurting badly.

Vin straightened up with a grin. “Funny, it’s okay again now. Reckon I’d best be careful over chores though.”

“You … bastard!” Ezra said, though he couldn’t help a reciprocating grin. “I can’t believe you’d abuse my natural concern like that.”

“Can’t b’lieve you’d use my p’lite apology t’ try t’ get me t’ do your work!”

Ezra was just about to find the perfect reply to this when he heard the sound of Mrs Potter’s car. He fled hastily to the bathroom with an armful of clothes. In spite of a lingering regret for a lost morning in bed, he was quite looking forward to the day.


Tom Carrington had the perfect excuse to call his wife, and he’d decided on the best tactics for the call, although he had to try a couple of times before he got through. Apparently the phone had been unplugged yet again because the baby was sleeping. He refrained from pointing out that he’d been told that sleep was a rare event.

“I wouldn’t have called you at this time of day,” he said, “but I’m dealing with my mail, and I just wanted to check something with you. I’ve an invitation to a barbecue and some kind of party at Chris Larabee’s ranch on Saturday; shall I accept for myself but express your regrets?”

“A party? To celebrate the fact that he has custody of the boys I suppose? How interesting…”

“I don’t expect it will be that exciting,” Tom said. “You know most of the people already who’ll be there, and you’ve heard everything there is to know about Vin and Ezra.”

“Yes, but I haven’t met them, or Chris. Is Sally Logan going?”

“I think she’s helping to organise it. She and Mary Travis, I believe.” She was caught, he could hear it; now he just had to keep from making a mistake and he could reel her safely back to domestic bliss—his domestic bliss, that was.

“I was going to call Sally today, anyway,” Laura mused. “You know, Tom, perhaps you could put off answering that invitation until a little later. I’ve been helping Lucy out for too long really; the baby is no worse at night than most babies, and big sisters are always jealous—think what Lucy was like herself.”

Yes, he’d mentioned these thoughts to her once or twice. He didn’t mind at all that she’d adopted them as her own!

“I’ll call you back in a little while,” Laura said. “I’d rather like to meet Chris Larabee and see the boys, and I have been away from the house for a long time.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Tom said heroically. “I’ve been managing.”

“Of course I’m not worrying about you. It’s the things you might have forgotten to do. Have you remembered to water the Boston fern?”

Damn!

“You told me to let it dry out completely between waterings,” he defended hastily.

“I knew you’d forget! Oh well, I can stand it in water when I get home, I suppose. You know, I really think it is time I came back, and it seems a shame to miss this party. Why don’t you accept the invitation for both of us, and I’ll call Sally… or Mary… I wonder who’s in charge… and see if they’d like me to make a cheesecake. I’ll call you once I’ve booked a flight.”

“I’ll look forward to seeing you,” Tom said, which was the understatement of the year. He was down to his last two pairs of socks, he couldn’t work out the console of the washing machine, which looked like something from the bridge of the Enterprise, and he’d started to find fur on some of the things in the fridge. “I’ll reply to the invitation straight away.”

He wouldn’t begin it, Dear Chris, Thank you for saving my (domestic) life, but that was how he felt.


Chris had his coffee out in the yard, with Yosemite who’d dropped in with some feed. He’d spent most of the morning rebuilding the barbecue, without much help as Ezra and Vin were preoccupied with the pups.

He was keeping an eye on Vin, but he didn’t think he was going to come to any harm alternately playing with Connall and trying to begin the first steps towards training him. Anyway, Nate had said he’d check on Vin today and save Chris driving in to the doctors. Nate’d be up after lunch, and if need be they’d gang up on Vin then and make him take a rest.

“What’s he called that pup?” Yosemite asked.

“Connall. Says it means like a wolf or something.”

“Thought that’s what it was. Unusual name for a dog, though.”

Chris shrugged. “Vin says his granddad had a dog called that. Maybe there’s some Irish in the family. That’s why he chose it anyway.”

Yosemite nodded, more interested in this than Chris would have expected. “You be here for a while?” he asked Chris

“Yeah. Going nowhere today. Why?”

“Got something at home I’d like to show you, if I can find it. I’ll not be long.”

“Have lunch with us then,” Chris offered. “I think Gloria’s making us eat out here while she bakes in the kitchen, but there’ll be plenty.”

By the time Yosemite returned, rattling into the yard at a good rate, the pups were penned in the area Chris had made for them, and the boys had washed up and brought out a couple of big trays of food onto the porch. “Ms Potter says she’s sorry it’s plain,” Vin said, “but we can go get some cookies when they’ve cooled.”

Ham, bread, fruit cake and some cold sausages didn’t seem too plain. Yosemite grinned as he sat down. “Got the women in a lather competin’ with one another to feed you up,” he said to Chris. “Heard Sally was bringing you a pie, too.”

“Two,” Chris said. “Apple and apricot.”

“Apricot’s th’ best,” Vin said.

“I’ll bet that your granddad wouldn’t have said that. Liked apple, didn’t he?”

“Yeah.” Vin looked at Yosemite, puzzled, and so did Chris and Ezra. “Did y’ know my grandda?”

“Only realised it when I heard you callin’ that pup,” Yosemite said, putting his slab of cake down and taking a folded envelope from his pocket. “Years ago I knew a guy who worked with the horses, mostly the same as I did. He had a dog called Connall, and then Chris said to me about you callin’ your pup fer yer granddad’s dog. So I went home, seein’ as I like t’ be sure before I say something’, and I sorted this old picture out.”

He handed Vin a rather dog-eared snapshot. “I reckon that’s yer granddad. And that’s you!”

Chris and Ezra nearly bumped heads trying to get a look at the photo. It was just an informal shot of a small boy and several men, including a slightly younger version of Yosemite, in front of a paddock.

“That was the place belonging to that lady owner who went off gaddin’ around the world,” Yosemite told Chris. “She liked takin’ pictures.”

Chris was staring at the boy in the photo. It was definitely Vin—maybe seven years old, thin and rather scruffily dressed, but smiling widely enough to show a missing tooth at the side, and clearly quite happy among the men and horses.

“That’s m’ grandda,” Vin said, wide eyed at this unexpected glimpse of his past. “He had th’ stroke not long after. I remember this. She had a horse had just foaled.”

