By Gil Hale —

Disclaimer: All disclaimers, usual or unusual, apply.

“It could be a trap,” Josiah said.

Someone had to break the grim silence that hung over their briefing, had to act like they were still a team, even if it meant saying the obvious. Anyway, he really didn’t like the look of the narrow side streets and old commercial buildings where this tip off about an arms deal would lead them.

“Henderson says the man’s a reliable snitch,” Buck argued. He was the only one who knew the police officer who had passed on the information.

“But is Henderson reliable?” Nathan asked, rather reluctantly. “I asked around and I didn’t like some of what I heard.”

“What did you hear?” Chris Larabee had been staring at the papers spread out on his desk, with no sign he was listening to any of them, but Josiah knew he would pick up on anything relevant.

Nathan reported it uncomfortably; he could see Buck’s irritation growing. “They say Henderson’s too close to his informers, and that there are criminals in his area who seem to lead a charmed life—always lucky enough to be somewhere else when there’s a bust.”

“You’ve no call to repeat that kind of gossip,” Buck said angrily. “I suppose that’s from someone who’s been transferred and holds a grudge.”`

“A couple of folk who’d asked for transfers,” Nathan said. He didn’t push it. Like Josiah, he was aware that Buck had known Henderson years before, and one of Buck’s defining characteristics was his refusal to think ill of old friends.

But was this an old friend or just an old acquaintance? Josiah wasn’t sure that Henderson had ever been more than a casual drinking and dating buddy, and Buck hadn’t seen very much of him for years. Josiah, too, had asked around a bit, and heard the same mutterings as Nathan. Henderson was a big spender for a cop, and rookies who asked too many questions weren’t welcome around him and his colleagues.

“It could be a set up,” Chris said briefly, dismissing the rest of the debate. “Three questions. If it is a set up, why? Is it worth the risk of acting on the information? If so, how do we minimise the risk?”

“If we don’t think it’s worth taking some risks to get firearms off the streets, what are we doing in this job?” Buck challenged.

Chris ignored that, the way he ignored anything that wasn’t specifically related to the task in hand. As usual on a Monday morning, he looked gaunt and red-eyed, and it was obvious he was concentrating past a savage headache.

Josiah had asked him on Friday evening, as he did almost every weekend, if he’d like company—to come over for a meal maybe, or have someone exercise the horses with him. Chris had looked at him as if the words made no sense, and had driven off without answering.

Buck reckoned Chris got through two or three bottles of whisky in a weekend, but the horses at the ranch were never neglected, and only a handful of times had Chris failed to turn up on a Monday morning. Buck had always driven straight out to the ranch when that happened, but the last time he’d come back with a black eye and a smashed lip, and whatever words Chris had hurled along with his fists seemed finally to have finished the closeness between them.

That had been six months ago, and Chris hadn’t missed an hour of work since. Nor had he spoken a word more than necessary to any of them.

The silence around the table was getting oppressive.

“Why should anyone be setting us up?” Buck asked at last. “Henderson got a good tip off, and thought it sounded like a job for the ATF. I think it’s to his credit he called us in.”

“So does Travis,” Nathan said. “He thinks we’re better doing this than harassing mayoral candidates.”

“Suppose it actually has something to do with Varon…” Josiah thought aloud.

It was something of an exaggeration to call Varon a mayoral candidate, but he was certainly well on the way from sleazeball lawyer to aspiring politician. They’d been trying for a while to trace his connection to organised crime, ever since a bit-player they busted had sworn Varon was behind his boss’s drug dealing. The man had been stabbed in lockup before they even got there to interrogate him, and some of Chris’s permanent cold anger had been directed Varon’s way ever since, though as Travis pointed out, they had no kind of evidence of the man’s involvement other than a few words from a criminal while he was being arrested.

“Why should Varon set us up?” Buck persisted. “He knows we don’t have anything on him.”

“Maybe he’s worried what we might find if we keep looking,” Chris said. “You’re right, Josiah, he just could be behind this.”

“I don’t see why it shouldn’t be a straight tip off and an ordinary bust,” Buck said stubbornly.

Chris looked again at the spread of maps, building layouts and reports on his desk, and Josiah could see he’d come to some kind of decision.

“Get Henderson,” Chris told Buck. “Tell him we’ll assume it’s going down exactly as his snitch called it. Meet’s supposed to be just before midnight tomorrow. Tell Henderson we’ll be in position by seven.”

They all listened in silence as Buck made the call—four colleagues in an increasingly uneasy working relationship, who’d once been as good friends as any team Josiah had worked in. Whoever had set the car bomb that missed Chris and killed his wife and son had destroyed more than his innocent victims.

Josiah had grieved for Sarah and Adam; he’d prayed for Chris and for a way to reach him in his black despair. These days maybe he also grieved for the team and for the loss of the man Chris had been. He’d tried not to give up praying, but on good days it felt like pushing a massive boulder up an unending slope—and on bad days he wasn’t even sure the boulder and slope existed.

Buck finished with a few cheerful exchanges and turned to Chris as he ended the call. “Glad you see it my way.”

“I don’t,” Chris said. “Just think that if there’s any chance Varon’s behind it, we can give him enough rope to hang himself.” He raised a hand to cut off any further protest from Buck. “I’m not saying anything against Henderson. Varon’s got the connections to get this rumour out and set us up without Henderson necessarily being implicated. But in case there’s any kind of a leak at the PD—or here—the rest of our plans don’t go beyond the four of us. Not even to Travis.”

“What are the rest of our plans?” Josiah asked.

Chris pushed the maps out so that they could all see them. “We’re going to set our own trap. We’ll assume it’s a set up. You three are going to watch the approaches to the building. No need for anyone but me to be inside. If we’re wrong and there really is a deal going down there I can call you in, but by that time we’d know it probably wasn’t a trap anyway. If it is, I’d expect them to be there early. And if there’s a leak at the PD, that’ll be before seven.”

He had it all worked out Josiah realised, their positions planned, a complete strategy devised while he listened to them talk. And as usual it was a strategy which kept them away from risk as far as possible, and put Chris himself in the most hazardous position.

“I don’t think it should be dangerous,” Chris said, when Buck, who never gave up, suggested he shouldn’t be in there alone. “We’re out of sight, just looking for evidence. We’ll get into position tonight, cameras as well as the usual equipment. I want a record of anyone who even glances at that building tomorrow, let alone approaches it.”

“You hope we’ll get a link to Varon?”

Chris shrugged. “Sooner or later he’ll make a mistake. My gut feeling is that this information is designed to drag us into an ambush and that he’s behind it. If I’m wrong and we don’t get anything useful, well at worst we’ve just spent an uncomfortable twenty four hours.” He glanced at his watch. “I’ve got a meeting with Travis. I’ll be telling him what Buck told Henderson.”

He was still a damn good leader, Josiah thought, even if there was no longer any warmth to his manner. Chris had taken the view—which Josiah certainly shared—that this whole situation stank, but he’d managed to keep Buck on board and find a way they might turn it to their advantage. No wonder Travis chose to overlook the off duty drinking and the fact that Chris scared their own side as much as the criminals.

“Get the details worked out,” Chris added. “I want us in position before midnight tonight.”

“That’s a hell of a long stakeout,” Buck said. “Some of us have bladders, y’know.”

“Well, technically, all of us…” Nathan began.

“It’s a problem you’ve been handling for yourselves long enough,” Chris said, unamused. “Nathan—Tylenol?”

Silently Nathan handed him the bottle and managed not to say anything as Chris dry-swallowed four of them—at least until the door had closed behind Chris. As soon as he could speak unheard he said, “He won’t need to get in the way of a bullet. His liver’ll kill him soon enough.”

“Thinks it don’t count as killing himself if he drinks himself to death,” Buck said with uncharacteristic bitterness. “I’m not sure that he could stop now if he tried.”

“He could stop,” Josiah said. He’d known a lot of alcoholics, and that wasn’t Chris’s problem. Chris stopped drinking when he had any reason to, but the only reason he had came from the demands of their job, and even the ATF didn’t work twenty four-seven.

“Give him something more, Lord,” Josiah prayed silently, hoisting that rock another painful inch.

JD was bored. Unlike a lot of ten year olds, he knew that there were worse things than being bored, but he still found it hard not to fidget. He wasn’t sure if Ezra and Vin didn’t get restless because they were older or just because they’d been living this way a lot longer. Ezra seemed to be able to sit for hours silently shuffling, dealing and flipping cards. Vin would just lie at the edge of their den, high in this disused warehouse, with his eyes on the street below or the skyline.

This was a cool place though. JD liked it. It was high and quiet, and real hard to get up to if you didn’t know the tricks. Vin and Ezra were cool too, even if they sometimes treated him like a little kid. He looked at Ezra hopefully. Sometimes Ezra would teach him card tricks or tell him about famous cons that had been played. Vin mostly seemed to want to teach him to lie quiet and watch things, and he wasn’t in the mood for that.

He moved again, restlessly, and must have knocked a little piece of metal. It made a lot of noise as it bounced off the walkways and down to the warehouse floor.

“Sorry!” he whispered hastily.

Vin rolled over and looked at him reproachfully. Ezra shook his head slightly. JD hated it when they did that.

“Give ‘im th’ book,” Vin murmured, somehow getting the sound much softer than JD’s whisper.

Ezra carefully put down the cards, felt inside the backpack they kept their food and belongings in, and took out a slightly battered book which proved to be about all sorts of uses and tricks for Windows XP.

“Yes!” JD said, much too loudly, and had to hastily whisper “sorry” again.

He took the book and looked at the first few pages. It was great! He could read this for hours. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would have thrown it out, but he knew Vin and Ezra must have got it when they went dumpster diving the night before.

The thought briefly took his mind away from the book. He felt bad that things had gotten so hard for Vin and Ezra after they’d helped him. He’d wanted to make up for it by going dumpster diving too, but Vin said he made too much noise, and Ezra said he was ‘inadequately selective’ whatever that meant. All he’d been allowed to do was to wait down at floor level and keep watch, while he did some of the exercises Vin had taught him, so he’d still be fit when they didn’t have to hide so much.

He didn’t know how long that would be. His foster father wanted him back, and it made him feel shivery and scared when he thought of why. And Vin said some of the police around here knew what the man was doing, and instead of stopping him, they’d take JD back, and that was why no one at all could see them, because if the police were bad you couldn’t trust anyone.

JD knew that the police were still looking for them, even though it was three weeks since Vin and Ezra had helped him get away. He knew the police were calling it abduction, too, and Ezra had explained what that meant, though Vin and Ezra tried not to let him see it bothered them.

Vin leaned over and patted his arm. “Enjoy yer book, and stop worryin'” he said. “Ez, come here a minute. See that guy down there? I seen his picture in one of them newspapers y’ were reading.”

Ezra slid quietly across to join him, somehow making less noise than JD did turning pages.

“I think you’re correct. ‘Up and coming’ I believe they described him.”

“Be headin’ down, not up, if he’s with lowlife like Eli Jo. You still got the story?”

“Unfortunately I think it might have been one of the papers we wrapped the rubbish in.”

JD lost interest in the conversation. He sprawled comfortably on his stomach, and managed to lose himself in his book.

Chris had ordered radio silence soon after midnight, when they were all in position. Now, twelve hours later, it was time for the next check in he’d scheduled. It had been a long, cramped, completely unproductive stretch of watching and waiting.

“I’m in position. Nothing to report.” That was Josiah. He sounded peaceful. Maybe he’d spent the time meditating.

“In position. Nothing.” Buck’s reply was more of a growl. He’d be stiff, bored and fed up, but he’d do the job professionally.

“In position.” That was Nathan. “There’s a man watching the door of your building, Chris. Arrived fifteen minutes ago. Could just be having a quiet cigarette or waiting for someone, but I don’t think so.”

“Let us know if he moves or anyone joins him.”

It was earlier than he’d expected any activity. If it was directed at their—supposed—operation, it meant there was a leak, and Chris’s money would be on Henderson and his men. He wanted absolute proof, though. They were law officers, and he wasn’t making accusations unless he was sure. Besides, Buck would fight the idea every inch of the way.

He was a good friend, Buck, loyal to a fault.

Took a real bastard to drive him away.

Chris went back to checking the security of his position. It would have been a hell of a lot easier if this ‘meet’ had been planned for one of the big, barely used, warehouses or depots that crowded this area. Instead, and it added to his suspicions, it was supposed to be in this upstairs room, with bare walls and no furniture beyond a few storage boxes. The room was reached only by stairs to a wooden walkway outside; it would be a bad place to be trapped in… and a good choice for someone setting a trap.

He’d thought he might have to go into the roof somehow, which would have been inconvenient, but after a long and careful examination of the room, he’d realised he had another alternative. There was a cupboard at one end, and although at first glance the shelving in it looked built in, a closer examination had shown him it was shelf units. He’d spent the most constructive part of his night moving the back unit a couple of feet forward so that he could conceal himself and his camera in the space behind. He’d removed all the screws and not replaced them, because he wanted to be able to flatten it to the floor if he needed to come out in a hurry, but he’d looked at it in daylight early this morning, and nothing showed. He’d left the cupboard doors wide open, exactly as they’d been when he entered the room. His only reservation about his position was that once, in the night, he’d heard a small noise that was probably no more than a rat, and had had an uneasy feeling he was being watched. It hadn’t happened again, and he’d decided it was nothing, or nothing that threatened him.

Of course, if he’d made a mistake, the board of the shelves would be no protection at all against bullets, but he couldn’t make himself care. Even his body couldn’t summon up any of the automatic symptoms of apprehension these days; he could hardly remember the dry mouth or heightened awareness he’d once felt before action, back when his survival mattered.

For about ten seconds his control slipped and he let himself think of Sarah and Adam. The longing to be with them again was a pain that cut through him and almost made him gasp aloud. Savagely he got a grip, deadened every feeling rather than endure that searing grief. He had to concentrate on the job. He was good at his work, and it might keep some other family from destruction.

Shortly after that, Nathan’s ‘watcher’ was joined by another man. Ten minutes later a couple of thugs strolled into the side street and loitered at the end where Buck was hidden. They were probably there to put any casual passer-by off walking down this way. There were very few buildings in use nearby, and the only trade visitors they’d seen had been in the early morning, so it wouldn’t be a difficult matter for the street to be kept empty.

At 3.00, he got the heads up from Josiah, who was in the building opposite, that someone was coming up the stairs towards his room. Chris shifted slightly, made sure he was in a position to see the whole room through the small hole he’d bored in the unit back during the night. The hole fitted the camera lens; he’d checked that.

He didn’t recognise the man who came in carrying a black holdall.

He did recognise the equipment that the man began to take out.

There was enough C4 there to send half the street up.

Chris had considered the possibility of explosives, but had thought a bomb much less likely than an ambush. He certainly hadn’t anticipated anything on this scale. His ideal plan had been to get as much evidence as they could and then to get out unseen. What he’d wanted was a trail that led to whoever was behind this set up. Now he no longer had that option.

He said softly into the radio, “Plan B, boys.” Simultaneously he flattened the shelves in front of him.

“Hands on your head. Up against the wall!” he ordered.

He’d never seen a criminal more taken by surprise or quicker to obey. The guy didn’t even try to go for his weapon, and he pressed back against the wall as if he wanted to squirm through it. Chosen for his explosives knowledge, presumably, and expecting to be well away before anything dangerous happened.

Bombs held such a personal bitterness for Chris that he had to stand still a moment and get a rein on his anger before he approached him. If the man made even the slightest of moves…. But he didn’t. Maybe he saw in Chris’s face what would happen if he did. Instead he walked with careful obedience, hands on his head, down to the street.

Chris hastily looked for his men. Josiah and Buck had the two loiterers from that end of the street down on the ground. Where was Nathan? He wasn’t answering when Chris called for him to check in. And where was the police back-up that Buck would have called in the moment he heard the words ‘Plan B’?

Josiah finished off his man with a punch that would have downed a steer. Chris gestured to him to cover the explosives expert, and ran to the far end of the street where Nathan had been concealed.

No sign of him. No sound of a struggle or gunshots.