“Mick,” Yosemite said, pleased with the effect of his picture, “that was yer granddad. Never knew his other name, but he was a good man with the horses. I remember you then. Just a scrap, trailing around with him, but you looked to shape up all right. Wouldn’t have placed you, though, if it hadn’t have been for you namin’ the dog like that. Then it come to me. Reckon you got his gift with the animals.”

Vin was holding on to the photo as if it was gold rather than an old snapshot, battered around the edges. Yosemite winked at Chris. “You want to keep it, son?” he asked Vin. “Means a whole lot more to you than me, I reckon.”

“I got no pictures of my granda before,” Vin said. “Thanks, Yosemite. It’s real special.”

“Go and put it safe in your bedroom,” Chris said. “We can find a frame for it later if you like.”

He added his own thanks to Yosemite, but the old man had obviously gotten plenty of pleasure just out of seeing Vin’s reaction. “He was a good little kid from what I remember,” he told Chris. “Never asked fer anythin’, and he loved the horses.”

“Hasn’t changed too much then,” Chris said, touched by this glimpse of Vin’s past. He’d definitely make sure the photo went on show in a frame, on the sill with the carvings. A little bit of Vin’s past in the room would be good, and Chris wouldn’t mind another look at that gap-toothed seven-year-old grin. He wondered what Ezra had looked like at seven….


“I thought you’d ask Julie to the party,” JD complained as he and Buck finished their pizza. “You still like her don’t you?”

“Sure I do; she’s a lovely girl,” Buck said. “But what you got to understand is, I can like more than one person. This lady Inez that I’ve invited, she’s kind of special too, and I can’t be giving proper attention to the two of them at once, now can I?”

JD didn’t really see why not, but he didn’t want to be told how Buck knew everything there was to know about the best way to treat ladies. He tried another tack. “You could get Chris to invite Julie. He knows her. So do Vin and Ezra. If they ask her, she won’t want you to be paying her lots of attention, will she?”

“Well, it’s not quite that simple,” Buck said. “See, it might hurt Julie’s feelings a bit, if she comes and I’m talking to Inez all the time. And Inez, well, she isn’t quite convinced she likes me yet. I don’t want anything to put her off.”

JD sighed. He was sure Buck made these things unnecessarily complicated. “I’ll talk to Julie,” he said. “I’m sure she won’t feel left out at the party. If you like, I’ll explain to Nettie and…”

“No! No, that’s fine JD, I don’t think we want to involve Nettie.”

“Well, can I invite Julie? I want to see her again.”

Buck made himself a coffee. “Then how about you and me invite her over for a meal one day next week, or find a movie we could all go to? We shouldn’t really be asking any more people to Chris’s party anyway. He’s got a lot already.”

He sat down and put on the sport on TV. JD watched for a while, but he was thinking rather than paying attention. Inez might be really nice, but he’d already noticed that Buck liked an awful lot of girls, and some of them were definitely better than others. Julie didn’t giggle, nor talk to JD as if he was a baby, and she would never ever bring Buck a present of leopard-effect boxers with ‘jungle hunk’ printed on them like the girl across the hallway.

He was sure Vin or Ezra could invite people to the party. Vin might be in bed, although Buck said not to worry about him, he’d soon be fine. But Ezra would be up, and could get Julie’s number from Vin.

“Can I go on the computer and email Ezra?” he asked Buck.

“Can’t see any harm in that.”

JD quickly typed his message, before Buck could notice it was actually past his bedtime. He just finished in time, and was ready to be scooped up, turned upside down, tickled and dropped on his feet on the bathroom floor. He washed happily. Buck would be waiting behind the door with the bear to jump out and growl and savagely gobble him up him into bed. It never got old for either of them. He did like living with Buck!


Vic Price had managed a couple of quick visits to the ICU today. He hadn’t known Rawlings well and he hadn’t much liked what he’d known, but the guy was badly injured and he wasn’t going to see any of his men lie in the hospital without a visitor, as if no one gave a damn about them.

Rawlings next of kin had been given as his mother, but she turned out to be suffering from Alzheimer’s and in a nursing home. He was in the process of being divorced by his wife, who they were still trying to get a message to. Vic hadn’t managed to trace any other family.

He was slightly surprised, and pleased, to find O’Toole already up there. He’d had the impression that Rawlings wasn’t very popular with his colleagues, but O’Toole’s heart was in the right place.

“How’s he doing?” Vic asked.

“A little better. They might ease up on the sedation tomorrow.”

They both stood and looked in as a nurse made some minor adjustment to one of the machines monitoring the man on the bed.

“He’ll be here for a hell of a long time,” O’Toole said.

Rawlings had taken bullet in the lung, and a head wound that had nearly killed him as well as more minor wounds to his legs and torso. To begin with the doctors had been guarded even about his chances of survival. Now they were making more positive noises about that, but there was the question of possible brain damage as well as the dangers of infection. The chances of his remembering the day of the shooting clearly were very small indeed.

“He wasn’t always such a bastard,” O’Toole went on. “Just one of the guys, really, ’til they had the baby.”

“He and his wife?”

“Yeah. I mean, maybe the marriage was wobbling a bit but whose doesn’t? But Joan was kind of weird after she had Pattie. Crying all the time, wouldn’t go out, wouldn’t even get dressed some days. Well, he did try, but it’s not easy with a job like ours. And Henderson wasn’t what you’d call sympathetic. But she did get a bit better, only then it was like she couldn’t handle the hours he worked, she’d get mad every time there was any kind of hold up him getting home. And I know he tried about that, because if there was anyone he did care about it was the baby, Pattie.”

“Sounds like post natal depression,” Price said.

“Yeah? Like baby blues? My Sinead, she had those after all ours.”

Sinead was blessed, if that was the word, with five small copies of her husband, but always seemed to Price to cope remarkably cheerfully, with the aid of the flat of her hand and a frying pan for O’Toole himself. “Post natal depression’s a lot more than that, and you can get help with it,” he said.

“Oh. Well, maybe they didn’t know what it was, cap’n. Pattie was their first. You got hold of Joan yet?”

“We’ve traced her to her sister’s home in Boulder. Apparently she’d gone to stay for a few days with the baby. But no one was there when someone called this afternoon—probably just gone out shopping or something—so they were going to try again this evening.”

“We could drive over ourselves,” O’Toole said. “Better to hear it from a friendly face. She’ll remember me. And Sinead’s mother’s come to stay, so I’m in no hurry to be home.”

“Won’t Sinead have something to say to that?”

“She says if I’m not there, her mother forgets to ask her why she ever thought of marrying me.”

Vic couldn’t help laughing. “All right,” he said. “I’ll sit with Rawlings a few minutes, then we’ll drive over to Boulder.”

He sat a while, talking quietly to Rawlings though it was very unlikely he was being heard. He couldn’t help hoping Rawlings wouldn’t remember why he had been driving to the City and County building, but that was for Rawlings’ sake as well as Chris Larabee’s. If Rawlings had ever been a nicer guy, it would be better for him, too, to forget the malicious eagerness with which he’d tried to make trouble for Vin and Ezra.


It bothered Vin some that he was taking Adam’s room. Mostly, being honest with himself, it was because he liked it. He didn’t think he’d ever had a room of his own before; he could only remember the tiny one-room apartment with his mom, and his granda’s camper… and a life of sleeping rough after that.

He picked up the wooden frame Chris had found for the photo. You couldn’t see the slightly tattered edges now. It looked proper, like other people’s photos of their family. The frame was the same kind of wood as the carvings. It looked kind of nice standing next to them.

“Do you think Chris made those?” Ezra asked. He was sitting on the bed, watching Vin move his stuff in. Since that was just a pile of clothes and a couple of things Vin had always managed to keep, like the harmonica, it wasn’t taking long.

Vin lifted one of the horses and looked at it carefully. Someone had definitely carved it by hand. There was something about the strength of its lines, and the way it caught the feel of the horse…

“I reckon,” he said. “Chris’s good with his hands. And this c’d be Pony.”

Ezra looked at it. “Why Pony?”

“He stands like that. And holds his head that way. Pony when he was younger…”

Which reminded him of who the carvings had been for in the first place. He ran his fingers lightly over the small wooden horse and put it down again. Maybe it wasn’t as kind of smooth and finished as some carvings, but to Vin it was near perfect in the feel of the wood and the spirit of the horse. It was the way you’d carve a horse you loved for a person you loved.

“Feel like I’m takin’ things that don’t belong t’ me,” he said softly to Ezra.

“You’re not,” Ezra said, shifting so Vin could sit down next to him. “You’re appreciating them as they should be appreciated.”

Vin sat down. He felt tired tonight, in spite of a nap he hadn’t meant to take after lunch. He was sore, and ignoring the hole in his side, like he’d been doing all day, was getting harder. Maybe that was why he’d agreed without thinking when Chris suggested he move his things into the room.

“Chris has wanted you to move in here for quite a while,” Ezra said.

“Yeah.”

“But it still bothers you?”

“Yeah, some.” He leaned back. “I’m not talkin’ about it t’night.” He could say that to Ezra and Ez would accept it.

They sat without talking at all for a while, Vin trying to decide if he’d ever get to sleep without taking the meds which he hated because they made him too drowsy, Ezra flicking through some of the books. Vin wondered if Ezra knew he was glad of some company in here while he was getting used to having a room. Probably. Ez was good at things like that.

“You’d like this,” Ezra said after a while, turning around with one of the books. “It’s called ‘The Horses’. Listen.” He started to read. It was a poem, but kind of a story as well. “Late in the evening the strange horses came…” Vin liked the feel of it, and the way the horses were stubborn and shy. He wouldn’t mind if they had to go back to using horses.

“I like that one,” Chris said. Vin opened his eyes sharply. He must be slipping if he hadn’t heard Chris come in. He made a face at the sight of the blister pack and glass Chris was holding.

“I know you don’t like them, but the best way to stop having to take them is to get a good night’s sleep and heal up,” Chris said.

“C’n I have Connall on th’ bed?”

“Nope.”

Vin exchanged the slightest of glances with Ezra. Maybe Vin would be too sleepy to smuggle their pups in, but Ezra wouldn’t. Vin swallowed the meds reluctantly, and when he’d washed and got under the quilt, Chris and Ezra were still standing there talking about the books.

He must have fallen asleep listening to them, because when he woke it was to a noise like an alarm bell going off, followed by Chris doing some yelling about how unhousetrained pups would stay in the mud room.

“I can’t believe you put an alarm on that door!” Ezra replied indignantly.

“Just making sure we’d know if it got opened by mistake,” Chris said. “We don’t want the pups wandering and getting outside while you’re not with them, not until they’ve settled in.”

“That’s twice you’ve done that to me! It probably constitutes mental cruelty.”

“Only mental? Think yourself lucky! Anyway, the other time was to keep you safe not to catch you out.”

“The mud room door wasn’t like that before.”

“Fixed it up this evening,” Chris said. “I think it’ll be useful. Good night, Ezra.”

“When you say unhousetrained—which I suspect is not actually a word—are you implying that once they’re reliable they will be allowed…”

“GoodNIGHT!” Chris said.

It was all as good as a lullaby really. Regretting the lack of a pup on his feet, Vin went back to sleep.


Wednesday morning, Chris had to go back to work, Nettie called to point out that Vin and Ezra still needed an education, and Connall peed on the kitchen floor—where he wasn’t supposed to be—just before they all had to go out. Ezra was still sulking about being caught out pup-smuggling, and Vin had just realised that there were more than seventy people coming to the ranch on Saturday and he was going to have to meet them.

“Down to earth with a bump?” Josiah asked sympathetically as Chris arrived looking harassed.

“You could say that. I don’t want to hear anything about kids, horses, dogs or how many people I’ve invited to the barbecue until I’ve done a few hours work, okay.”

“Can I ask where Vin and Ezra are?”

“Nettie’s got them for the morning. They’re not in custody now. She’s making them sit some attainment tests.”

“That’s tough.”

“She knows what she’s doing,” Chris said, heading for his office like some medieval peasant running for the church with the hunt behind him. He shut the door firmly, glared at Buck when he looked in and remained blissfully undisturbed for the next three hours.

That was exactly the time when he should have been collecting the boys.