Chris approached the warehouse as cautiously as was compatible with haste—he didn’t intend to make himself a target against the light—and as he dived for the cover of a pile of crates near the door, he saw Nate had been outnumbered. There were three men struggling with him, and the one good thing was that they seemed to want him alive, probably as their ticket out of the trap that had sprung on them.

One man had gone down groaning just as Chris came in, but the other two had a good grip, and now a knife was pressed across Nathan’s throat.

“Come out, Larabee, or we’ll finish him,” the man holding the knife said.

Chris noted the use of his name, confirmation if he’d needed it that the trap had been set specifically for his team. He stood up slowly, keeping as much cover from the crates as he could. Buck and Josiah would be dealing with the three men outside, and there was still no sound of the promised back up.

“You don’t want to add to your problems by killing a federal agent,” he said.

“We won’t need to kill him if you don’t try to stop us leaving.” The knife man was narrow-faced, with greasy hair dangling. He looked as if he was no stranger to cutting throats.

Chris needed a distraction, something, anything, which would give him a chance to get the initiative.

Nathan knew it, but Nathan was looking dazed, blood running down from a cut over his ear. The knife was pressed too tightly against his skin.

Where the hell was the back up?

Chris glared at the men in an impasse that had only lasted moments but was already too long.

It was then that he saw someone move in the shadows behind Nathan and his captors. Only years of experience and discipline kept Chris from showing anything in his expression as the figure slid silently forward and into the light from the doorway. It was a kid, a boy of fifteen or sixteen, filthy and dishevelled, but he moved with adult confidence. He looked directly at Chris, and as their eyes met the sense of connection jolted Chris like a paddle to the chest. The kid was there to help, and he knew what he was doing.

Chris braced himself, ready for it.

The boy flung something that rattled loudly against the far wall of the barn and caught the attention of the men holding Nathan. In the second they were distracted, he stepped forward and brought a club-like lump of wood down on the back of the greasy man’s head. Chris, moving almost simultaneously, disarmed the other, and Nathan was bending the knife hand away from his face even as the man holding him staggered. The surprise had been just enough to tip the balance in their favour.

Chris stood panting, covering the prisoners and offering an arm to Nathan.

“I’m okay,” Nathan said. “It’s not much. Scalp wounds bleed a lot.”

Chris turned to the boy. “Thanks,” he said. “Chris Larabee, ATF. We owe you.”

The kid hesitated. “Vin,” he said briefly. “Seemed like you were having a spot of trouble with Eli Jo here.”

“You know him?”

“Him and one of the others outside.”

“Be grateful if you’d stay around then.”

“Fer now,” Vin said, drifting to his side. “My friend’s gone t’ let yer men know what’s happening.”

On cue, Josiah arrived, with another kid around the same age as Vin behind him, and slowed down, relieved, as he saw that things were under control.

“Where’s that back-up?” Chris asked.

Josiah shrugged slightly. His eyes met Chris’s, and they were thinking the same thing. No way should it have taken this long, and it wasn’t in Henderson’s favour that it had done.

The boy behind Josiah was quite a bit cleaner than Vin, and although his clothes looked as if he’d been living in them for a while, they were still on the right side of disreputable. He looked at Chris with more cynicism than any sixteen year old should have possessed, and at Vin with a glance that clearly meant he thought it was time to bolt.

Vin shook his head. Maybe, like Chris, he had felt that startling moment of complete understanding, or maybe he just wanted to make sure Eli Jo was booked. Going by the way Vin was looking at the man, there was some personal animosity there.

“Let’s take it outside,” Chris said, gesturing to everyone to move.

Buck, watching the other men in the street, was speaking fast and angrily into his radio. Chris went to secure the stairs to the explosives, and was nearly bowled over by yet another child, a much smaller one, hurtling out of the warehouse where Josiah had been.

“Vin! Ezra! You are all right? I know you said to stay put but I heard all the fighting and I was watching and I couldn’t see you, so I thought you might have been hurt. I’d have run away fast enough if I had to. You know I’m fast.”

It was a dark-haired boy, probably no more than nine or ten years old, and he was hugging Vin and Ezra while he talked.

“Are there any more of you?” Chris asked Vin quietly. “There’s a lot of C4 up in that room, and I don’t want anyone going near it.”

“This is JD, and no there’s no more,” Vin said. He didn’t look happy that JD had shown himself. “It’s all right JD. No one’s hurt. And they’re ATF.”

“But who are they calling in to assist them?” Ezra said softly to Vin.

Chris realised, as he probably should have done before, that the boys might well want to avoid the local police. Presumably the ATF were considered to have better things to do than take street kids in to juvie. He couldn’t just let them run off though, and he saw that they were now getting poised to do just that, though Josiah was between them and freedom in one direction and Buck blocked the way in the other. The little boy, JD, was already edging to the side where he could dart past Josiah.

Vin looked at him. “You called in the p’lice?”

Before Chris could answer, their back up finally arrived, screeching into the end of the street where Buck was standing. The sight of the police car was all the trigger the boys needed to make a dash to escape, but Chris had also been ready. As they took off, he was just fast enough to grab Vin’s filthy shirt, and although the material tore, by then he’d got a grip on Vin’s arm.

“I’m in charge here, not the PD,” he said, meaning it as reassurance, but Vin still wrenched to get free.

Ezra, alert to what was happening behind him, stopped and turned, but little JD, moving as fast as he said he could, had sprinted off so quickly he’d eluded Josiah and nearly reached the end of the street before he realised he was alone.

He turned back to look for his friends, just as the second police car raced in behind him.

“JD!” Vin and Ezra yelled in simultaneous alarm, and Chris heard Buck shout as well.

It was too late. The car had turned in rapidly, and JD was standing in the centre of the street. The young driver of the police car hit the brakes. JD realised his danger, and tried to jump, but neither of them had enough time. The car skidded on, and caught JD as he moved.

Chris watched in horror as the small body was flung into the air from the impact with the hood. It looked bad, and the way the kid landed and didn’t make a move or a sound, looked worse.

He was sharply aware of several things at once: shouts from the police behind him; Buck running, quicker to react than anyone else; Vin and Ezra, shocked briefly into immobility; the continuing need to secure the prisoners and the explosives. He got a more secure grip on the boys, unwilling to let them go forward until he knew how seriously JD was hurt.

“Call an ambulance,” he snapped at Josiah. “Nate—see if there’s anything you can do.”

He gave hasty orders to the police about dealing with the men under arrest and with the explosives. Vin and Ezra weren’t struggling against his hold. They’d both regained control to the extent that if Chris hadn’t been looking at them when the accident happened he would have thought them callously indifferent—but he had been looking and had seen their fear for JD and their horror when the car hit him. It said uncomfortable things about the way they’d had to live that they had learned to cover up so strong a reaction so effectively. That sort of self control came with a price.

Nathan looked up and gestured to him to come over. He wouldn’t have done that if what the boys were going to see was a dead body.

Still making arrangements to secure the scene, Chris walked slowly towards the small group by the police car, drawing Vin and Ezra with him. The young police driver, who looked nearer their age than Chris’s, was close to tears. Buck was down on his knees, like Nathan. JD lay in a distorted sprawl, blood running down his face, and Chris didn’t need to be a medic to see he was seriously hurt.

“Nate?” he asked quietly.

It was Buck who looked up, angry, because he couldn’t bear to see a woman or a child hurt.

“He should never have been here Chris. No child should be running around on the streets like this. He should have been safe at home.”

“And so he would have been,” an unfamiliar voice broke in, “if he hadn’t been snatched by these boys. Don’t worry Buck; I’ll be taking them in with the other men—with their record and the charges against them, I’ll be holding them until I’m sure there are secure places at the Youth Center.” The man speaking aggressively from behind Chris had to be Henderson, arriving even later than the rest of his men.

Chris turned sharply. Vin, shaken briefly from his stunned silence, retorted bitterly to Henderson, “JD weren’t safe at home and you knew it.”

“You profited from it,” Ezra added.

Henderson moved threateningly, but aborted the move when he caught the expression on Chris’s face. “Larabee,” Chris introduced himself shortly. “You won’t be arresting these boys. They helped save Nate Jackson while we were waiting for your back up. I want to hear a damn good explanation as to where you were.”

“Ambulance is comin’,” Vin said, his brief defiance already forgotten, and his attention back to JD.

“He’s got serious injuries, Chris,” Nathan said quietly, finally getting the chance to answer Chris’s question. “But as far as I can judge, I’d say he’s got a good chance of recovering from them.”

Chris felt the slight sag of relief in the boys, and shared it. “Nathan, you ride along with him and get that cut stitched. Buck, go to the hospital and…”

“Tell him t’ keep anyone else away. They wanted JD t’ do some real bad stuff. Don’t let his foster dad near him.”

Vin’s voice was low, for Chris only. He was looking at Chris with reluctant trust. Ezra was regarding Chris with a complete lack of it, but it was obvious they both thought he had the power to do something. Chris wasn’t sure he had, legally, but he found himself saying to Buck as the paramedics gently checked JD, “Buck—stay with the kid. He may have seen something here, so treat him as a witness who could potentially be in danger. No one’s to see him unless I okay it.”

Buck’s attention was fixed on the small body being carefully moved to the ambulance. “Be glad to stay with him,” he said, “But…”

“Just do it,” Chris said shortly. “No one except medical staff without my authorisation. I’ll call you and explain when I’ve dealt with things here.”

He couldn’t imagine anyone better than Buck to protect the kid… and he wanted Buck away from here, in case he had to let rip at Henderson.

Chris had an eye on what was going on in the street, and it seemed to be being done professionally, so he stayed where he was until the ambulance left. Josiah joined him, looked as if he was about to say something, then changed his mind. After a moment Chris realised why. Somehow, maybe when he’d been dealing with Henderson, he’d changed his grip on the boys, and was now standing with one arm around Vin’s shoulders, the other hand on Ezra’s. Well, what the hell. Like Buck said, no kid should be alone on the streets, and however tough and savvy these two looked, they were just kids.

“I didn’t see the boy, sir. We got the call late and…”

That was the young police driver, who had been standing there frozen and white-faced as the paramedics worked.

“It was an accident,” Chris said firmly. It was another black mark against Henderson. He should have made time to say this. “There was nothing you could have done. You reacted quickly enough; it was an impossible situation.”

He said it forcefully rather than kindly, but the young man looked as if he’d just had a heavy sentence lifted. Chris looked at Josiah, who nodded. Josiah would follow this up. He’d do it better, and Chris had a lot of other responsibilities just now, including working out what he was going to do with Vin and Ezra.

At least they weren’t trying to run at the moment. He could hardly take a step without tripping over them. They could evidently see as well as Chris could that Henderson hadn’t given up the idea of taking them in, and had decided to stay where they might be safer.

Chris dealt with everything he needed to do at the scene. He’d question the men later—he’d warned Henderson that he expected to find them safe and ready for him. Most of them were probably hired muscle, but he had some hope of the man who’d been setting the explosives.

“Eli Jo’s th’ one t’ watch,” Vin said softly as the men were taken away. “He’s the one set you up.”

“You think, or you know?” Chris asked. It was clear Vin had some longstanding feud with the man.

“Think,” Vin admitted.

“He’s been loitering around this area,” Ezra said.

“Hanging about with some guy—what did y’ say the paper called him, Ez?”

“I don’t remember a name. Just that he was part of the team around some newly prominent political figure.”

Chris looked at them sharply. There was no way they could have guessed this was something he wanted to know. “I’ll hear about it later,” he said quickly. It might be the sort of link he was looking for that could be followed to Varon, but even if it wasn’t it played neatly with what he’d decided to do about these two—which was the same as the story he’d given Buck to use about JD. They were witnesses in a case the ATF was investigating. In Chris’s book, that put them under his jurisdiction.

He told Henderson so, when the man came back demanding to arrest the boys now that everything else was dealt with. Henderson didn’t like it, and made blustering threats about going over Chris’s head.

“Do it, and I’ll make it clear why I don’t trust you with them,” Chris said. “I’ll have every aspect of your involvement in today’s business examined, and every murmur about you and your methods dug up. Maybe we could start with that kid they’ve just taken to hospital. What’s a close scrutiny into his foster care going to turn up? I suspect you know.”

“These boys are runners,” Henderson said, red with suppressed anger. “You lose ’em and there’ll be hell to pay. And the ATF can’t keep them forever. You’ll have to hand them over sooner or later. They’re not going to be treated as juveniles, not at their age and with charges against them that include a killing and abduction. They’re going down, Larabee, and the most you can do is postpone it a few days.”

Henderson was afraid of him. Chris could see it easily enough; but Henderson’s fear would make him cautious. And vindictive where he could afford to be. He would go after the boys, and even if Chris could make a damn good case for them as witnesses, it was going to be difficult to protect them if the charges were as serious as Henderson said.

He wasn’t really a believer in being able to judge someone on sight. He’d seen criminals with honest eyes and faces that had won the trust of experienced officers. Even the startling sense he’d had of knowing exactly what Vin was going to do in the warehouse, of knowing Vin himself, didn’t mean he might not have been involved in violence. Not murder. Chris was sure of that. But a fight in which someone had died? Vin certainly had the air of being able to look after himself on the streets.

Still, if you couldn’t judge faces, you could judge actions. Vin had risked his neck to help Nathan, and Chris had seen little JD run to both the boys like they were his big brothers. Whatever Vin and Ezra might have done, he didn’t believe they were simply hardened young thugs. Something more was going on here.

He felt compelled—by a sense of justice, he told himself—to find out more about these accusations, and to find some way of keeping the boys from being locked up. Meanwhile, he had to make sure they didn’t bolt once the threat of the police was removed, because he doubted they had any reason at all to trust the system, or to think that he could influence it.

He had been aware for a little while now of Vin assessing the diminishing police presence in the street, of Ezra calculating how much attention Chris was paying, and of the silent agreement between the two of them that it was nearly time to make their break for it.

“Don’t even think about it,” he warned.

“Henderson weren’t lying,” Vin said. “Juvie’ll think we’re bad news.”

“The Youth Center is always overcrowded,” Ezra agreed. “Besides, we absconded from there before.”

“Judge’ll say stuff about our best int’rests, but it’ll be everyone else’s best int’rests that counts.”

“I’m sure Mr Henderson will make an eloquent case for protecting society from delinquents like us.

Chris had already noticed that Ezra spoke as if he’d attended an extremely expensive private school, and Vin as if he’d never attended school at all. It gave an odd emphasis to their agreement.

“You’re not going to be locked up and you’re not being turned loose,” he said, and called Josiah over from where he was still deep in conversation with the young police driver. “Josiah, we’ll take these two back to the office for now; I want their statements about today and any activity they saw over the last couple of days, and I want them to look at some photographs. You get their files. We need to know what’s on record against them.”

Vin and Ezra looked at him with resignation and with no hope at all that he could achieve anything. Chris knew that the only thing keeping them from running was the lack of an opportunity now that he and Josiah were both marshalling them along. He was very careful, on the way to the Ram and afterwards, not to give them the slightest chance to bolt, and even then he suspected that the only reason he arrived at his office with them still in tow was that they wouldn’t either of them make a break for it alone. He didn’t risk stopping to pick up any food, though he and Josiah had barely eaten today, and the boys looked as if their last meal was longer ago than that.

“Coffee?” he offered them. They both looked as if they needed something hot. He was sharply aware that they were too pale, and very quiet. “Josiah, while you’re making calls, send out for a pizza as well.”

The boys accepted the coffee silently. Now that he had them more or less trapped, they seemed to be putting most of their energy into not showing they felt defeated and afraid. He felt an unexpected impulse to reassure them but it was no good trying to do it with words. He needed something a lot more practical than that, and he wasn’t sure he could achieve it by himself.

He decided to do something he’d hadn’t done in a very long time. He picked up the phone, and asked Orrin Travis for help.

Buck had dozed, in spite of the discomfort of the hospital chair. He’d eaten a hasty meal, and was following it up with a machine-made coffee. He was tired and frustrated, and things didn’t look like improving. Well, maybe they were improving slightly. Nathan had passed through the system to the point where his cut was being stitched and he’d soon be released.