“Don’t worry,” Nathan said as Chris headed for the door. “Buck’s gone to get them.”

“How did Buck know?”

“I think Nettie must have mentioned it when he dropped JD off,” Josiah said. “It’s okay, Chris—we’ve got your back.”

Chris nodded. “Thanks, And there’s something I wanted to talk to you two about, to do with that. Not that I’ve got a right to ask it, but Buck and I we’re putting each other down as guardian for the kids, in case some bust goes badly one day, and thinking about it, that’s got a couple of drawbacks, not least the fact that we could go down together.”

“You’d like to put us as guardians as well?” Nathan asked. “Rain and I’d be real pleased.”

“It’d be an honour,” Josiah said. “To say nothing of being a reason for us doing our damnedest to keep you in one piece!”

They were a good team, Chris thought, his mood lightening. It had been on his mind for a while now, probably engraved there in those hectic moments when the Ram went through the guard rail. He had every intention of staying out of trouble, but if he was ever seriously hurt or worse, he couldn’t imagine anyone he’d trust more than these three to look after what mattered.

“Talking of keeping you in one piece,” Nathan said, “we intercepted a few calls. Gloria says something, mosr likely one of the pups, has torn up her mop; Mary wants to know if you really told everyone to come lunchtime and stay ’til late, and Orrin wants to know why there’s paperwork on his desk that says that explosives guy Taylor is in Minnesota when he knows damn well he’s locked up here.”

Josiah handed Chris a cup of coffee. “We dealt with Orrin, and Nate here told Mary how she was the best organiser he’s ever come across. I think Gloria was just letting you know she’d be charging you a bit extra to pay for a new mop.”

“Thanks,” Chris said again. “You want to round off a good morning’s work, save me from Vin and Ezra when they get here. They weren’t too happy last time I saw them.”


Nettie looked at the two bowed heads at her kitchen table. Ezra was writing rapidly in a beautiful script; Vin was slowly and laboriously printing; they were united however in the scowling resentment with which they were doing these tests.

When they’d realised why Chris was leaving them with her, you’d think it was some kind of torture from their reactions. Ezra had claimed that he couldn’t do himself justice because he had a terrible headache from a traumatic night encounter with a rogue alarm system and that Vin couldn’t be expected to write anything while he was on prescription painkillers. If she’d been grading him on his oratory he’d have scored quite highly. Vin had left the verbal appeals to Ezra. He’d just looked at Chris with such horrified reproach that Chris had visibly weakened. Nettie had had to send him off to work quite firmly.

It was a completely unnecessary amount of fuss. They were both intelligent boys. Ezra was well-educated by any standards, and Vin had made impressive progress. She wondered how much more trouble there would be when they found out why she wanted these tests done. It probably hadn’t occurred to Chris yet that he would need to enrol them in a school by the next semester. It had occurred to Nettie. She was already considering which one would be most suitable.

The ‘school’ word didn’t have to be mentioned yet though. She would wait until after the weekend’s celebrations.

“Ten more minutes,” she said, glancing at the kitchen clock.

Vin looked at her as if he was sadly disillusioned, and Ezra as if all his most cynical assumptions had been proved correct. Fortunately, she was nothing like as susceptible as Chris Larabee. She made them work until the end.


A long way from Denver, Varon sat leafing through the contents of a file. New passport, false papers, a convincing set of qualifications. He had everything he needed to get back into business, and had already made a few contacts. Bribery was more of a way of life here than he’d ever managed to make it in Denver, so he didn’t envisage as much difficulty with the authorities here.

Thinking of that turned his thoughts to Chris Larabee again. For now, revenge was going to have to take second place to more lucrative activities; Varon wanted to get out of the rather squalid living conditions he’d been reduced to. But there was some truth in the saying revenge was a dish best served cold. He could spend his leisure moments thinking of it.


Although they didn’t have a great deal in common, Chris Larabee had succeeded in uniting Gloria Potter, Mary Travis and Sally Logan. They had found common ground in complaining about his cavalier attitude to planning a social event.

“I don’t know what he could have been thinking of,” Mary said, looking down the list of people Chris had invited. It had now crept up to eighty. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these bring a friend, too.”

She and Sally had come over to Chris’s ranch to think about practicalities and to eat some of Gloria’s chocolate chip and walnut cookies.

“I’ve told him he’ll have to think about tables and seating,” Gloria said. “And you can’t just give people a burger in a napkin. We’ll have salads and desserts, and that means plates and cutlery.”

“They’ll need something to do, too,” Sally said. “At least twenty of these are school age. They’re not just going to sit quietly and chat.”

Mary picked up a pen and a piece of paper. “Well, I think it’s up to us. I’ll take charge of coordinating it all and make sure we have the things Gloria mentioned… and somewhere for trash to go…” She started jotting items on a piece of paper. “If you take charge of the food, Gloria, and Sally of the entertainment, we might have some hope of getting things ready by Saturday.”

“Chris has rebuilt the barbecue,” Gloria said. “The men will keep that going as long as we want. And quite a lot of people have offered desserts and salads.”

Sally walked over to the door and looked out. “I know where I can borrow a big inflatable. That’ll amuse the younger kids. If people are going to stay until the evening, I could get a group together to play for a barn dance. I know a good caller.”

“We should make sure Chris knows what we’re doing, and he says he’s happy to shop if we tell him what to get,” Mary said. “Now let me see, I’ve a list for you here, Gloria, of food Evie and I will bring…”

The discussion became technical and the cookie plate emptied steadily. Yosemite, glancing in the window, shook his head. Women. Couldn’t just serve a beer and steak without any fuss. Still, you had to hand it to Chris Larabee, he picked them well. All good cooks. If you were going to have a fuss you might as well have the cakes and pies to go with it.

“There’ll be enough food to feed a couple of hundred,” he told his friend, the retired judge. “You got your invite? Yeah, thought you would have. It’s going to be one hell of a big party.”


Rawlings was aware of pain. Everything else was fuzzy, but the pain was sharp and real. Sometimes it increased, sometimes it was muted, but it never went away. He’d been aware of it for quite a long time before any other thoughts took shape.

Slowly, though, his world became more tangible about him. Beyond the pain were the noises and smells of the hospital. The understanding of that came slowly, a blurred recognition without comprehension at first, but after a long dark gap that might have been sleep he awoke with a clearer thought: he was in the hospital because he’d been hurt somehow, though he had no idea how or where. A sluggish curiosity made him struggle to open his eyes. It was too much effort. He thought he felt someone take his hand though as he slid back into the darkness.

This time perhaps it didn’t last so long. He had no sense of time any more. The hand holding his was still there. He summoned all his energy to blink his eyes open, and blurrily, briefly, he saw the hospital room and the pretty tear-stained face of the woman whose hand was warm around his own.

Joan.

Warmth filled him, and without real memory he knew this was wonderful and somehow surprising. She was talking to him, but he still couldn’t unjumble words. He managed to squeeze her hand a little and she smiled. He held onto awareness longer this time. With her there, he felt he could make it past the pain.


It didn’t worry Chris that Ezra could deal off the bottom of a pack so fast you had no idea he’d done it, or that the first police record of him being actively involved in a con he’d been all of four years old. It didn’t bother him that Ezra considered telling the truth to be a resort for when more interesting options failed him. Chris could handle all that. But he really had a problem with the fact Ezra liked shopping.

Chris’s idea had been that he’d finish work slightly early, keep Vin’s appointment with the doctor and head for home. Stores hadn’t figured in it. The fact he was standing here looking with disbelief at the price tag on a pair of apparently ordinary jeans was a proof that he’d been neatly conned himself.

To be fair, it had been partly his own fault. He’d been trying to escape Mary Travis—not that he didn’t like Mary, or failed to appreciate her efforts on his behalf. It was just that he could have done with a short summary of her plans for the party rather than the full and unedited version. He was running out of polite ways to say, “yes, fine, I’ll leave it to you.”

That was the point they’d reached when Ezra had looked in, and said that if they weren’t going to miss Vin’s appointment they really ought to leave. Chris, who knew he had an hour to spare, was grateful for the rescue—until Ezra said to Mary, “Chris is going to take us to buy us some new clothes for the barbecue afterwards.”

“That’s great,” Mary said. “He can start on my list as well.” To make matters worse, she handed the list to Ezra, perhaps sensing he was a more reliable shopper than Chris.

“I don’t know if Vin will be up to spending long shopping,” Chris had said, catching Vin’s eye. “He’s still quite sore and tired.”

Vin looked back at him coolly, in a way that suggested it was payback time for being dumped at Nettie’s to sit a test. “‘M fine, Ms Travis,” he said politely. “Me ‘n Ezra, we been wanting t’ help. Seems like you and th’ other ladies been doin’ such a lot fer Chris.”

Ouch.

So here Chris was, pointing out to Ezra that he wouldn’t spend this amount of money on anything short of a dress suit, which would look damn stupid at a barbecue.

“You want us to look our best,” Ezra said.

“You look just fine in the clothes you’ve got.”

Ezra looked at him as if he’d suggested they went naked. “There are eighty people coming to this party…” Chris was starting to hate that statistic. Why did people harp on about it? “…and first impressions are vital. Besides, Vin needs a new pair of jeans. Those were his best ones that he bled on.”

Reminded, Chris glanced at Vin. He’d tried to persuade him to stay in the Ram and get some rest, but Vin seemed to think that was too much like giving in. The doctor had said he was healing very well, but to Chris he still looked too pale and too tired. He did need some new jeans though…

He bought them both a pair that were acceptable to Ezra but with fewer noughts on the price tag. It only occurred to him later that he’d probably bought exactly the ones Ezra wanted, the first suggestion just having been a ploy to make the price of these look almost reasonable, and by then he’d already added in a couple of shirts.

Vin was even less of a shopper than Chris. His main interest in the purchases was to ask doubtfully, “Y’ ain’t goin’ t’ want us t’ talk t’ all these people?”

“I should think you can safely leave that to Ezra,” Chris said, hurrying them back to the Ram past the other stores. Pity he couldn’t put Ezra in blinkers.

“You know most of the people already,” Ezra told Vin. “And it’s out of doors.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Chris said. “Ezra, put those bags in the back, and we’ll get the other things off Mary’s list tomorrow. Let’s go home.”

After dinner, though, while he and Ezra were clearing up and Vin was keeping the pups out of the way, he said to Ezra, “Is it really bothering him?”

Ezra’s feelings about the morning’s educational experience had been mollified by new clothes. “I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s being shut indoors with a lot of people that he hates. This will be outside… and the ranch is home territory, so to speak.”

“I should have thought of it before,” Chris said, finishing in the kitchen and heading for the den. “I’ll talk to him about it; make sure he knows we’ll give him some space. Hell, if he really hates the idea, I’ll cancel the damn party.”

“That would make you popular!” Ezra said. “I don’t imagine Vin wants to see you dismembered by irate women. Anyway, that’s a very defeatist attitude. We should aim to see that Vin enjoys the party.”

“Burger in the barn with Yosemite?”

“That’s still defeatist,” Ezra said firmly.

“I don’t want him lying awake worrying.”

“I don’t think there’s any danger of that,” Ezra said, as he opened the door. Vin and both the pups were asleep on the floor, contentedly curled together. “We can make sure that Vin remains in the background… preferably your background… and run interference for him if anyone seems inclined to make undue social demands. At least, I can do that; you will probably achieve more with a glare.”

“Not an option,” Chris said, lifting Vin to his feet and handing Ezra a pup to put under each arm. “It’s a social occasion. Mary expects me to smile.”

“Yer smilin’ at Ms Travis?” Vin said, interested enough to open his eyes.

“Among other people,” Ezra said hastily.

Chris wasn’t sure why Vin seemed determined that he should view Mary Travis as a potential date and Ezra seemed equally determined that he shouldn’t. He probably didn’t want to know. Still, if that was the first thing on Vin’s mind, he could hardly be too horrified at the prospect of the barbecue. Ezra’s assessment was probably on the ball. Handle things right and even Vin might enjoy the party.


Josiah drove out to the ranch very early on Saturday morning, and found he was the
last of the team to get there. Buck wasn’t actually out of bed, but he and JD had stayed over, so he was at least on the premises. Everyone else seemed to have started at dawn.