It was almost impossible to find out any real details about JD, though. Providing security for him didn’t entitle Buck to medical details apparently, only to know his whereabouts and make sure no one unauthorised got in to see him. Not that they could have managed it yet. JD had been moved to surgery, Buck did know that much, and would eventually go from there to intensive care.

Buck could go back to his apartment once Nathan was discharged and he’d taken him home. He’d done what Chris wanted and made sure that the foster father would have no access and that the hospital would check before anyone else was allowed to see the boy.

“But that won’t be for some time,” one of the friendlier nurses had told him. “He’s a very sick little boy. Even if he had family they would only be allowed brief visits.”

Yep, Buck could go, he just somehow felt like he’d be abandoning the kid when he left.

His cell phone rang; he looked around for any notices forbidding him to use it, but he seemed to be okay in here.


It was Josiah, hoping to find out JD’s condition.

“They won’t tell me anything except that he’ll be going into intensive care. Is Chris there?”

“He’s on the other line.”

“I’ve done what he said. No one’ll get to see the kid without his okay. I hope he’s sure about what he’s doing though.”

“Seems like there might have been attempts by neighbours to report the foster father,” Josiah said. “I was talking to that police driver and he said he’d heard there were some but they hadn’t been followed up or had got lost in the system or something.”

“So it could be no more than rumours.”

“I wouldn’t take the risk, would you?”

And no, Buck wouldn’t. He didn’t like what was coming over from Josiah, which seemed like yet another criticism of the local force, but he disliked any hint of abuse a lot more.

“He hasn’t any other family at all,” Josiah went on. “I’ve got some of the paperwork on all three boys. JD was orphaned a couple of years back, and they couldn’t trace any relatives.”

Buck thought of the brief glimpse he’d had of the eager little boy. “Surely they could have found him a proper family.”

“I don’t know why they didn’t. I’m trying to find out who his case worker is. Chris says try to find out the boy’s condition and call us back.”

Frustration made Buck answer more irritably than he meant to. “Well how exactly does he think I’m supposed to do that? And since when did Chris give a damn anyway?”

He regretted it the moment he’d said it, and was about to say so when Chris himself took the phone.

“Buck? Can you hang in there a bit longer? I’ve called Rain, and she’ll pick Nathan up. I’m working on getting you some kind of rights to see JD.”

Buck was startled, not just by the statement, but by the note of life and purpose in Chris’s voice, stronger than he’d heard it in… well in a hell of a long time.

“Do you think you can do that?” he asked. “I hate the thought of that kid having no one here at all for him. I know the doctors and nurses are good, but it’s not the same.”

“I’m hoping to get some kind of legal order in the next couple of hours,” Chris said, startling him even more. “I think that’s Travis now on the other line. We’ll get back to you.”

He was gone before Buck had time to ask any of the questions he was bursting with, but he left him feeling more hopeful, and not just about JD. That had sounded almost like the old Chris Larabee for a few minutes there.

He settled back in his chair, reconciled to the waiting.

Judge Tom Carrington had been a friend of Orrin Travis for many years. Their families had become close, and he’d shared Orrin’s pleasure at becoming a grandfather, and his grief at losing a son.

He could never, in all that time, recall Travis asking a work-related favour.

“I know it’s unusual,” Orrin had said, catching him with the request as he was about to leave the office for home. “But I think it’s just about within the bounds of what you can do. The older boys are important witnesses in a case Larabee’s team are working on, and he thinks they’ll abscond from the Youth Center—apparently they’ve managed it before. Also, they seem to be at some risk, from people who might not want them giving evidence.”

Carrington agreed to meet Orrin, along with his team leader, Larabee, and the boys in question. He planned to see them at the ATF building rather than the Center and in hasty preparation skimmed through the parts of the boys’ records that he was able to get at short notice.

Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner. Neither of them had actually appeared before a juvenile judge, but there seemed to be plenty of reasons why they should have done. Standish had been running cons with his mother before he was out of diapers, and she’d fled the state some three years earlier. The boy had been briefly placed in a care home—very briefly if the dates were correct—and had then disappeared.

Tanner had been in and out of the system for years, though mostly out. Orphaned when he was five, on the death of his mother, he’d been fostered for a short while. The maternal grandfather had wanted the boy, but he was an itinerant who earned his money working with horses, and had been considered unsuitable. He’d managed to take the boy anyway, and nothing had been heard of either of them for three years. Then the grandfather had reappeared at a hospital, being treated for a major stroke, and the boy had been picked up there and returned to foster care. After that it was a pattern of running, being picked up, placed in one home or another and running again, until he finally disappeared completely from… The judge paused to check it correlated. Yes, he’d run away from the Boys’ Home with Standish. That was three years ago. Impossible to tell if they’d been together ever since, but their one further appearance had been together. They’d been locked up for a night at the Youth Center—or part of a night. They’d escaped alarmingly quickly.

On that occasion, they’d been in the Center because they’d been arrested for being involved in a fight at some illegal gambling joint. The accusations levelled against them since were even more serious, though they’d never been arrested or charged. Worst was a fatal stabbing, with an eye witness identifying Tanner as the killer, but there also seemed to be a wealth of evidence that together they’d abducted a ten-year-old boy from his foster home. Given that Tanner was almost sixteen, and Standish a couple of months older, they might well have been facing a full trial in an adult court if they’d been brought in in the normal way and not by Orrin’s team.

Larabee, though—he was sure he’d heard the name before—was disputing the evidence in these cases. He also appeared to be claiming the boys had been instrumental in saving the life of an ATF agent. That was unexpected. Tom wished he’d had time to get some more information, on the incidents and the background.

He was well on the way to ATF headquarters when he finally placed the name Larabee. Chris Larabee. Of course. He remembered the appalling tragedy a few years back. Orrin had spoken of the man once or twice over the following months. Tom had the impression Larabee had gone rapidly downhill, perhaps not surprisingly, and that Orrin had been worried about how long he’d be able to keep him in his post. Evidently he had come through and remained in the ATF. Now that he thought about it, Tom had a feeling he’d heard the name more recently too, perhaps to do with some court case.

After he’d parked, he called a lawyer friend who he thought might well have come across Larabee in his work.

“Chris Larabee? You want the facts or urban legend?” his friend asked wryly. “I’ve never actually been in court when he’s been involved, but I’ve certainly heard of him. They say he’s cold, dangerous and a complete bastard if you cross him. Good at his job though. Most people find him somewhere between frightening and downright terrifying. There all sorts of stories about cases he’s given evidence in. I can believe the one about the juror who burst into tears and asked to be released from the jury, but not the defence counsel who had to dash out to change his trousers. Was there anything specific you wanted to know?”

“No, I think that’s more than enough.”

Much more. Until now, his main worry had been that he might be considering an unduly lenient option for a couple of young delinquents. Now he was also going to have to worry about whether placing them with Chris Larabee constituted a cruel and unusual punishment.

His first sight of the three of them was not reassuring. They were gathered in Orrin’s office, the boys dirty and sullen, Larabee a black-clad threat looming behind them.

“I’m afraid they’re straight from the street,” Orrin apologised. “We wanted to get this settled as quickly as possible. This is Chris Larabee. Chris—Tom Carrington. He’s one of the juvenile judges.”

“Grateful you could come at short notice, sir,” Larabee said. The boys were silent, looking at the judge with suspicion rather than respect.

“Would you like to explain to me just what you’re proposing for the boys, Mr Larabee?” He’d heard it in outline from Orrin, but he wanted to hear it from Larabee himself.

“I’d like them to be placed in my custody, and the charges against them to be reviewed in the light of new evidence we can offer. They’ve information that could potentially be vital in a case I’m building, and I’m also concerned about their safety. They may be able to identify one of the men behind an attempt today to ambush my team.”

“Would that be generally known?”

“It shouldn’t be. But a lot of information seems to have been leaking. We were set up today.”

Tom didn’t want to get into this; he’d already had a hint from Orrin that there might be an IA investigation soon. His job was to concentrate on the boys.

“You are aware of the serious nature of the charges against them,” he said. “In Tanner’s case it could be murder.”

“I didn’t kill Kincaid,” the scruffier of the boys said angrily. Tom noted that this was Vin Tanner—as unprepossessing a youngster as he might have expected, and clearly out of line.

Larabee’s hand dropped, warningly, on Vin’s shoulder, and Tom saw with interest the brief battle of wills.

Nothing was said between them, but Vin repeated, much more politely, “I didn’t kill Mr Kincaid, sir.”

The judge noted wryly that there was one person in the room whose authority the boy did respect. Now that he had silence, he went on, “I gather you’re disputing the evidence, Mr Larabee? You know there was an eye witness?”

“Eli Jo Chavez,” Larabee said. “The man’s just been arrested for trying to kill one of my team.”

“If you enquire of anyone other than the local custodians of law and order you will discover exactly what type of man Mr Chavez is,” the other boy said. Tom was taken aback. Nothing in Standish’s record had suggested he spoke like the more superior sort of counsel. There was that hint again, too, of a problem in the PD.

“Chavez’ testimony has to be suspect,” Larabee said. “He was holding a knife to my man’s throat this afternoon, and was part of an attempt to blow us and half a street up.”

Tom looked at the papers he’d brought with him. This certainly conflicted with the description of Chavez as a ‘respected local citizen.’ “All right,” he said slowly. “This obviously needs looking into. But there’s also the matter of abduction of John Dunne from his foster home.”

His experienced eye was on the boys as he said this, and he was surprised to see not guilt or apprehension, but distress. Larabee stepped forward, almost protectively. “John Dunne’s the other boy Orrin called you about. We believe his foster home was abusive—and we’ve discovered his care worker was suspended last week in the ongoing federal investigation into people downloading child pornography from the internet. JD was hit by a police car this afternoon, and injured. One of my men, Buck Wilmington, is at the hospital keeping an eye on his situation, and we’re asking for him to be given some kind of rights—maybe as a guardian—with the boy.”

Orrin had mentioned this, but not the context. The judge glanced again at his notes, abandoned them, and decided that ‘unusual’ was an inadequate word for this. He’d just have to rely on his instincts. The boy in hospital wasn’t a problem. “I can put your man in the position of a guardian,” he agreed. He turned to Travis. “You think there’s something in this accusation of abuse.”

“I do,” Orrin said firmly.

Tom looked again at Tanner and Standish. They were both silently hostile. They looked very much the delinquents their records suggested. Tanner was probably the veteran of a number of street fights, and Standish sounded as if he could sell shares in the Federal Reserve. But the evidence Larabee was offering in their favour did seem to have some merit.

“These boys helped save the life of one of my team this afternoon,” Larabee said now. He might not have meant it to sound like a challenge. And he might not have realised that he was looking at Tom more menacingly than any law officer ought to be able to look at a judge.

“I’m considering that in their favour,” Tom said. “Mr Larabee, when you say you want these boys placed in your custody, what exactly are you proposing? Not to keep them here, presumably?”

“I’ve a ranch.”

“It’s well out of the city,” Orrin said. “Difficult to access without transport.”

“The boys would be with one of my team at all times,” Larabee said.

The judge thought of ordering that to be at least two, but reconsidered. Instead he said, “There would need to be regular—preferably daily—visits from a case worker.”

“Josiah Sanchez, my profiler, has been involved in a lot of youth work. He recommends a Mrs Wells.”

Tom felt he was losing the initiative here, but it was a good choice. Mrs Wells would be excellent if she was available—and in the circumstances, he was prepared to pull any strings he could to ensure she was.

“All right, Mr Larabee,” he said. “Unorthodox as it is, given the unique circumstances I’ve decided to agree to your request. The boys will be placed in your custody, and you’ll become their legal guardian, initially for a period of sixty days. At the end of the sixty days, the three of you will attend a session with me at the juvenile court room, when we’ll review the situation.”

He turned to the boys. “You understand the arrangements that have been made for you?”

Standish looked bored, Tanner was looking at Larabee. They did both nod, though. He hadn’t been expecting gratitude. Actually, given that Larabee exuded all the personal charm of an attack dog, he’d wondered if they might protest, but if anything they seemed slightly relieved.

“You’ll let the hospital know about Wilmington?” Larabee asked.

“I’ll see it goes through tonight.”


“We’re all grateful, Tom,” Orrin said. “Now, if you’ve finished with Chris, I know Evie is hoping you might come and have dinner with us. Laura’s out of town, isn’t she?”

“New grandchild,” Tom said. He felt he deserved some of Evie’s excellent cooking. “Mr Larabee, I’ll be in touch to let you know about a case worker and the arrangements for the case review.”

Larabee nodded. “We’ll be heading out to the ranch then. Vin, Ezra, Judge Carrington gave up his time to come here and sort this out.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ezra said, without a trace of sincerity.

A mutter from Vin might have been the same words. Apparently it was acceptable to Chris, anyway. He turned to go, Vin following as close as a shadow, Ezra a wary pace or two behind.

“Thanks, Tom,” Orrin said as the door closed behind them.

“I hope we don’t come to regret it,” Tom said. “I’m not sure whether it’s Larabee or the boys I should be feeling sorry for.”

“Chris Larabee’s a good man.”

“He’s certainly a formidable one. On the other hand, they looked a pair of young ruffians, so perhaps the three of them deserve each other. If you’ll lend me your office for a minute, I’ll call the hospital about Wilmington and arrange to send the paperwork. Oh, and I’d better try to get in touch with Mrs Wells, too, before the pleasure of a meal with you and Evie distracts me completely.”

Josiah felt that things were moving a good deal faster than he could keep up with—like a rock rolling down the far side of a hill, perhaps. It wasn’t the case, though they had made some progress there. Vin and Ezra had identified one of Varon’s partners as the man they’d seen talking to Eli Jo, which might not make admissible evidence but opened up some lines of investigation. The explosives man they’d picked up had turned out to be wanted by the FBI, but he’d been hired by Eli Jo, as had the other men they’d picked up. Josiah had questioned them all, and didn’t believe they knew any more than that. Eli Jo himself wasn’t talking, but he’d already acquired a slick lawyer who ought to have been out of his price range.

No, he had no problem with the way the case was going. It was the prospect of Chris Larabee taking on two delinquent teenage boys that he was finding hard to get his mind around.

“Are you sure about this?” he’d asked when Chris first told him what he’d asked Orrin Travis to do.


“They’ll be difficult, probably disturbed, and they’ve got a reputation as running from everywhere they’ve been placed.”

“Vin won’t run,” Chris said, with a confidence that made no sense at all to Josiah. “And I don’t think Ezra’d go without him, though that might need watching.”

“The judge may not think the arrangement’s suitable.”

“I’m not going to se them locked up,” Chris said, in a tone that his team didn’t argue with. “I think the judge’ll see sense.”

People often did when confronted with Chris in a determined mood… All the same, Josiah was waiting rather apprehensively to find out what had been said. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d known Chris actually care about something the way he seemed to do about this. In fact, Chris had been different, less grim and impersonal, ever since the boys had appeared on the scene. Josiah had noticed it when Chris found time to reassure the young police driver, and in many small ways since then.

He looked up when he heard the three of them coming back.

He only needed to look once. It wasn’t that anyone was smiling, or even talking, but the tension was gone. Chris looked almost relaxed, and Vin and Ezra, who had been stiffly controlled earlier, had let go of that rigid self-possession, and looked as white and tired as normal youngsters might at the end of a harsh day.

“What exactly did the judge agree to?” he asked.

“I’ve custody for sixty days, and the charges will be looked at again. Oh, and he’s made Buck JD’s legal guardian.”

Chris said it almost casually, as if this wasn’t a startling upheaval to his life. “I’ll call Buck and let him know, then we’re heading out to the ranch. If you don’t mind the drive, maybe you could come along, put me in the picture about how you got on at the PD while the boys clean up and eat. Though we might need to pick up some groceries on the way… and some clothes I suppose…”

It was dawning on him, Josiah saw, just what he’d taken on. These two didn’t come with suitcases or report cards.

“We don’t need clothes buying us,” Vin said, and got surreptitiously elbowed by Ezra. “There’s places give out old clothes. We just been…”

“Out of circulation,” Ezra supplied.

“Yeah. Because of JD. We ain’t usually so…”

“So reprehensibly filthy. However we certainly have no objection to a newer wardrobe if you’re offering to purchase it.”