Josiah lent Chris a hand to carry some crates of beer and soft drinks, then went to haul bales to provide some extra seating—and enjoyed the look on Yosemite’s face as Gloria Potter covered them nicely with throws.

“J’siah,” Vin said, catching him as he dropped his second load. “Will y’ look at that?” Mary Travis, flushed from running about busily, was having a coffee break with Chris. She looked rather nice in a low cut shirt which she filled to perfection, and Chris was looking relaxed as he paid attention to her. “Ez says that don’t count.”

“I said it was inconclusive,” Ezra corrected. “He smiled at Mrs Potter—well almost—and listened to her as well.”

“Ms Travis dressed up fer Chris.”

“Ah, but he hasn’t dressed up for her.”

“Y’ c’n see he thinks she looks nice in that shirt.”

“Abstract aesthetic appreciation.”

Josiah escaped while Vin was working that one out. When he came back, they were asking Yosemite. “Could be either way,” Yosemite said after prolonged deliberation. “She’s nicely packaged, there’s no denying it, but she’s almighty fond of telling a man what to do. Does look like she’s caught his eye, but then again, I don’t see Chris Larabee with a bossy woman. No, sorry son, I’m better judging horses. You want to settle your wager, you’d best ask a woman.”

“You’d better find something else to do,” Josiah advised. “There’s tables to put up and ice to carry, and Sally Logan’s got something strange on the roof of her truck.”

Vin and Ezra went to investigate. Buck came out looking half awake, stared at the sight of all the activity, and went hopefully into the kitchen, though not for long. “They threw me out,” he said to Josiah. “Damn, what’s that thing?”

Noisily, the object Sally had brought was inflating.

“You bounce on it,” JD said. “That is so cool. You didn’t tell me there’d be one of those at the party.”

“I bounce on it?”

“Not you—just kids.”

“I could bounce on that,” Buck said. “Equal rights for us old folk.”

“Yes, but you might land on someone small. I expect you could go on it now, just with me, though.” He looked at Buck hopefully. Predictably, the next time Josiah looked, Buck was hurling himself into the inflated walls, to shrieks of encouragement from JD.

“Buck, get the hell off that thing and do some work!” Chris shouted.

“Hey, can’t shoot me on here, stud, not if you want the air to stay in it.”

“I don’t need to,” Chris said, ominously. “I’m sending a deputy.”

Buck took one look at Sally Logan advancing on him and caved. “Okay, okay, I’ll work! Where do you want me?”

“Go help Nate get the barbecue started.”

Josiah thought that was a bit early until he looked at his watch. Somehow, the morning had moved faster than he realised. He helped Sally set up a few other games she’d brought, and rescued Gloria from the pups who JD had accidentally let out. You couldn’t fault Mary’s organising though. Tables were loaded with food, drinks were cold, everything was in its place and a pleasant smell was rising from the barbecue in place of the earlier smoke as the first guests arrived.

He had to smile a little as he watched the dynamics of greeting them. Chris had told Vin that he didn’t need to do this, he could take charge of the barbecue with Nathan, but Vin wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. He was standing very slightly behind Chris, like a shadow at his shoulder, but he was managing a ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’ as people arrived. Ezra, also standing in just the right position to protect Vin’s space, was good at this part, a perfect host with a confident charm that complemented Vin’s shyness.

“They do Chris credit,” Orrin said, coming up with a beer in his hand. “Wouldn’t have thought the two of them could have changed so much in a couple of months.”

“The three of them,” Josiah said.

“What? Yes, I suppose you’re right. Chris looks a different man… or maybe the man he was. It’s good to see, anyway. Ah, there’s Tom Carrington, excuse me, Josiah.”

Josiah watched with interest as the judge’s wife fell for Vin’s shy smile and Ezra’s dimples and then he was distracted by a shout from Nathan to bring another tray of meat to the barbecue. When he looked around again, people were arriving fast. Nettie walked over to the dessert table with a huge meringue as Casey ran to join JD and another child on the inflatable. Most people knew each other, and even in the open it was becoming noisy with conversation and laughter.

“Nate!” Buck said, coming up looking harassed. “Let me take over some barbecuing.”

They both looked at him in surprise.

“Quick!” Buck said. “I need to be doing something when Julie sees me, so that she doesn’t expect me to be walking around with her. I can’t understand how Chris came to ask her. He’d hardly met her.”

“I thought you liked Julie,” Josiah said, as Nathan yielded some space.

“I do, I do, but I like her tomorrow or some evening next week. Inez is coming today.”

Josiah shook his head. He really didn’t think today would be the day Inez finally succumbed to Buck’s charms. “Julie’s a nice girl,” he said.

“I know, that’s why I don’t want to hurt her feelings. If I can convince her I’m vital to the success of the party, and maybe you take her off and introduce her to a few people…”

“She’s not going to notice you flirting with Inez?”

Buck dropped a drumstick. “It’s going to make it more difficult,” he admitted.

“Don’t put that back on the grill!” Nathan said. “Josiah, go and talk to the poor girl. She won’t know many people. Mike Russell from Team 3 is a nice guy.”

“Not him!” Buck called hastily as Josiah went. Mike had a clean cut college boy charm of his own. “Introduce her to some of the ladies!”

Julie was being made welcome by JD who was introducing her to several new friends. Josiah brought her a drink and introduced her to a number of people—it really wasn’t his fault Mike Russell came up just as he was doing so. It had been perceptive of Nathan. Mike and Julie seemed to get on well from the start. Josiah decided to find some useful things to do away from Buck for the time being.

Mary and Gloria were in the kitchen putting finishing touches to the salads. He took them a glass of wine each and carried the large bowls outside. Judging by the number of people there, most of the eighty must have arrived.

“Mary says to get them started on the food,” he told Chris, who was standing back looking at the crowd with a slightly bemused—did I do this?—expression. “Where’s Vin?”

Chris tilted his head. Inez must have arrived while Josiah was inside. Vin and Ezra were talking to some girls of their own age; at least Ezra was talking, Vin was listening, but Josiah could see they both appreciated Buck’s provision.

“Vin’s not too shy, then,” he murmured.