Vin elbowed him back, harder than he probably intended to, and Ezra, who had perched on the edge of a desk, fell off.

Chris hoisted Ezra back to his feet. “We’ll get you clothes from a store,” he told Vin firmly. “Now do the two of you want to ride together or one with me and one with Josiah?”

They rode together. Josiah had a feeling that Ezra, who was definitely still wary of Chris, might have considered the alternative if Josiah had owned a sports car or something with a touch of class. One sight of the suburban was enough. Ezra followed Vin to the Ram.

It was a couple of hours before they arrived at the ranch, but they had managed to buy enough groceries for a small army and several sets of basic clothes, and hadn’t lost either of the boys. Maybe Chris was right about them… or maybe they were just too tired to think of running tonight.

The ranch was silent and dark.

“Yosemite’s been over and seen to the horses,” Chris said to Josiah, seeing him glance towards the barn. “Did I tell you I got another two?”

Chris hadn’t told him anything about the ranch in the last couple of years, but Josiah didn’t say so. Vin and Ezra, who had been silent and withdrawn, looked at the barn with some interest.

“Some woman who Yosemite worked for occasionally asked him if he could find them a home. Her job got transferred to Europe. She’s spoilt them though. They’ve got some real bad habits.”

“Delinquents,” Ezra said, looking slightly less bored.

“Like us,” Vin agreed.

“Worse attitude than you,” Chris said. “Take those two horses to court, and the judge’d spend the whole session avoiding getting bitten in the ass.”

Josiah had forgotten how primitive the sixteen year old sense of humour was. Even Ezra seemed to find that prospect amusing. Rather to Josiah’s surprise both boys were interested enough in the horses to volunteer some questions. He would have thought they were very much city kids, but Chris seemed to sense that Vin had been around horses, and Ezra actually volunteered the information that he could ride.

They struggled into the house with bags of groceries and clothes. At least, Josiah, Chris and Vin did. Ezra carried the one expensive jacket and pants he had talked Chris into adding to the pile of shirts and jeans.

It was a long, long time since Josiah had been out to the ranch, and the last time it had been neglected and dirty. He was startled, to say the least, to find the kitchen spotless with every surface gleaming.

“Mrs Potter,” Chris said, seeing his expression. “Buck and I, we said some things a few months back… I guess you know that. Afterwards, when I’d cooled down a bit, I took a long hard look at this place. I knew Gloria wanted some work that gave her time for the children. It’s been rough for all of them. The hours suit her and it suits me that she takes care of the place.”

Josiah knew Mrs Potter, whose husband had been killed in a shooting their team had investigated. She and the children had, as Chris said, had a hard time. It was like Chris, even at his worst, to have thought of her.

“Trouble is, she worries I pay her too much,” Chris said wryly. “That’s why it’s so damn clean.”

Ezra seemed untroubled by it, but Josiah could see Vin was uncomfortable at the prospect of touching the surfaces. The boys did look grimier than ever against this hygienic background, and the fluorescent light emphasised the tiredness of their faces.

“Don’t worry about it,” Chris told them. “Mrs Potter would be glad to have some real dirt to clean off. I’ll show you the bathrooms, anyway…”

His cell phone rang before he could make a move to do that. Josiah hoped it might be Buck with some news, but the expression on Chris’s face went from surprise to anger to black fury. He slammed the phone down, and cursed Henderson fluently, in language that was a reminder of his years in the Seals. It made Josiah blink, and would certainly have appalled the judge. Vin and Ezra looked impressed.

“What’s Henderson done?” Josiah asked hastily, before Chris could improve their vocabulary any further.

Chris hesitated, perhaps deciding whether to send the boys off first, but Vin asked abruptly, “He’s let Eli Jo go?”

“Near enough,” Chris said.

“They wouldn’t dare,” Josiah said. “That’d be like an open invitation to IA.”

“It wasn’t that simple. Seems Eli Jo had—appeared to have—a seizure. They got the police doctor, did it all appropriately. While he was being transferred to an ambulance, he staged a miracle recovery. Injured one of the attendants, got away from the men escorting him, made a successful break for it.”

“It still looks bad,” Josiah said.

“But harder to prove, especially if the doctor’s known to be on the level. You can see how it could be done. That fancy lawyer slips Eli Jo some fast acting drug to simulate a heart attack or fit; they’d have to transfer him to a hospital. Henderson’s only got to make sure some of his cronies are the guards and the break is on.”

“He’s wanted now though,” Vin said. “Means he’s on th’ run. I c’n tell y’ places he might go. People he might go to.”

Chris nodded, accepting the offer with more respect than he accorded most adults. “Okay. You give me the possible contacts; I’ll get Travis to put some of our own people on it. Josiah—you show Ezra the bathroom and call Buck for me. Vin can get cleaned up when we’ve finished.”

Josiah showed Ezra the layout of the building. He found the youngster difficult to read, and it was the end of a long day, but he thought perhaps something more than tiredness was bothering Ezra.

“I don’t think you or Vin will need to worry about Eli Jo,” Josiah said tentatively.

“Eli Jo is a cretin. I wouldn’t waste a thought on him.”

Well, that had the ring of truth. Either Josiah had been mistaken or something else entirely was bothering Ezra. Whatever it was, he seemed to forget it at the prospect of a hot shower in a well-equipped bathroom. Josiah made sure he had everything he could need, and left him to it.

He called Buck, but Buck had already found out his new role from the hospital staff and was in a hurry to go to see JD now that he was settled in ICU. Josiah looked into the kitchen, and found Chris and Vin absorbed over a map.

“I ought to get back,” he told Chris. “With Buck staying at the hospital and Nathan out of action, one of us should be in town.”

“Travis has taken us off everything except the follow up to yesterday’s business, but you’re right,” Chris agreed. “Go check up on Henderson—put the fear of God into him. I got a call from that judge, and Mrs Wells is coming some time tomorrow morning, so I’ll wait here ’til she’s been. After that, I might get Nate to stay with the boys.”

He walked outside with Josiah. “Buck okay?” he asked.

“You know Buck,” Josiah said. “Marshmallow when it comes to a hurt kid. I think he’ll be at the hospital all night.”

Chris nodded, thoughtful.

“I’ll be off then,” Josiah said. “Call me if you need me, though.”

“You think I can’t manage two boys and six horses?” Chris asked, just the slightest quirk of a smile lightening his face.

Josiah turned hastily to unlocking the suburban, so Chris wouldn’t see him grin inanely. This was a side of Chris Larabee he’d almost forgotten he’d missed it for so long.

If the change was thanks to Vin and Ezra, the state ought to give them a free pardon and a medal apiece.

Buck couldn’t believe it when the nurse said that the situation was better than it might have been. JD looked smaller than he had done, and much too pale for anyone who was going to be all right, and there seemed to be monitors and tubes all over the place.

“He’s doing well, Agent Wilmington.”

He couldn’t remember her name. Trudi? Tracey? She was pretty and pleasant, but he couldn’t concentrate on anything except the little boy lying so still on the bed. The doctor had spoken to him, but in doctorese which he’d need Nathan to translate. He’d picked up a few positives, like no internal damage, and some real negatives, like the fact there might have been brain damage they wouldn’t detect ’til the kid woke up, but the rest had passed him by.

“You can hold his hand, and talk to him.”

They hadn’t washed JDs hands. Buck took one small cold one into his and absently noticed the ingrained grime. How could a bright, cute little kid like this have ended up on the streets? Chris had better be damn sure he was right about those older boys.

Vin woke sweating and shaking, and saw from the clock it was still just the early hours of the morning. He shifted uncomfortably in the too-soft bed with its too clean sheets. He didn’t fit in this room. It was all right for Ez. Ez knew how to live this way, washing all the time and having expensive stuff about the place.

He looked over at the other bed in the ranch’s guest room. Ez was asleep. They’d both been dog tired, too tired even to eat more than a mouthful, and once Chris had got word from the hospital that JD was out of surgery okay, it was like someone had flipped a switch on Ez. He hardly even complained when they realised no one had thought to buy anything to sleep in.

Vin didn’t care about that. He’d most all his life laid down in what he’d got on. A clean T shirt and boxers was pretty smart to go to bed in. He just wished he could stop waking up. This was the third time, and every time the nightmare seemed to get worse.

It was stupid. He knew JD hadn’t died, and anyway, it was a police car hit him, not Eli Jo cutting him with a knife, which was the way it kept playing in Vin’s dream. He threw the pillow on the floor, but the mattress was nearly as soft. His eyes closed, and there was Eli Jo, meaner and more vicious, and Vin knowing there wasn’t one thing he could do to stop him…

He jerked back awake, and this time he got up. He couldn’t stand just lying there. He’d go to the bathroom, maybe walk around the house a bit. He pulled his jeans on, then slid silently into the hallway, moving that way out of habit. Hard to believe it was just last night he’d slipped through the darkness to watch Chris a while, and had begun to guess he was setting a trap for Eli Jo and his gang.

Quite a lot of the doors were shut. He slid extra quietly past the one to Chris’s room, embarrassed to be waking up with bad dreams like some kid. He still couldn’t quite believe Chris had come through for them and saved them from lock up, even though when he’d met Chris’s eyes that afternoon it had startled him nearly out of his skin to see the understanding in them.

He’d known then Chris was the sort of man who’d do his best to get them justice. He hadn’t imagined he’d actually give them a place to stay.

He found the bathroom, but after he’d been in, he still couldn’t face trying to sleep again. He could just about get Eli Jo out of his head, but even when he was awake he couldn’t stop seeing JD lying there with the blood on the side of his face. If he lay down and closed his eyes, it was all going to start up again, and he was still cold and shivering from the last time.

He wandered a bit more, and saw a light in one room, Very softly he pushed the door a little further open. It was a study and the desk lamp had been left on—Chris must’ve forgotten it when he went to bed. There was a pile of papers there, and a whisky bottle and glass.

“Tell ya boy, there’s nothing stops th’ nightmares like whisky.”

The words were suddenly very clear in his memory. Old Jake, veteran of some long ago war, who’d been living on the streets since before Vin was born, used to keep a bottle by him when he could. He’d offered Vin a drink sometimes, but Vin had never risked losing the slightest edge off his awareness. Being sharp was what kept him safe.

He was safe here, because of Chris. Wouldn’t matter here.

He stood and looked for a while at the whisky bottle. His granda used to have a nip in his coffee at night; said it helped him sleep. Something that stopped the nightmares and offered a chance of some sleep was just about what he needed.

Wouldn’t be stealing. Chris had said help themselves to what they wanted. He knew there were laws about age and stuff, but hell, he lived like an adult most of the time, had been doing since he was younger than JD…

It was a mistake to think about JD. It started the scenes playing again in his head: JD, standing in the middle of the road; the screeching tires as the police car tried to brake; JD lying in the road, looking broken, looking dead…

He picked up the bottle. Weren’t like he wanted a lot, just enough to get to sleep. He wasn’t sure how much to pour, though. He and Ez were streetwise enough in other ways—but they’d stayed away from alcohol as well as drugs.

His granda used to measure a little bit out in the cap of the bottle, but that was to make it last; they’d never had much money. He looked at the glass, which he could see had been used. It wasn’t that big a glass, maybe half as big as a tumbler, no more.

Making his mind up, he filled the glass completely, and took a small mouthful. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, perhaps that it’d feel hot and strong in his mouth, but it was kind of smooth, though he didn’t like the taste much. He took another couple of swallows, and felt something like a warmth in his empty stomach. Didn’t seem to make much difference to the scenes in his mind, though.

He finished off the glass, and wondered if that was enough, and while he was still standing there holding it, looking at the bottle, the door opened.

He was startled and horrified to see Chris in the doorway—Chris in outdoor clothes, who’d evidently never been to bed. Vin stepped back, and the floor seemed not quite where his feet were expecting it to be. He stumbled and dropped the glass and it shattered into tiny pieces.

“Stand still,” Chris said quickly. He looked about as shocked as Vin was, and something else, some expression Vin didn’t understand, but he didn’t sound angry. Vin reckoned he would be—when he really took in what Vin had done. He stood still, trying to brace himself for it, although a strange feeling was creeping over him and blurring his thoughts.

“If you move you’ll cut your feet,” Chris explained. Vin looked down at his bare feet. They seemed further away than they should be, and he realised the room seemed to be spinning a little around him.

“How much did you drink?” Chris asked, pushing the sharp splinters to one side with his boot. He sounded… worried?

“One glass,” Vin said, and even just two words like that didn’t seem to come out quite clear.

Chris picked up the bottle and held it up to the light, checking the level. “Looks about right,” he said. “At least we won’t have to make a trip to the emergency room.” He looked down at the floor, and frowned. “I’ll have to sweep this up later, but I think the worst of it’s out of the way.”

He took Vin’s arm quite gently and guided him where the floor was clear. Vin concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other without giving in to the giddiness that was threatening him. By the time he got as far as the door, he realised Chris’s anger, which he’d seen unleashed on Henderson, wasn’t going to rip into him at all.

He glanced up, though it made his head spin worse, and met Chris’s eyes. For a long silent moment he felt again that odd sense of connection. It made him feel much worse than being yelled at would have done.

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Want to tell me why?” Chris asked, like a friend might ask it, like Vin didn’t have to tell him if he didn’t want to.

And Vin didn’t—only there seemed to be a hitch in the connection between his brain and his mouth, because he heard himself talking anyway. “Old Jake, he says how whisky stops him seein’ th’ bodies, says nothin’ else works as good. I weren’t lookin’ for a drink, but I just saw th’ bottle… I couldn’t sleep, ain’t used t’ a bed, ‘n…” He lost the thread of what he was saying and trailed off.

Chris stopped in the hallway, thought a moment, then instead of heading back to the guest room turned Vin another way. He still had a grip on Vin’s arm that was holding him steady as much as showing him the way. “You’re freezing,” he said.

Was he cold? Vin hardly knew. He’d been shivering when he was walking around, but now his stomach and his face were hot, and everything else felt a bit too far away.

Chris opened a door into a room Vin hadn’t seen before—an untidy room with battered furniture, books and a newspaper on the low table, and a big TV.

“This is the den,” Chris said, pushing him gently towards the large couch. “I don’t let Mrs Potter in here.”

The room wasn’t dirty, but it was kind of normal, and a relief to Vin after the spotless neatness of the guest room. He stumbled over his feet again, but he’d reached the couch, and Chris let him flop onto it. “Here,” Chris said, and Vin wondered what he was talking about until he realised Chris had taken off the jacket he was wearing and was expecting Vin to put it on.

The jacket smelt of horses and outdoors, and was warm from Chris.

“Sit there and don’t even think of moving. I’ll be back in a minute,” Chris said.

Vin wasn’t sure he could have moved, and anyway, he didn’t want to. His head was still spinning, and he just wanted to close his eyes. He slid over against the arm of the couch, and realised that the whisky hadn’t worked, because now that his eyes were shut, he could see it all again, the car and JD in the air and the sprawled body on the ground.

He was lifted upright, and blinked his eyes open. Had it been a minute? More than a minute, by the looks of it, because Chris was back, and there was a mug of coffee and a chocolate bar on the table. Chris held him upright with one arm, and stretched out his other hand for the coffee. “Drink this, and eat something,” he ordered.

The coffee was hot and strong and sweet. Chris must’ve remembered from earlier how he liked it. Vin gulped it down and ate the chocolate, and felt a bit more normal, except his mouth had still forgot it was supposed to wait for his brain.

“It don’t work,” he found himself saying. “It don’t stop y’ seeing it.”

“No,” Chris said quietly. “It doesn’t work. Stay clear of whisky. It’s a bad friend and it’ll lose you good ones.” He sounded kind of grim, but his arm was warm around Vin’s shoulders, and after a moment he went on, “JD’s going to be okay. I called Buck again after you’d gone to bed. The doctors and nurses say he’s doing well, and Buck can sit in with him part of the time.”

“He’s a nice kid,” Vin said, his eyes threatening to shut again. “He don’t deserve none of what’s happened to him.” He was glad someone was there for JD; they’d never let Vin and Ezra go near him now.