“They seem to like him shy,” Chris said. “If the reaction of those three is anything to go by, school’s going to be a real interesting experience for all of us.” He looked over to a final car pulling in way down the driveway. “There’s Vic Price. His wife called me last night, asked whether Vic had told me their daughter was slightly handicapped. She’s thirteen—you know what it’s like for a kid that age to be different. It’s made her very reluctant to go places her mom says, especially since their older two went off to college.”

He nodded to Vin, who somehow seemed able to sense Chris’s gaze and see the gesture across a yard full of people. Vin drifted away from the small group who were gripped by some tale Ezra was telling.

“I hope Ezra doesn’t find the way you and Vin do that as unnerving as I do,” Josiah said.

“Ez doesn’t miss anything, he just doesn’t approve of silent communication. He prefers words—lots of words.”

Janey Price had a slight dragging limp that was probably from mild cerebral palsy. She was painfully shy, but Vin could relate to that better than to confidence. After a few minutes she was following him to meet Rachel Potter who was around her own age, and they all went back to the growing group of teens. Janey stayed at the edge, next to Vin, but she talked to Rachel happily enough. By the time they all went to get something to eat she was looking more sure of her place with them.

“They’re a nice bunch of kids,” Vic Price said, coming up to join Josiah . “Janey’s just the wrong age at the moment—it never worried her when she was younger. Something like this will help her get her confidence back.”

“Well, she’s decided not to eat with her mom and dad—that’s promising!” Josiah said. The whole group of older kids were sitting down together, well away from the adults. The younger ones were alternately eating and bouncing, but although the results of this had seemed inevitable to Josiah, so far their stomachs had proved more robust than he expected.

He went along with Vic to get something to eat. There was a real feast there. Gloria, embarrassed by all the compliments, was looking flustered but pleased as people filled their plates. Tom Carrington’s was heaped high, only rivalled by Yosemite’s.

“Honestly, anyone would think he’d been starved while I was away,” Laura Carrington was saying to Evie.

“Oh I know. Orrin’s just the same. Billy! Finish that before you go running off again.”

Josiah held his plate up where Billy and JD, tearing past, couldn’t knock it out of his hands. Vic had gone somewhere, perhaps to join his wife, so Josiah went to sit with Nathan and Rain. Chris had temporarily taken over at the barbecue and Buck was trying to flirt with Inez without it being too obvious to Julie, who he was apparently still hoping to keep in reserve.

“You know that proverb about falling between two stools…” Josiah murmured.

“He’ll bounce,” Nathan said. “I’m just waiting to hear what he says when he finds out that JD got Ezra to invite her!”

Josiah abandoned the topic of Buck’s lovelife for the more satisfying choice of concentrating on the food. It was good, there was plenty of it and no one was in a hurry. Even Nathan didn’t actually comment when he saw Josiah return from a third trip to the dessert tables—though he did wince slightly when he saw the juxtaposition of the chocolate chip cheesecake with the lemon gateau. “Think I’ll go and spell Chris at the barbecue,” he said, taking his apple with him.

Chris came to join Josiah and leaned back on the bale stretching out his legs. He looked contented, and somewhere over the last couple of months the gaunt look had gone from his face.

“Where are the kids?” Josiah asked.

“Vin and Ezra went up to the paddock with the older ones.”

“Want me to go along and keep an eye on things?”

“I sent Buck; JD wanted to go with them anyway.”

“You may have sent him, but I think he’s still on his way,” Josiah said. Buck had paused to talk to Julie, perhaps making sure he could still push Mike Russell out of the picture. “And I can hear JD.”

JD had that sort of voice. It wasn’t supposed to be pitched for adult ears, but it carried to all those in the vicinity. “Billy! Casey! You’ve got to come and watch this. Vin and Ezra are going to show the girls how they can ride bareback and do tricks.”

Chris sighed, waved to Mary that he’d deal with it and made his way without too much haste towards the paddock behind Billy and JD. Josiah strolled along with him. As Casey ran up, Chris caught her. “Do something for me,” he said. “Go tell Buck the boys he’s supposed to be watching are bare back riding in the paddock.”

“Shall I tell him you’re going to sort it out?”

“No—that’ll be a surprise for him when he gets there.”

The girls’ shrieks from the paddock were getting louder. Chris gave up trying to be cool about it and switched to a run.

Vin and Ezra luckily had a bit more sense than Josiah had given them credit for. Peso and Chaucer were watching with aloof disgust from the other side of the paddock, and it was Beavis who was the unlucky star.

As they got there, Vin was just getting precariously to his feet on Beavis’ broad back. Josiah would give him about ten seconds of balance…

That was how long it took for Chris to vault the gate and get alongside. As Vin toppled, he caught him and set him neatly on his feet—though Josiah could guess that the casual-looking arm Chris kept around Vin was actually a grip of iron.

“Show’s over,” Chris said loudly. “Beavis here wants a rest.” He looked over their heads at Buck arriving at a run. “But when you’ve caught Buck and bounced him on the inflatable it’ll be time for ice cream!”

Buck grinned. “They’ll never catch me!” he yelled, running temptingly near Billy.

Wildly excited, the younger ones dashed off after him, the older girls following more sedately. Ezra waited for Vin, who was still trapped under Chris’s arm. “You two take Rachel and Janey and get the ice cream out,” Chris said. “You can make it up to Beavis tomorrow.”

The amount of noise ahead of them as they got back to the party suggested that Buck had been caught. “You think we ought to rescue him?” Josiah said, when he saw a mass of children swarming over the inflatable, presumably with Buck underneath.

“Nope.”

Sally Logan might have shared Chris’s view about Buck, but she wanted to rescue the inflatable. While the ice cream was being eaten, she, Mary and Nathan organised some games. Josiah decided he was too old, and went to make conversation with some of the other people of a maturer age.

Nobody seemed in any hurry to go home. Gloria served coffee for those who wanted it, and produced some plainer cakes and bread, cheeses and ham. Not too much later, the group Sally had arranged turned up with their fiddles, and people started to think that maybe they’d soon have digested well enough to consider dancing.

“J’siah,” Vin said, coming up unexpectedly and making him jump. “Y c’d mention t’ Chris he ought t’ ask Mary t’ partner him fer th’ first dance. Just t’ say thanks fer what she’s done.”

“Josiah,” Ezra said, catching him not too much later. “I feel you should remind Chris that it would be a nice gesture to ask Mrs Logan for the first dance, as she’s done so much for him.”

“Josiah,” Buck said. “What the heck am I going to do? The first dance is the one they’re going to notice. If I ask Inez, what will Julie think? And the other way around.”

“I have the perfect solution,” Josiah said. “The ladies who’ve arranged this should be thanked properly. Now, if you ask Mary, Chris partners Gloria and I persuade Jeff Logan to let me take Sally for the first dance, we can make that the moment for everyone to give them a cheer.”

Buck thought about it. “You’re a genius,” he said.

Josiah thought so too. Vin and Ezra’s bet could hardly be decided on that.

He retired gracefully after a couple of dances, and watched from the sidelines, soon joined by Chris who had danced once with each of his helpers and considered he’d done his duty. Vic Price walked up to them, looking slightly worried. “Have you seen Janey anywhere? She can’t dance, and I’m not sure where she’s gone.”

“I can make a guess,” Chris said.

Vic and Josiah followed him to the ranch and the room they’d shut the pups in away from the noise of the party. Sure enough, Janey was there, with Vin and both the Potter children. She had Rosie on her knee, and didn’t even see her father look in. Vin did. He glanced up and nodded to Chris, a silent assurance he had things under control.

“Vin’s not much for dancing either,” Chris said quietly as he closed the door. “He’ll look after them.”

“He’s a good kid,” Vic said. “They both are. Reckon you came into their lives at the right time.”

“I reckon they came into mine at the right time,” Chris said to Josiah, as Vic went off to reassure his wife. “And I haven’t forgotten I owe it to you and Buck and Nate that there ever was a right time at all.”

“You were grieving,” Josiah said softly. “It was a huge loss. One I can’t really begin to imagine.”

“Guess you could call it grieving. It felt more like a stone weight on my chest, choking everything out of me. I’d have gone under… Buck wouldn’t let me go though, whatever it cost him to hold on, and Nate did his best to look out for my health, and I know damn well you were praying for me whether I wanted it or not.”

Josiah thought of the image he’d had when it seemed too hard to pray, hoisting that huge rock inch by inch. Maybe it hadn’t been so far off after all.

“Between you, you kept me going,” Chris said, “and I guess when we ran into the three of them at the warehouses it was a good day for all of us.”

“I’d say amen to that.”

The smaller children were flagging now, and even JD was sitting on Buck’s lap watching the dwindling group of dancers. Sally and her husband had taken down the inflatable, and Josiah went to help them pack it. A couple of families came up to thank Chris and say goodnight. Gloria was packing Yosemite a large Tupperware box of leftovers. Nathan and Rain, still hand in hand after the dancing, wandered towards their car.

“It’s been a lovely party, Chris,” Evie Travis said, collecting her plates. The thought was echoed by the other guests as they gradually departed. Julie left with Mike Russell, but Buck didn’t notice; he was moving JD into a more comfortable position as he fell asleep.

Inez looked at Buck with a quite different expression from her usual amused exasperation as he settled JD in the crook of his arm. As she walked past, she stooped to kiss him warmly. “You’re a good father,” she said, running a hand gently over JD’s hair.

Buck stared after her in amazement. “Did you just see that?” he said to Josiah. “I knew that deep down she liked me!” He took JD in to tuck him up in Adam’s—or Vin’s—room. Josiah put tables away, emptied the dishwasher and reloaded it, and carried a sleepy Casey to the car for Nettie. Yosemite had said he’d rather see to the horses than dance, so they were already settled for the night.

Chris gave Mary an armful of flowers and a box of Belgian chocolates, but to Vin’s disappointment, he had exactly the same for the other ladies. Vin and Ezra had to leave the bet undecided.

Tom Carrington and his wife were some of the last to leave. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this,” he said to Chris. “After the boys had talked to me, I realised how rapidly this place had become a home to them. Seeing them today, it’s restored my rather battered belief in what care and affection can achieve with young people. Thank you!”

After a last coffee, Josiah said his own goodnights.

“See you in the morning,” Chris said briefly.

Josiah was going to church in the morning…

“It was Ezra’s decision,” Chris said. “And I can’t tell you how far that is off my Ezra map! I think I’m quoting him correctly… he says it would be extremely rude to ask for something and to fail to say thank you when you received it, even if you had reservations about cause and effect.”

“Sounds like Ezra,” Josiah said. “What does Vin say?”

“I liked th’ song about th’ hands that flung stars,” Vin said. He’d arrived soundlessly, and his sudden statement startled Josiah nearly out of his skin. Vin gestured up at the night sky. “Look different out here, don’t they? Ain’t th’ same in th’ city.”

Josiah looked up at the constellations. It was late, and a long drive home, but yes, they were worth looking at. Though not perhaps so much so as the scene he left behind: Chris lounging in the ranch doorway with one arm lazily around Ezra’s shoulder and one around Vin’s. That was a picture really worth holding on to, a miracle closer to home than the stars.


Sunday evening, Vin enjoyed having the ranch to themselves again. The party had been okay, a lot better than he expected, and he liked the people who’d come, but it was great now just to have him and Ez and Chris on their own here. His side was about healed, and he was looking forward to riding again. Ezra was reading and Chris had gone along to the study. Vin thought he’d put some coffee on and they could all have a slice of one of the leftover cakes—they’d done well for cakes. Before he moved though, Chris came back into the den.

“Got something for the two of you,” he said. “Thought it was time Chaucer and Peso were added to the collection.” He held out two wooden figures of horses.

Vin took the carving of Peso and held it with feelings he couldn’t have put into words even if he could talk like Ezra—only Ezra was gripping his own carving of Chaucer as silently as Vin. This gift was different from clothes and stuff. Vin could guess the nights Chris had sat awake for one reason or another and had worked on these. He ran his fingers gently over the lines of the carving. It was like the ones in the bedroom—not all smooth and finished, but special in the feel of the wood and the spirit of the horse.

Chris had made the others for Adam…

The way you’d carve a horse you loved for a person you loved…

“Guess those damn horses are part of the family now,” Chris said—and his smile said the rest.

~ End ~