He hadn’t meant to say the last bit aloud; he only realised he had done when Chris answered. “Not yet, but I think we might be able to get you in for a visit once he’s out of intensive care.”

This time Vin did mean to say thanks, but it got mixed up with a yawn.

Chris took the empty mug from his hands and put it on the table. “Would you rather sleep in here than in the guest room?”

“Yeah.” He liked this room, the feel of the sagging couch, Chris’s stuff mostly left where he’d dropped it.

Chris tipped him over onto his side, reached for a knitted blanket that was covering a tear in one of the chairs and threw it on top of him. “Get some sleep then,” he said. “You can help me with the horses in the morning.” He sat down in the chair opposite Vin, and put his feet up on the table. “You hear me say I’ve six in the barn?”

“M’ granda worked with horses. Bin around ’em a lot when I was a little kid.”

“Good. I’ll tell you what to expect. First—and he likes you to know he’s first—there’s Pony. He’s a 15.2 hand black, a Quarter Horse… ”

The old couch had worn leather upholstery and dipping springs that rolled Vin comfortably against its back. He’d still got Chris’s jacket on, as well as the blanket. It was the most warm and safe he’d lain down in he didn’t know how long.

He closed his eyes, but he was listening to Chris. Horses took shape in his mind, black, sorrel, bay, cantering, and he realised they were crowding out the uglier pictures. The whisky couldn’t do it, but Chris could.

“Then there’s the two new ones,” Chris said. Vin knew, without making the effort to open his eyes, that Chris would be leaned back in the old chair, black-clad legs crossed, feet still on the table. “Peso—he’s a bad-tempered black devil, but he’s intelligent…”

Vin rode the words into sleep filled with horses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“C’mon, Ez. Yer wastin’ daylight.”

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

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

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

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

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

“If Mr Larabee permits it.”

“He said t’ call him Chris.”

“I doubt if he can make it compulsory.”

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

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

“Y’ had a shower last night.”

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

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

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

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

“He may find that presents some difficulties.”

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

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

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

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

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


“Kinda but with choc’late bits in.”

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

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

“You’ve been outside?” he asked Vin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps that was one of the new acquisitions.

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

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

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

“Do I have a choice?”

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

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

Or that he was confident of Vin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or perhaps it would.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Ezra couldn’t believe Vin would do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go and rescue him then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have y’ seen JD, ma’am?” Vin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“J.D.’s real clever ma’am,” Vin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Y’ goin’ somewhere?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boys had found it under its cover.

“Dirt bike!” Vin said.

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

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

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

That had to be educational.

“Well, what do I expect?”

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

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

“Henderson been talking to him?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Chris isn’t going to be there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I refrained from hurling myself into the dirt.”

“It don’t hurt.”

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

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

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

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

He went and left Nathan to get on with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I asked her to.”

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

“Why the hell not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buck nodded. “Okay. You done, now?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have trouble with the boys?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vin hesitated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He thought he heard Mr Larabee sigh now.

There was still some satisfaction to be had in life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“I’ll talk about it to Chris.”

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

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

“Do you need me?”

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

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

“Nod. Yeah. Why?”

“The kid that answered the phone…”


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

There was a long pause.


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

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

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

Buck heard Vin again, calling something.

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

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

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

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

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

“And Ezra?”

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

“Chris going to make him do it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know about it?” Chris asked.

“Will I get protection?”

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

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

“What about Henderson?” Chris asked.

“He’s bent.”


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

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

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

Josiah glanced at Chris.

“We’ll keep him,” Chris said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want a hand with that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How perspicacious,” Ezra said.

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

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

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

“Are our hours of study over?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You comin’?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The darkness was there.

The darkness was a person…

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

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

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

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

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

He would be taken back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It seemed an extremely painful process.”

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

“It’s hardly comparable.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Backpack?” he mouthed.

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

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

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

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

“That what you want?”

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

“Chaucer would miss you.”

“Perhaps he would. He seems remarkably intelligent.”

“The schoolin’ ain’t that bad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looking for something to do with the explosives?”

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

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

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

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

“She likes baseball,” she called after them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



“What sort of clothes. Why?”

“Jus’ clean clothes.”

“Well, where is he?”

“In th’ shower.”

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

“Yep. And shorts. Everythin’.”

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

His patience was wearing thin.

“You sure?”

“Yes I’m damned well sure.”

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

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

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

There was only one thing Chris could find to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I’m beginning to see that.”

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

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

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

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

“But now you are.”


“You want to talk to them?”

“Think they’ll listen?”

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

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

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

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

“Mr Wilmington?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Buck,” JD said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shock was mutual, luckily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you thinking?” Henderson asked uneasily.

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

“You can’t expect I’m going to…”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beavis snorted.

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

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

“Y’ want us t’ start studyin’?”

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re studying,” Buck said.

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

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

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

“We don’t go in here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some bastard had rammed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How bad is he?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no red Pickup in sight.

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

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

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

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

“We don’t want them arrested.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about JD?” Nathan suggested rather hesitantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. But what if it’s not enough?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“How could you have guessed?”

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

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

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

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

“Just past midnight already.”

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll find them again, Chris.”

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

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

Chris made one last effort. “Tell Buck…”

“That it wasn’t his fault?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do too.”

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

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

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

Anger ran through Vin, not hot anger but cold and controlled rage. It throbbed through his veins and gave him energy in place of the food he couldn’t face eating. Okay, people died. Seemed like if you loved them, you didn’t have them for long. But dying from illness like his mom, or old age like granda, that hurt but it was a part of life. It called for grief and holding onto their memories. What had taken Chris was murder, and that called for something else.

He felt Ezra shivering next to him under the boxes and garbage sacks. They’d found that was the easiest was to stay unseen in the alley behind Henderson’s bar. Ezra had thought of it. Vin knew vaguely that he was scaring Ezra, and he was sorry for it, but Ez was with him and backing him up and that was all that mattered.

They’d set their cover up earlier, moving cautiously when the alley was empty. It hadn’t been difficult, shifting full bags of garbage and piled up cardboard boxes from behind other premises. There was enough trash in the alley for no one to notice it was more piled up in a particular place. Smelt a bit, but Vin didn’t care, especially not now when it was working out as they’d planned.

He felt a savage satisfaction as he watched Henderson. They’d been more or less sure—same as most of the lowlife in Henderson’s patch—that this was where Henderson met the people who paid him to look another way. But one of Henderson’s men stood at each end of the alley, and no one would get to stroll out here through the bar while ‘business’ was being done, so he hadn’t been dead certain.

It was certain enough now. And thanks to Buck’s camera, and Ez knowing what to do with it, they were getting the shots that would prove it. Henderson wouldn’t be able to explain these away, especially as there were so many and in at least one case you could see the money changing hands.

The man talking to Henderson now was the fourth who’d drifted up in the last hour, and the second who Vin could recognise as a dealer. He wasn’t sure about the other two, but one of them he thought might have been connected to Mr Garriocci. If so, maybe that’d be another big nail in Henderson’s coffin.

Looked like Henderson was winding down now, and Vin eased back a little. His muscles were stiff with the tension of having been hidden here for hours. The man talking to Henderson turned and went, and Henderson was just gesturing to his men when his cell phone went.

Vin edged forward again, disturbing the sacks a little. He heard an almost silent indrawn breath from Ezra, but Henderson’s attention was on his phone. Vin wanted to hear this. What they’d got tonight might help to do for Henderson, but Vin had no idea where Eli Jo was, or how to get at Varon. Maybe it’d be one of them, and give him some kind of lead.

“What?” Henderson said, sounding startled and alarmed. “That’s impossible… He can’t have been… There was just no way… Look, even if Eli Jo’s right, Yates won’t talk… Yes, I’m sure… I can’t think there’s any way he’d end up in my custody; you’ve just about done for my credibility… There is NO chance anyone could connect him with you… I’ll find out what I can and I’ll meet you tomorrow, like we arranged, but you can pay me off then. I’ve had enough… No, I’ll meet you in the Boulevard, outside that central ‘Coffee n’ Cake’ place… 14.00… Just put the money in a document wallet, we both carry those.”

Vin leaned forward a little too far at the name Varon, and this time the garbage bag shifted further, audibly. Ezra’s hand bit into Vin’s arm, and he slid back further under the boxes, but not before Henderson broke off his conversation to say, “What was that?”

“Probably a rat, but I’ll take a look.”

That was one of Henderson’s men, who’d joined him during the phone call. Vin edged back quickly now, under their carefully arranged cardboard boxes. Always have your exit planned. They’d done their best, but the alley didn’t make it easy.

“Shit, nothing else had better go wrong tonight.” That was Henderson again. The garbage bag at the front of the pile was pulled away.

“Now!” Ezra hissed.

The building next but one to the bar was a cheap café that stayed open until the early hours of the morning. Their tunnel of boxes and garbage led towards its rear door. At Ezra’s word they jumped up scattering trash and bolted through the kitchen—not quite quickly enough for Henderson to fail to recognise them.

“It’s those fucking kids!” he yelled.

Vin knew that once they reached the street, they were going to have to run—fast.

Buck tucked the covers lightly over JD and looked at his watch. Just past half past two. Julie looked up and smiled as he came out.

“You’re good with him,” she said.

“I’m good in all sorts of ways, sweetheart,” Buck said, but the thought that his moustache really might wiggle when he exerted his charms put him off his stride. Before he could elaborate, Julie said, “I suppose as his guardian, you’ll know what the arrangements will be for when he leaves hospital?”

“Leaves?” He hadn’t even thought about it. “Surely it’ll be a while before he’s well enough to consider that.”

“Not that long,” Julie said, but then she had to hurry off to one of her other patients before he could ask just what sort of time scale she had in mind.

No one had talked to him about JD’s future. He thought about it now, and was troubled as he looked at the situation clearly. JD was only a little boy, not nearly old enough for the sort of arrangement Chris had with Vin and Ezra—and Buck knew his own limitations.

It wasn’t just the job he did, though that was an obstacle. It was him, too. He’d love to be a dad—he wanted to be a great dad—but he’d always pictured it with a mom at home. He just couldn’t see himself being able to organise school and shots and meals and clothes. He thought of his apartment and winced. It wasn’t just the mess. A couple of teams of maid service ought to be able to do something. But the area it was in wasn’t somewhere he’d choose for a kid. And then there was the problem of discipline. JD was going to be well enough sometime to need ‘no’ saying to him. Lovely kid as he was, it’d happen. Buck could do it, but he wouldn’t find it easy.

He found that while he was thinking he’d reached the room allocated to Chris without consciously noticing floor numbers or directions. The nurse here was older and more motherly, and unlikely though it seemed, she was warmly protective towards Chris. Buck was tempted to let her send him away, but Chris had given Josiah orders to let him know what happened.

“I won’t keep him talking for long,” he promised.

“He’s being very stoical, but he’s clearly still in quite a lot of pain,” she said. “I don’t think he’s actually asleep, but he was resting.” Her tone was reproachful, but she let him go in.

Buck hesitated in the doorway, looking at the drawn lines of discomfort on Chris’s face and his closed eyes. If he had just dozed off…

“Come on in, Buck,” Chris said without opening his eyes. “Heard you getting past Moira.”

“You up to talking?”

“Yeah. On a scale of one to a hundred this headache’s about ninety nine, maybe ninety eight if I keep my eyes shut, but I’d be grateful for something to take my mind off it. Did you get the truck driver?”

“Sure did.” This was the easy part, dealing with relatively good news. Quickly and concisely he put Chris in the picture.

“Good,” Chris said as he finished. “Who’s with him?”

“Travis is taking care of that. No one’s going to get to him.” He hesitated. “We’ve put the news out now that you’re okay—well, more or less okay—but there’s been a big pile up on the Interstate, so it’s not getting top billing.”

“It’s already an old story,” Chris said. “I’m not sure the boys would see any news, anyway.”

Which brought Buck to somewhere he didn’t want to go. He had to say it, though. He owed it to Chris and to himself. “Chris, about the boys… I am so damn sorry.”

Chris did open his eyes at that, and there was no hostility in them. “Buck, I don’t want you beating yourself up about it. It wasn’t your fault. Wasn’t anyone’s fault but this bastard, Yates… and whoever paid him. Vin and Ezra, they’ve been runners for a long time. They’re good at it. The one thing that might have turned them around was if I’d let the truth go out that I was okay—that was my decision, not yours.”

He closed his eyes again, grimacing, and Buck reached out a hand to his shoulder to steady him against the pain. “They’re good at looking after themselves I guess,” he said, slightly tentatively.

“Yeah. If I thought they were just hiding up somewhere I wouldn’t worry so much. It’s just… in some ways I see myself in Vin, and I’ve been thinking. They’re both sharp, they may have picked up on the fact that what happened to the Ram wasn’t an accident. I was lying here asking myself, if I’d been that age, had the sort of upbringing, or lack of it, Vin’s had, and I thought I’d lost a friend to a hit, what would I have done?”

Buck found it surprisingly easy to picture a feral sixteen year old Chris Larabee. “Hell, stud, you’d’ve been deadly even at that age.”

He realised what he’d just said. “Chris, you don’t seriously think they’d go after… well, who? They wouldn’t know any more than we do.”

“We know where to start looking,” Chris said. “So do they. And I’m not sure they’d have the reservations about the law that we have. We need to find them before they get into more trouble than even we can get them out of. Come the morning, I’m getting out of here.”

Buck looked at him. Chris was white where he wasn’t bruised, and his eyes were screwed up against what was obviously the headache from hell. His left wrist was in plaster, and he knew the doctors had done whatever they did these days for cracked ribs.

“They going to let you go?”

Chris’s swollen mouth twisted up in what was probably intended as a grin. “You be here with some clothes first thing in the morning, and we’ll take it from there.”

It was almost certainly a bad idea. Nathan, and the assorted medical staff unlucky enough to be responsible for Chris, would blame Buck as much, if not more, if he backed up his friend’s determination to get out of here. But what the hell. If this was what Chris needed—and if it brought that reckless grin back to Chris’s face—Buck would be right there beside him.

“First thing,” he promised.

Chris’s right hand came up to grip his in a clasp they hadn’t shared in far too long.

Ezra lay on the flat roof, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible and to quieten his fast breathing. Next to him, Vin seemed able to blend into the shadows as if he was less than solid himself—but for how long? The street wasn’t well lit, but the sky was showing ominous signs of dawn coming.

“Can’t stay here,” Vin whispered.

“What else can we do?”

They hadn’t achieved quite a good enough start over Henderson and his men. The police officers had come through the café more quickly than Vin and Ezra, who’d been impeded by having to dodge the irritated staff. Henderson had only to show his badge to get a clear run.

Vin and Ezra had had a couple of near misses of being caught, first by the men immediately behind them, then by a patrol car Henderson must have called in, and they’d been glad to find this temporary refuge. When they first scrambled up to the roof, they’d hoped Henderson might move on, thinking he’d missed them, or might decide they weren’t worth any more effort.

But Henderson seemed to want them enough to make it quite a major operation. There was a man at the end of the street they’d come from, watching several ways, and at least two cars around as well as the other men on foot, watching other junctions. Evidently although Henderson didn’t know exactly where they were, he was certain of the general area they were trapped in. And it was definitely getting lighter in the east.

“We still got th’ advantage,” Vin said softly. “We c’n make th’ far end faster than that guy. It’s getting busier along there now. We go straight across through th’ traffic. Far side of that road, there’s a small mall. Straight through there, through Mario’s, across the print shop yard and we’d be just about clear.”

Ezra pictured the route in his mind. If they were fast enough… if they managed to avoid being crushed by some half awake commuter… if Henderson didn’t have men in the mall…. They had little choice though.

“When?” he whispered.

“Soon’s the car’s been past th’ end again.”

One of the patrol cars had been driving a circular route; they’d seen it pass the end of the street again and again.

Vin slid forward a little to where he could see more clearly. If the car didn’t pass soon, they would have to go anyway, Ezra thought. He could already see Vin’s outline against the sky.

“That’s him!” Vin said abruptly. “Y’ ready?”


“On three, then.”

Ezra was just a second behind Vin as they jumped. He saw Vin running, then his own feet hit the ground… but hit unevenly, landing on rubbish as well.

His left foot skidded on something, probably a plastic drink bottle, and his ankle turned sharply under him. The pain was so sudden and so severe that it made him cry out as he went down.

Vin, already way ahead, paused and turned.

The officer from the end of the street was running towards them shouting into his radio.

“Go on!” Ezra yelled at Vin. “Run! You have to!” Vin could achieve nothing if he stayed to help. Free, he might be able to do something for Ezra or to complete their self appointed task. Only it was Ezra who had the camera—and Vin was already too far away to get it to him…

The sound of the patrol car returning made up Vin’s mind. He gave Ezra a last agonised look and bolted through the traffic.

The officer on foot reached Ezra and pushed him roughly flat. The movement sent another jolt of pain through his ankle. He tried to curl up and hold onto it. Seeing he really couldn’t run, the officer let him lie while he continued to speak urgently into his radio. The patrol car had turned in and pulled up alongside them.

Ezra felt one tiny glimmer of hope as the driver stepped out. It was the young man who’d been so upset about driving into JD. He wasn’t part of Henderson’s inner circle, and Ezra didn’t recognise the woman officer with him, so she might well not be, either.

The driver crouched beside him. “Are you hurt?”

“My ankle,” Ezra said. He had to make a very quick judgement, but the ability to assess people rapidly had been one of mother’s more useful lessons for life. He glanced at the other two officers and saw that their view was blocked by the driver squatting in front of him.

He pulled the small camera from his pocket and thrust it into the man’s hands. “Hide it,” he whispered. “Don’t let Henderson know about it. Get it to Josiah Sanchez of the ATF.”

He saw in the driver’s expression that he understood the implications of this. For what seemed a desperately long time, the man hesitated, then he slipped the camera into his own pocket.

“Josiah Sanchez?” he asked softly. “Can’t see the harm in that. Now let me see your ankle.”

Even anger had deserted Vin now. He was cold all through, cold and numb and despairing. Leaving Ezra behind had cut him adrift of his last support, and he felt that he was going under. But if he was, there were still two things he had to do.

The first was for Ezra.

He made it to the mall without much difficulty, and although most of the outlets were still closed a few food places and the washrooms were open. No one seemed to have followed him; Ezra had attracted all the pursuit. He went into the washroom, and took out the thinner lining of his jacket. He could wear that separately. The rest he rolled up so he could carry it. He probably ought to ditch it, but he wasn’t going to. It was a kind of link to the last two weeks. He’d wear it again this afternoon when he crashed Henderson’s meeting with Varon.

But at the moment the cops would be looking out for a long-haired kid in a bomber jacket. He spent most of the handful of coins he’d had in his pocket on a baseball cap with a picture of a Jolly Doughnut on it, and tucked his hair up inside. Short haired kid in a pale blue silky jacket. That should do. Now he’d go and see what had happened to Ez.

He stayed on his own side of the street, but he could see well enough. There weren’t just police there but an ambulance as well. Somebody had gotten medical help for Ez. That wouldn’t be Henderson, and it was good news: Ez would be at the hospital and not under Henderson’s authority.

He watched until the ambulance went, then found a call box. It was still early, and he got Josiah’s voice mail. That was a relief. He’d hoped not to have to speak to him directly.

” Josiah, you got to go to th’ hospital and help Ez,” he said. “I think he bust his ankle. The cops have sent him there, but Henderson’ll want him back. Don’t let them take him once th’ hospital’s done fixin’ him. And, ‘Siah, Ez don’t like hospitals. If they want t’ do much t’ his ankle, he’s goin’ t’ be dead scared. He had some great aunt or such died havin’ an operation, and it’s like a… one a them things like spiders or bein’ up high. Don’t matter whether it makes sense, he’s just scared ‘f it.” He paused, but as an after thought added, “Go get him, and if y’ hear anytime I done something, I done it fer Chris. We were tryin’ another way, but Henderson’ll have th’ camera now. Thanks, Josiah.”

He didn’t know how he’d found so much to say. Didn’t seem like so many words would come from the emptiness he felt.

He couldn’t think about Ezra any more, or Josiah, or anything but the next step in getting the men who’d murdered Chris. He’d got a few hours before the time when Henderson had arranged to meet Varon. Seemed likely they’d keep to that arrangement. Something had gone wrong for them; he’d picked that much up from listening to Henderson on the phone. They’d need to talk—and Henderson wanted his money.

Vin fingered the hardness of the Glock, rolled up in his jacket. No way he could get it unlocked. He needed someone who wouldn’t care where it came from nor mind that it screamed cop, someone who’d trade him another gun for it.

He shivered a little, partly because of the cold inside, mostly because he’d be taking a step into a world he’d always chosen to stay away from. The man he was going to have to do a deal with was a bastard, as bad in his own way as Eli Jo. But if he wanted a gun he could use he didn’t have a choice.

A first hint of doubt clouded his determination, but he pushed it away.

He’d do what he had to do, and when Henderson did meet Varon, he’d be there.

“I don’t care if I walk with a limp,” Ezra said, trying frantically to back against the wall, though the movement of his leg on the bed sent spasms of pain through him. “I don’t give my permission for an operation. I don’t give it for you to do anything at all.”

He knew he sounded as if he was losing it. He didn’t care. All he could think of was Great Aunt Emily. He didn’t want to die without even knowing it was happening. He didn’t want to die at all, but when he had to, he wanted to see it coming.

The Emergency Room nurse looked worried; the doctor, who had probably been told by the police to get Ezra dealt with quickly, was impatient and irritable. They turned away from Ezra, but only to confer, in voices just too low for him to hear. He looked longingly beyond them to the hallway, but he knew that if his foot touched the ground he would collapse in pain. He was trapped.

But surely even if they knew him to be a delinquent, that didn’t put him outside the reach of medical ethics. He could refuse treatment. Whatever they said about it being a minor operation, they would still have to anaesthetize him. He wouldn’t accept that.

Aunt Emily had been so cheerful, telling him that she’d soon be home and that he could come to stay with her, but she’d never woken up from the operation. Mother had said dismissively that she’d been eighty and had a weak heart, but that had taken nothing away from the nightmare of it for Ezra. Mother hadn’t really cared anyway; it had been Ezra who’d wanted to live with Aunt Emily.

“I don’t think…” the nurse said, her voice a little louder as she protested.

“Just do it,” the doctor said. “This is ridiculous. It’s simply a ploy to keep out of custody for a little longer.”

Ezra watched, alarmed, as the nurse went to a trolley and prepared a syringe. He didn’t know what was in it, but he was quite sure he didn’t want it injected into him.

“You have no right to do anything without my permission,” he said, trying to sound confident, his back now pressed against the wall.

The nurse, who he thought would have been kind if she had the chance, looked even more worried. “It says in his notes he has a guardian,” she said hesitantly.

The bitter irony of that was all it needed to make the situation even more unbearable.

“I’ve read his notes,” the doctor said. “Give him the injection.”

Ezra shouted his protests, and struggled to prevent her taking his arm. The doctor went to the door and called in a couple of orderlies to hold him.

“Nurse!” he said sharply as she looked at him in dismay.

“Surely you could try his guardian,” she said. Ezra almost stopped protesting to tell her how futile it would be, but he was too horrified by the sight of the needle. He couldn’t move at all now in the orderlies’ grasp.

“Give him the injection,” the doctor said, in a tone that allowed for no more discussion, and this time she obeyed. Ezra wasn’t sure if he could really feel the chill of whatever substance was invading his arm, but it seemed like it. He stared in horror at the tip of the needle sliding out from his arm.

The doctor was still justifying himself. “His guardian is some ATF agent—Larabee I think the name was—some deal to do with witnesses I expect. If the police want the kid, I imagine Larabee will thank me for getting on…”

“Well you imagined fucking wrong!” an extremely angry exclamation interrupted him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get away from the kid! You two—out of the room, now!”

Ezra froze. He didn’t dare to look up from the small pad of cotton wool the nurse was now pressing on the site of the injection. Was he imagining he knew that voice?

He couldn’t see how this could be real.

He didn’t want to find it wasn’t.

“What do you mean by bursting in here? Who are you?” That was the doctor, sounding outraged, but his angry question ended in a startled yelp.

“Chris Larabee, ATF, the guardian you were just deciding not to consult. Get out of here all of you; you’d better hope this hospital’s got some damn good lawyers.”

Ezra very slowly lifted his head. It sounded like Chris. The way the orderlies had dropped his arms and backed off in a hurry, that said Chris. But it was so impossible, and he was starting to feel so strange and dizzy that he wondered if he was dreaming.

The sight in front of him was… wonderful.

The doctor and both orderlies were backing for the door. Between them and Ezra, was a bruised, battered, half-dressed Chris Larabee, looking as angry as Ezra had ever seen him, and though he might be the stuff of nightmares for the doctor, he was certainly no dream. He had been in the wreck, Ezra thought, that must be why he was hurt. But he was here, and somehow, miraculously, alive.

Chris sat on the edge of Ezra’s bed, with a grunt that suggested he was glad to sit down, and held out the arm that wasn’t encased in plaster. “Okay, Ez. It’s all right now. Come on.”

Ezra blinked. The strange feeling, a sort of giddy drowsiness, was increasing, and he was finding it rather hard to focus, but he edged away from the wall towards Chris and let himself be gathered into a surprisingly strong one-armed hug. His head, suddenly too heavy to hold up, dropped against Chris’s shoulder, and he didn’t try to lift it. He felt safe. His thoughts were slipping and sliding now, but he knew one thing clearly. Mother hadn’t even been able to come back from the next state for him, but Chris Larabee seemed to have come back from the dead to his rescue. You could trust a man who did that.

Ezra stopped fighting the warm sleepiness that was relaxing him. He was so tired, and the relief of being able to let go and let Chris take charge was overwhelming. Chris was saying something, but only a little of it filtered through to him. Something about lying him down, about staying with him, about Vin having told them where he was…

Vin. Did that mean they had Vin here? He wanted to ask, but his voice had gone to sleep. He’d have to wake up in a minute, to tell Chris he didn’t want an operation, and to make sure Vin was okay, but for now he was just too tired…

It was comfortable lying down.

The hand wrapped around his was Chris’s. A long way off, so was the voice.

He listened to it for a while, putting off the moment of waking up, but although he still felt slightly odd and drowsy, the overwhelming sleepiness seemed to be lifting.

“Come on, now, Ezra. You going to open those eyes for me?”

What was it he’d been thinking he must say? “No operation,” he mumbled. “Don’ wan’ it. Where’s Vin?”

“I was hoping you’d tell me about Vin,” Chris said. “And Ez, the operation’s over. It’s all done. You’re fine.”

He did open his eyes at that. “Done?”

“They let me stay with you,” Chris said. “In fact, they’re bending over backward to cooperate now. The operation was only a minor one and it was a complete success. Your ankle’s going to be fine. I think they’ll let you come home tonight.”

Ezra felt a dazed mixture of relief and disbelief. Something wet trickled down the side of his face and he blinked fast. How long had he been asleep? He could see Chris had never left—he was still half-dressed, still staying between Ezra and anyone who might be a threat. Chris leaned forward and lifted Ezra just a little, so that he could see his neat plaster cast, then eased him back and brushed away the wetness for him.

“It’s okay,” he said quietly.

But it wasn’t, Ezra realised, not quite, not yet.

“Vin? He told you I was here?”

“He left a message on Josiah’s cell phone. I was hoping you could tell me where he might be.”

The remaining fuzziness in Ezra’s mind was clearing fast now. “What time is it?”

“Nearly midday.”

“Chris, you have to find him. We heard Henderson arrange to meet Varon at two o’clock. Vin thinks I lost the camera.” He saw that this wasn’t making enough sense, and quickly explained about their plan and how they’d overheard Henderson arranging the meeting. “I gave the camera to that officer who ran over JD, and I asked him to give to Josiah.”

“He may have done,” Chris said. “I know Josiah was coming, but he hadn’t got here when they took you into surgery, and I haven’t been out since. He’ll be waiting to hear how you are.”

Chris had stayed with him all the time…

But Ezra could not allow his thoughts to wander. What mattered now was stopping Vin doing something disastrous. “Vin thinks it was Henderson and Varon who had you killed,” he said to Chris. “I don’t know what he’ll do. We took Buck’s gun as well as the camera. It was locked, but…”

He saw that Chris understood.

“Two o’clock?” Chris asked.

He went to the door, called someone, and a minute or two later, Josiah appeared escorted by a nervous orderly.

“How is it that everyone in this hospital seems to be jumping to obey your slightest request?” he asked Chris. “They wouldn’t let me in before.”

Chris made a face that might have been a grin if his mouth had been the normal size. “They’re hoping I won’t sue them on Ezra’s behalf.” He rested his hand reassuringly on Ezra’s shoulder for a minute, then stood up. He moved rather clumsily and steadied himself against Josiah. “Will you stay with Ez while I get dressed and catch up with a couple of things?”

“My pleasure,” Josiah said, coming to sit down next to Ezra. “You sure you’re okay, Chris?”

“Fine,” Chris said. As he got to the door he glanced back. Ezra, who’d seen him neatly remove Josiah’s car keys from his pocket—mother would have been impressed—understood what he meant as he tapped his watch. Chris was going to be there when Henderson met Varon, and he wasn’t taking anyone else along. He really had understood the dangers of what Vin might be planning.

Ezra settled back on the bed. If anything could be done, Chris would do it.

“You just rest, son,” Josiah said.

Ezra decided not to protest the undue familiarity. There was something undeniably solid and comforting about Josiah’s presence, and he still felt tired. Josiah’s voice rumbled on, talking about the ingenuity Vin and Ezra had shown using the camera, and about the young policeman who’d had the courage to go against his peers and bring it to him.

Ezra thought about Vin, and about going home.

Nathan wouldn’t have believed he could feel so angry with an injured man as he was beginning to feel with Chris Larabee.

He and Buck had arrived at the hospital at the end of a long and frustrating session with Yates, who was stubbornly sticking to his weak story. A series of calls from Josiah had started with the news that Vin had been in touch and Ezra was in hospital. Buck and Nathan had checked in every time they’d taken a break, but apart from the fact that Ezra had to have a small operation on his ankle, Josiah’s main news seemed to be about some photos of Henderson that looked like proof of his dishonest dealing. They’d wanted to see Chris and Ezra anyway, but now they had an additional reason for going in, to pick the camera up and assess the value of what was on it.

They’d tried to get Josiah again on the way to the hospital, but he’d switched off his phone, and they guessed he’d finally been allowed in to see Ezra. It was slightly surprising that Chris didn’t get in touch if Ezra had been able to tell him where Vin was, but they didn’t think a lot of it until they got to the hospital and couldn’t find him anywhere.

Josiah, sitting beside a dozing Ezra, had told them Chris had left more than an hour earlier. “He just said he wanted to get dressed. Are you sure he hasn’t gone for a coffee or something.”

At that point, Nathan had begun to feel alarmed, but he couldn’t see how Chris would simply have left without a word to anyone. He’d looked at Ezra, but Ezra’s eyes had stayed closed. They could hardly wake him to ask if he had any idea where Chris might have gone.

He started to feel differently when it became obvious Chris just wasn’t in the building. They looked everywhere, likely and unlikely, then Buck described him to the man on the door, who thought a man looking like that might have left. That was when Nathan’s concern began to shade into anger.

“You sure he didn’t say anything else, Josiah?” Buck asked as they returned to Ezra’s room to confer.

Josiah frowned, thinking. “No. He seemed a bit unsteady when he stood up—leaned on me, which isn’t like Chris—but after that he was okay, and he just went off. Like I said, he’d not even finished dressing when he got my call, and he’d been with Ezra ever since.”

“He’s been back to his room,” Buck said. “His shoes and jacket are gone.”

“But why would he go out?” Nathan said. “Especially without calling one of us. He’d have had to get a taxi.”

Josiah looked thoughtfully at Ezra. Nathan, seeing his expression, realised there was something rather determined about the way Ezra was sleeping through their conversation.

“Ezra?” Josiah said, shaking him very gently. “I know you’re awake. Did Chris give you any idea about where he might be going when he left?”

“You were here,” Ezra said without opening his eyes. “You know he didn’t say anything.”

That was a neat evasion, Nathan thought. He could only imagine one reason why Chris might have allowed Ezra and no one else to know his plans.

“Has he gone to get Vin?” he asked.

Ezra was still not quite back to his normal self; a flicker of expression showed.

“Damn it!” Nathan didn’t want to think about Chris taking himself off unaccompanied, with newly treated injuries and a lingering concussion. “What was he thinking of. We’ll have to find out where he took the taxi to…”

He broke off, seeing an extraordinary expression cross Josiah’s face, a strange blend of disbelief, anger and even amusement.

“What is it, Josiah?” Buck asked.

Josiah felt again in his jacket pocket. “He hasn’t taken a taxi. He’s lifted the keys to my car! I thought it wasn’t like him when he had to hold on to me!”

“He’s driving?” Nathan was really alarmed and angry now. “He must be out of his mind! With that wrist and concussion—he’ll be a danger to himself and everyone else. Where has he gone?”

All three of them turned to Ezra, and he flinched, moving hastily back on the bed.

“It’s all right, son,” Josiah said quickly. “We’re just worried about Chris. He shouldn’t be driving. Has he gone to get Vin?”

Ezra hesitated. “What time is it?” he asked.

Nathan was puzzled as to why that mattered, but he answered anyway. “Half past two.”

Apparently this meant something to Ezra. “In that case, I suggest you try the Boulevard,” he said. “That may have been where he was going.”

Nathan was angry with Chris, for not trusting them with whatever it was as well as for doing something so reckless, but he didn’t want to include Ezra in that. Carefully controlling his voice, he said, “Thanks. All we want to do is to bring him and Vin back safely, then get you all home.”

He would never have expected to see the slightly wistful look on Ezra’s face that the word home provoked; it was instantly concealed, but it opened Nathan’s eyes to a hidden side of the kid.

“I’ll stay here,” Josiah said, sitting down next to Ezra again. “If Ezra thinks of any more precise directions, I’ll call you.”

Nathan followed Buck quickly through the hospital.

“Don’t say it,” Buck advised, glancing at him. “Children might be listening.”

“I just can’t believe Chris would do something so stupid,” Nathan said. “I mean—why?”

Buck, his long-legged strides speeding up even more, only shrugged. “Guess the only way we’ll find out is to catch up with him.”

Vin pushed his way along the Boulevard, which was busy with Saturday shoppers. No one was paying any attention to him. He’d kept the stupid baseball cap, because it made him look so different, but he probably needn’t have bothered.

He’d still got at least half an hour before Henderson and Varon were likely to show up. He wished he hadn’t. Seemed like every minute that passed he felt less confident about what he was planning to do.

It had all been clear in his mind after he realised Ezra had been caught and the photos lost. He would get a gun he could use, and he’d be there when Varon paid Henderson off. He wouldn’t shoot to kill; that was a line he couldn’t cross. Instead he’d fire to bring both of them down while the evidence of the payoff was there. It’d be hard for them to cover it up in those circumstances.

It didn’t seem so clear now. It wasn’t the details that bothered him, though he hadn’t expected the Boulevard to be so busy—hadn’t even remembered what day of the week it was come to that. It was the plan itself.

His unease had started when he’d found Jose, to strike a deal over Buck’s gun. Jose had been cooperative enough; he’d always wanted to drag Vin into working for him. Vin knew guns better than a lot of the kids.

But lying, thieving and murder were behind Jose’s money, and it wasn’t just guns he traded in, he had profitable sidelines in drugs and girls. Vin felt kind of dirty from having to deal with him—and he knew Chris would’ve busted Jose soon as look at him.

He didn’t seem to be able to stop thinking of Chris’s reactions to what he was doing now. It had started during the night, and the longer he went without eating or sleeping, the more it seemed to happen, like he could almost imagine Chris walking alongside, warning him, pulling him back from the edge.

“Good doing business with you, boy,” Jose had said as he left. “You get me more guns like this one—there’s opportunities in my business for a bright kid like you.”

Vin shuddered when he thought about it. He’d never willingly become a part of Jose’s world.

It didn’t take him long to find the right place, a broad area outside the coffee bar, which was set back from the street. He didn’t want to wait too obviously, though. He moved a little further along, looking in store windows. Ez would have liked this one, with clothes that cost more than Vin could believe anyone would pay. He wished he knew how Ez was but Josiah would have known what to do. For a moment he thought of the big man’s rumbling voice and undemanding kindness, but it seemed remote and not quite real. It had been part of the world around Chris, and without Chris it was all fading away.

Henderson didn’t come alone. Vin hadn’t expected that. Three of them came, Henderson and his two closest buddies. Vin recognised them though he didn’t know their names. He edged back towards them, and saw with surprise that Henderson was nervous.

Vin fingered the gun in his pocket. Couldn’t be that Henderson guessed about him. Something else must be worrying him. The three cops stood there, waiting for Varon. Vin didn’t really know Varon, though he’d seen a couple of photos of him. He’d be able to tell once the meeting started though. He started to look for a good position.

Vin was quite close to them by the time Varon arrived. There were still people in his way though. The gun he had wasn’t much good, nothing like the quality of the one he’d traded for it. He wasn’t sure how accurate he could rely on being, and he didn’t like the shifting, moving crowds.

A rifle would have been better. He waited and wondered why Varon wasn’t getting on with the payoff, and thought how much easier it would have been if he could have afforded one. Granda had said he was a natural with a rifle and taught him until he was a good enough shot in spite of being a kid. He could have found a place high up.

He glanced up at the office block opposite. Would have been easy enough to get up there.

He was probably the only person in the street looking in that direction. Most of the offices were shut on a Saturday, and there was nothing to see. At least, there shouldn’t have been.

What Vin did see turned his planning upside down and made him instantly understand Henderson’s nervousness. It was Varon who Henderson was afraid of, and he was right to be—he was probably the one man who could definitely bring Varon down.

Vin had to make a rapid decision, but it almost made itself. “Rifle on you!” he yelled at Henderson. “It’s Eli Jo Chavez. Second floor opposite, third window along.”

He’d shouted in time for the police to see what he had seen: Eli Jo’s unmistakeable greasy head behind a rifle barrel. It was just too late for Henderson though. Even as he and his men looked up, Eli Jo must have fired, though Vin never heard the shot. Henderson jerked sharply backwards, arms flying out, and fell across the coffee bar entrance.

Hit in the chest, part of Vin’s mind assessed, but he was already moving. One of the men with Henderson was running towards the office block, the other was kneeling beside his boss calling urgently for assistance and back up. Varon had stepped back, looking alarmed.

No one was going to get Eli Jo, Vin thought. The back up wouldn’t be here fast enough, and the cop who’d gone in was alone. Eli Jo was cunning enough to have planned his exit. He’d have some kind of vehicle in the basement parking lot, and have held the elevator ready. It’d all have been planned out.

Unlike the cop, who was somewhere inside the building, Vin ran around to the exit from the basement. There was a lot of shouting and noise on the street now, but none of it seemed directed towards him. He reached the top of the exit ramp, and heard a car engine. All his uncertainty had gone. He knew what needed doing here. The car turned up towards him, he recognised Eli Jo, and fired repeatedly into the car and at the radiator and tires. Eli Jo had ducked but he had to hit something.

He did.

A tire burst and the car slewed towards him. He dived hastily out of the way, losing his gun and cap as he landed and rolled. The car crashed into the concrete barrier, barely two metres from him.

Vin scrambled up, and saw Eli Jo smashing out the crazed glass of the windshield. As if in slow motion he saw that Eli Jo’s hand was coming up and there was a gun in it.

The shot sounded, and he felt nothing—and then he saw Eli Jo slump forward amid fragments of glass, and a trickle of blood from the hole in his head start to spread across the hood and drip towards the ground.

Vin stared numbly for a second, then turned to see who had fired.

The dead man in the car had shocked him, but not nearly so much as the one he saw now, a dead man walking.

“Chris?” he whispered stumbling back a pace. He saw Chris’s battered face, white under the bruises, and the gun in his hand, and old childhood superstitions resurfaced. Chris looked like a ghost come back for vengeance on the men who’d had him killed.

But Chris came to him hastily with a very unghostlike limp, thrust the gun away, and pulled Vin close, and Vin realised that he was flesh and blood, warm and solid and somehow, impossibly, alive.

“It’s okay; it’s over,” Chris said, and somewhere behind them there was a noise of sirens and voices.

Vin started to shudder, tremors juddering violently through him as if someone had gotten him by the shoulders and was shaking him until his teeth rattled together. Without Chris’s arm it felt like he might have shaken apart. But Chris was there, holding him, and drawing his shattered world back together.

“Ezra?” Vin managed to ask between chattering teeth.

“He’s safe in the hospital and Josiah’s with him. He thought you’d have come here. Thought you wouldn’t know he’d got the camera to Josiah.”

Chris sounded kind of shaken too. He and Ezra must’ve guessed at Vin’s plans. Vin suddenly realised how close he’d come to disaster. If he had shot Henderson and Varon, and then found out Chris was alive…

He almost staggered under the thought, and Chris held him tighter; but he gasped a bit as he did it, and Vin remembered he was hurt.

The sirens were next to them now, and someone was shouting.

“Larabee, ATF,” Chris said quickly. “That’s your shooter in the car—Eli Jo Chavez; you’ve been looking for him for the last couple of weeks, you should know his face.”

“Not that much left of it,” someone said.

“Captain Larabee, are you okay, sir?” Young. Full of respect for Chris. Vin had heard that voice somewhere before.

“I’m fine,” Chris said, but even in that brief answer his voice sounded strained. Vin pulled back just a little to look at him properly.

“Y’ain’t,” he said.

“I’m better than I look,” Chris said, but it was close now whether he was hugging Vin or Vin was propping him up.

“Why don’t you sit down in my car?” Vin knew the speaker now. It was the rookie driver who he’d seen around several times before.

The car was close. Chris walked slightly unsteadily to it, and Vin stumbled beside him on legs that were still shaking a bit too much. Chris pushed him gently to get in first, then sat next to him with a sigh of relief at being able to lean back. He slid his arm around Vin again.

“I’ll get my breath back,” he said, though his voice was still tight with discomfort, “then we’ll do something about getting Ezra and going home.”

Vin felt like he was already home.

There was a lot he didn’t understand about what had happened, and a lot he was going to have trouble explaining, but none of it mattered beside the fact that somehow, against all the odds, Chris was here and alive. Okay, Chris was kind of battered and Vin felt like a few miles of bad road, but that’d pass.

He glanced at Chris, and saw he was thinking the same thing. Chris’s mouth tried to make that half smile that Vin hadn’t expected to see ever again and his arm closed warmer around Vin’s shoulders.

Vin loved living on the ranch, but it wasn’t the place that really counted. Where Chris was, that was home.

Chris hadn’t intended to close his eyes. It was the damn emergency vehicle lights. A headache like the one pounding in his skull really didn’t need flashing lights as an accompaniment.

No one seemed to need his input just at the moment. He had a feeling the young driver who’d loaned them the back seat of his car—he really had to find out the guy’s name—might be fending people off. That was okay by Chris. He just wanted to sit still, feel Vin stop shaking under his arm, and let the relief seep in.

He’d driven here somehow, fear of what Vin might be going to do pushing him past the barriers of pain or common sense, and had been hurrying along the Boulevard towards the group in front of the coffee shop when he’d seen Henderson go flying backwards, evidently shot. He could still feel the utter panic that had gripped him then.

It was only as he saw Vin start to run, that he realised the man with Henderson was shouting something into his radio about Eli Jo, and that people were pointing up to the office block windows. He’d paused, just for a second, to confirm that it was Eli Jo who’d done the shooting, then carried on after Vin.

That had been the second moment of panic, seeing Eli Jo standing up in the wrecked car about to fire at Vin. Luckily, despite hands shaking from the exertion and vision still slightly blurred, he’d hit Eli Jo where he’d aimed.

How Vin had managed to keep some sort of control after seeing that and coming so close to being shot, let alone having Chris turn up like the ghost at the feast, he didn’t know. Apart from the tremors still running through him occasionally, Vin was handling it though. He was leaned rather heavily against Chris’s side—luckily the one that wasn’t competing with Chris’s head to torture him—but he was okay. Maybe in a few years, Chris could recruit Vin and Ezra; they’d certainly got what it took…

Chris’s cell phone was out of battery, but he’d used the police radio to get a brief message to the hospital, to Josiah, that he’d picked Vin up and everything was okay unless you were Eli Jo or Henderson. He didn’t know if Henderson had been killed or badly injured, and he hadn’t the energy just now to find out. He thought he’d rest a bit while the police were fully occupied, then he’d get someone to run him and Vin to the hospital. He’d have to make a handsome apology to Josiah, but it had been in a good cause.

“You talked to Ez?” Vin asked. Apart from being rather quiet, his voice sounded almost normal now.

“I was already at the hospital,” Chris said. “Josiah called me, and I got there in time to stop some arrogant bastard of a doctor bullying him. I stayed with him after that, while they fixed his ankle up. He’s fine. They said he could go home today.”

“Good.” Vin was silent a little while. “We thought you were dead.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Vin. I thought you were with Josiah, and we’d told him I was okay—the news story was to fool the guy who’d rammed me. I could ID him, so if he knew I was alive…” He trailed off. How did you apologise for putting someone through that? All he could do was offer wordless regret by drawing Vin a bit closer.

He thought Vin had every right to be angry, but Vin just said, “Guess we shouldn’t’ve run,” and stayed comfortably where Chris held him.

“Doesn’t matter now,” Chris said. “We’re here, we’re okay.”


The silence between them was peaceful. That was when Chris closed his eyes, and they must have stayed shut for longer than he intended, as he drifted into a half sleep.

It wasn’t some sixth sense that made him return to alertness, though maybe it should have been.

It was Buck’s voice, saying “Don’t wake them, Nate. They must need the sleep.”

He opened his eyes hastily. They were standing there by the open door, Nathan looking like wrath and judgment, Buck simply relieved.

“Hi, boys,” Chris said, which gave the final ignition to Nathan’s anger.

“What the hell did you think you were doing?” Nathan demanded. “Have you any idea how dangerous it was for you to be driving? You haven’t even been discharged from the hospital yet; you’ve got a broken wrist, your ribs are cracked, if you ever had any sense in your head the bump you got would have knocked it out. Why didn’t you call one of us instead of picking Josiah’s pockets for his car keys?”

“Y’ did that?” Vin asked, impressed.

“I don’t think you should be disturbing Captain Larabee,” their friendly driver said, coming up. “He looks as if he needs the rest.”

Chris wouldn’t have believed you could tell if Nathan turned puce, but you could. “It’s all right,” he said hastily. “They’ve just come to give me a lift to the hospital, if you can wait for my statement.”

“They can wait,” Nathan said grimly. “You should never have been out of the hospital in the first place.”

“Eli Jo’d’ve shot me if Chris hadn’t been here,” Vin said, not prepared to have anyone question Chris’s judgment.

“It was you got him was it?” Buck said. “We only heard he’d shot Henderson and been killed trying to escape.”

“Henderson’s lucky he was wearing a vest,” Nathan said.

“He’s okay then?”

“Cracked rib, hit his head hard as he went down. He’ll be fit to start answering IA’s questions soon enough. Lot of recognisable photos on that camera, Josiah says.”

Chris could see some interesting possibilities here. “Wonder if he’ll try to bargain by giving evidence against Varon; he must know that with Eli Jo as the shooter it’s odds on Varon arranged the hit.”

“Team 3, Internal Affairs and plenty of other people are dealing with that,” Nathan said, not allowing himself to be distracted. “All we need to worry about is getting you back to the hospital.”

Chris gave in gracefully. The thought of being prescribed some effective painkillers had its attractions, and he wanted to give Vin and Ezra a chance to see each other as soon as possible.

“You and Buck come together?” he asked. “Whose car?”


“Take the suburban back then,” Chris said, tossing Buck the keys. That might mollify Josiah a little.

It would probably take more than that to improve Nathan’s mood, but in spite of everything, Nate’s arm was gentle as he helped Chris over to his car, and he was quiet and reassuring with Vin. Chris had a good team.

“We’d best let Ezra see you’re both okay,” Nathan said as they reached the hospital. “Then you get checked over, Chris. Don’t imagine your doctor is going to be too happy with you.”

Chris didn’t tell him that no one in the hospital was likely to offer anything but absolute cooperation to him; he just enjoyed the look on Nathan’s face when it happened. His doctor was thorough and professional though; he had to admit, they all had been—even Ezra’s had been competent, just obnoxious. Nathan listened to the list of things Chris could and couldn’t do, and collected his prescription; Josiah did the same for Ezra. By the time Buck had returned the suburban and paid a hasty visit to JD they were cleared to go.

The thought of getting back to the ranch gave Chris his second wind. He sent Buck and Josiah to liaise with the other groups over Henderson and Varon; he and the boys would travel with Nathan, borrowing a wheel chair for Ezra to use when they arrived.

“We’ll come out to the ranch later,” Buck said.

Chris knew the feeling. Sometimes, after a run of action like they’d just had, it was good to have everyone under one roof. He wanted to know what was happening on the case, anyway. He had every intention of staying alert until Buck and Josiah arrived, and neither Vin nor Ezra responded well to Nathan’s suggestion that everyone should lie down, but once they’d gained their point and put on the TV in the den while Nathan heated some soup, it was surprising how difficult it was to stay awake.

Chris had Ezra on the couch next to him, his legs carefully propped on a cushioned table, while Vin pulled up a bean bag. It was kind of peaceful, and the movie was an old one. They did keep their eyes open for long enough to drink the soup, though, and even Chris’s stomach welcomed it.

“Why don’t you just go to bed?” Nathan said, taking the empty mugs and doling out painkillers to Chris and Ezra. “You’d be more comfortable.”

“We’ll watch the end of the film,” Chris said.

He was as a matter of fact quite comfortable where he was. Ezra was leaning on his good arm, and Vin was using his knees as a backrest, but he didn’t object to that. It was good to know where they were. Nathan looked at them all and, reluctantly, grinned. “Guess there’s more to recovering than just lying in a bed. You shout if you need me, I’m going to clear up in the kitchen and call Rain.”

“Nate,” Chris said quickly before he could go. “Thanks. Tell Rain I’m sorry she’s had to .”

“She’ll sympathise with me about the hard time my boss gives me,” Nathan said, but he was joking now—at least, Chris was pretty sure he was joking. “You want me to wake you when Buck gets here?”

Chris nearly said that he wasn’t planning on going to sleep, but the painkillers were kicking in and his eyes were heavy. Ezra had already dozed off, and Vin was yawning. Might as well accept it. “Thanks,” he said again, and if Nathan did look in before that, he wasn’t awake to notice it.

Buck squeezed in a hasty visit with JD while Josiah finished up with the PD and Orrin Travis; they’d head out to the ranch separately.

“Mrs Wells came again, with Casey,” JD told him. Buck could see the improvement in him every day now. “Casey’s all right for a girl. We played Connect 4 and a game with hippos and she’s got a Gameboy. She’s not much good at sharing though; she was just going to make me watch, but Mrs Wells said she had to give me a turn. She says I’m so much better now I’ll soon be able to go to her house and play with Casey there.”

Buck was going to have to talk to Nettie, he decided. She knew better than he did what sort of options there would be for JD now. The thought of the boy’s future occupied him most of the way to the ranch; that and the question of what a Gameboy was and where you bought one.

He was nearing the ranch when he saw lights not far behind, and guessed it was Josiah. They pulled in together, and Nathan was at the door before they reached it. “Come in quietly,” he said. “They’re all asleep, and I’d rather they stayed that way for a while. Have you eaten?”

“Burger and a Snickers bar,” Buck said. It was just too easy to push Nathan’s buttons. Worth it, too, because they were instantly hurried into the kitchen for some soup, hot rolls and fruit.

“Chris okay?” he asked as he emptied his bowl.

“Stubborn, got no sense, ought to have gone straight to bed…” Nathan started.

“He’s fine, then,” Josiah said, amused.

“Oh, yeah. They’re all fine, to listen to them. I’ve left them to it. When it comes down to it, Chris does seem to be what those boys need, and they’re not bad for him either. When he and Ezra had their next lot of painkillers they’re going to sleep in a bed though whatever they say about it!”

Josiah patted him on the shoulder. “Never mind, brother, we appreciate you! Anyway, you’ve got back-up now. When you want us to muscle them off to their rooms, you just give the word.”

“They’re not due the painkillers for an hour or so,” Nathan said. “They’ll not come to any harm waiting until then. Chris must have got a killer headache, to say nothing of the other knocks, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping him from doing what he wants, and Ezra should be fine. He’ll be up on crutches tomorrow.”

“Vin wasn’t hurt at all?” Josiah asked.

“Scrapes and bruises is all you can actually see, but I’ve been keeping an eye on him. I’m not sure what went down before Chris got to him—and I’d say the chances of us finding out from either of them are about zero—but it left him real shook up.”

“That a new piece of medical jargon?” Buck murmured, getting a reluctant smile from Nathan.

“Might have been grounds for treating him for shock, really,” Nathan said. “At the least he was nearly run down by Eli Jo, and then saw the man get a bullet through the head. The whole thing of thinking Chris was dead and finding out he’s okay, too—kind of a roller coaster for anyone. Vin’s a bit jumpy and even quieter than usual, and cold—his hands were still like ice when we got here. It’s not that I think he’s in any physical danger from it, just it’s kind of harder to see when something like that’s healing, compared to bruises and cuts.”

“Anything we can do?” Josiah asked quietly.

“I’ve seen that he’s eaten and he’s warm. He hasn’t moved more than about six inches from Chris though; don’t think he can quite believe Chris is really alive.”

“He lost his mom very young, and then his grandfather,” Josiah said.

“Yeah. Well, he hasn’t lost Chris. Just needs time for it to sink in. I’ve called Mary and stopped his lessons for a few days. Chris and Ezra won’t be going anywhere, and he’s better staying quietly here with them.”

“And you think you’ll be able to keep Chris resting for long?” Buck asked.

“I was thinking I might put it to him that it’s what the boys need.”

“Now that is just devious.”

“Believe me, it’s a choice of devious or a sledgehammer. And don’t you go stirring him up. I suppose he’ll have to hear what you’ve got to report. Will it take long?”

Buck thought about it. “Henderson’s ready to talk. He knows it must have been Varon who arranged the hit, and he’s got more than enough evidence to finish him, but he wants to bargain for more consideration than he’s likely to get. Chris won’t like that. And Varon and half his partners are missing. Looks like Varon realised the game was up when he knew that Henderson had survived and that he and his buddies had seen Eli Jo. As far as we can make out, he just walked away from the Boulevard and disappeared. Must have had a safe way out planned in case something ever went wrong.”

“Chris won’t like that, either,” Nathan said. “Well, I guess we’d better wake him and get it done with. Their next lot of painkillers are due in an hour, and they really need to rest properly, in a bed, after that.”

They walked along to the den, and Buck caught Josiah’s eyes and grinned at the sight that met them. Ezra was sprawled asleep under Chris’s right arm, and Vin leaned against Chris’s knees, somehow managing to doze like that. They looked irresistibly like a couple of pups trying to get shares in their master’s lap. Buck remembered he should have a camera in the Pickup somewhere, but before the thought had done more than cross his mind, Vin’s eyes blinked open and he stiffened, straightening up. Chris’s left hand, dislodged from his shoulder, dropped against the couch and Chris woke with a smothered yelp.

“Serves you right. That’s supposed to be in the sling,” Nathan said, but without force. He tucked the plastered wrist into a more comfortable position.

“Thanks,” Chris said. “Buck… Josiah… how did things go?”

Buck told him what he’d just told Nathan. As they’d expected, Chris wasn’t happy, especially with the fact Varon had just strolled away.

“Martinez won’t’ve gone,” Vin said.

“Why not?”

“He’ll be collectin’ all th’ money they can squeeze outta their gangs. You find him, y’ might find a trail to Varon.”

“The PD have plenty of people on it, as well as those Orrin’s called in.”

“Well, make sure they concentrate some effort on finding Martinez,” Chris said. “I want to see…”

“Not tonight you don’t,” Nathan interrupted hastily. “Buck and Josiah haven’t brought the paperwork out. Tonight you can take your next dose of painkillers and go to bed.”

“Are you going to wake Ezra to take his?” Josiah asked before Chris could react to that. “He looks peaceful at the moment.”

“He’d be better taking them,” Nathan said. “Otherwise he’ll be waking up very uncomfortable in the early hours of the morning. Can you sit him up a bit Chris?”

Buck, who in fact had got quite a lot of the paperwork in the Pickup, kept quiet and admired the smooth way Chris’s attention had been redirected.

The combined efforts of Chris, Vin and Josiah woke Ezra to the point where he managed to swallow the two tablets without opening his eyes. He went straight back to sleep. Chris, mollified by a cup of coffee he hadn’t expected Nathan to approve, swallowed his own dose without complaint.

“I think I might as well take Ezra and get him settled,” Josiah said, sliding one arm under Ezra’s shoulders and the other under his knees. “Spare room, Chris?”

“You’ll see which is his bed,” Chris said. “Be best if you sleep in the other one in there, Josiah; he might wake up and need some help.”

“What about Vin?”

“I’ll sleep on Chris’s floor,” Vin said quickly. “C’n fetch anythin’ he needs.”

“Get yourself a sleeping bag, then,” Chris said. “Buck, Nate, there’s the couch in here and the bed’s made up in… in Adam’s old room. Josiah—mind his head!”

Buck was grateful for the momentary distraction as they watched Josiah gently manoeuvre his sleeping burden through the doorway. He’d frozen, and seen Nathan freeze, at the mention of Adam’s room. They never talked about it, but like Vin had said to him, no one went in there.

“I’ll go with Josiah and make sure Ezra’s leg’s comfortable,” Nathan said. “Vin, do you know where to find a spare pillow?”

Vin had been hesitating between following Josiah and Ezra out of the door or staying by the couch, but he nodded and went with Nathan.

Left alone with Chris, Buck was still tongue tied. Chris looked up, wincing as the movement hurt his head. “Could use a hand here, pard.”

Buck helped him to his feet, and finally found his voice. “Chris… are you sure? It’s been your way of remembering…”

“Only way I could stand to remember,” Chris said, letting Buck take most of his weight. “Couldn’t bear to think about them, couldn’t bear to forget either.”

Buck was silenced again, three years of struggling to help Chris bear this pain weighing him down. He was torn between relief Chris was finally talking about it, and a wretched sense of not having the comfort to give him. Damn it, he couldn’t even hug him properly while those ribs were healing.

“It wasn’t much of a way,” Chris said softly. “Adam, he was never still, always on the go. That room’s not Adam, least of all staying tidy like that…”

“Sarah used to say it looked like a dozen boys had been playing in there.”

“He used to think it was a real treat if we had enough company that you slept in there and he came in our bed.”

Buck remembered, and the recollection made his eyes sting with tears, that and the slight break in Chris’s voice as he said it. They’d been easing their way slowly along towards Chris’s room as they talked, and they were close to Adam’s door now. Chris stopped.

“Open the door,” he said.

It was… empty. That was what Buck had felt in there the other day, and even more now. The things that had been precious to Adam stood neatly arranged, but somehow only emphasised the fact Adam was gone.

Chris pulled back the covers on the bed, switched on the small lamp. “Sarah used to say the point of toys was to have fun with them, that homes were for living in. She wouldn’t have wanted this.”

“She’d have understood,” Buck said. She’d always understood Chris, and loved him for being who he was.

He saw Chris’s face twist, and expected to be pushed away as he stiffly bore the grief alone, but for the first time in three years Chris turned towards him, his head bowed into Buck’s shoulder.

It was only for a minute, but as Buck swiped the wetness from his own face, he felt as if something very painful had healed for both of them.

They didn’t need to talk as he helped Chris into his own bed and propped him up reasonably comfortably, but there was a welcome sense between them that they could, when the time fitted.

Nathan looked in as Chris settled back. “Need anything? Vin’s staying with Ezra for a few minutes while Josiah gets a shower, then he’ll be along. He says he’s used to sleeping on floors. I’m going to crash in the den, but if you need me in the night you can send Vin, and anyway Buck will be in the next room.”

Buck couldn’t help remembering, as he stretched out in the slightly too short bed, that the last time he’d slept in here, he’d been woken at five thirty by a small boy landing energetically on his chest. He swiped his eyes again, but held onto the memory, and was surprised to find that sleep came easily.

Nettie Wells woke up and realised she’d fallen asleep in her armchair. Annoyed with herself, she made a hot drink and checked the kitchen was clean and tidy and that Casey’s clothes were ready for the next day. She’d forgotten what boundless energy a child of Casey’s age had; the weekend was proving tiring—well worth it, but a reminder she wasn’t as young as she usually felt.

The little girl needed friends of her own to tear about with, Nettie thought, and plenty of activities. Casey was already asking if she could learn to ride, and practise her swimming, and even to go camping and try to catch some fish. Nettie’s knee twinged a little as she climbed the stairs, and she preferred not to think how stiff she would be after camping out. A glimmer of a solution was coming to her though. She went to sleep considering it.

Chris’s room was big; Vin could stretch out in the sleeping bag and still have plenty of space around him. He couldn’t sleep properly though. He’d doze, wake up, listen to Chris breathing, doze again and dream. He didn’t feel any pity for Eli Jo, but sometimes in the dreams it was his own gun firing the bullet that killed him, or he was shooting at Henderson, Varon, and other half-recognised faces. He was glad to wake up. Except that awake he had to face the thought of the things he actually had done.

He wondered how much Chris had seen and knew, and how much he just guessed. Ez had told Chris about Buck’s gun, but Buck still seemed not to know about it, or that it had been his camera they’d used, and it was pretty clear none of the team knew why Vin had been on the Boulevard or why Chris had come after him the way he had.

It couldn’t stay like that, though.

One of the things keeping him awake was the thought that in the morning he was going to have to tell Chris how and where he’d disposed of Buck’s gun. If Chris hadn’t been just about out on his feet he’d probably have asked; by morning, like Vin, he’d have gotten over events enough to start thinking about the details.

He really didn’t want to tell Chris about the deal he’d done with Jose—not because he didn’t trust Chris, but because Chris’d think less of him. It had to be done though. Now he had nothing to do but lie here and think, he could see the potential trouble if the gun just showed up, maybe used in a crime somewhere. Wouldn’t have mattered, of course, if things had been the way he imagined, but now it mattered a lot. The judge had put him here, and he guessed the judge had the power to take him away. Taking an agent’s gun and selling it, that wouldn’t look too good…

He wished Ez was awake and he could go and talk to him about it. Ez had a way of using words that could almost change reality; maybe he could find a way to make the story sound less damning.

Vin turned over and sighed. He knew he wouldn’t wait for Ezra to wake. It wasn’t Ez’s fault anyway. Vin could remember the horrified look on his face when he saw Vin take the gun. Weren’t fair to drag Ez into this.

He hated feeling the way he did, not quite awake but too restless to sleep. He was tired enough to find it hard not to doze, but he couldn’t drop into a proper sleep. He’d have got up and walked about, but he didn’t want to wake Chris, and he didn’t want to go out of the room in case Chris needed something and he wasn’t there.

Somehow the night passed, and he woke from a final troubled patch of sleep at dawn. They’d not closed the blind, and the room was getting light. He wriggled soundlessly from his sleeping bag and walked to the window. He’d go see Peso later, maybe take him an apple.

“Yosemite won’t come today,” Chris’s voice startled him. “He’ll see the cars and know we’re all here.”

Vin came to sit on the edge of the bed. “Y’ look better,” he said, relieved. Chris still looked battered and bruised, but he wasn’t so white and his voice no longer sounded strained.

Chris grinned, and the swelling around his mouth must have gone down a little because it didn’t look so grotesque. “I’m fine. You’re good at moving quietly, aren’t you?”


“Think you could manage to make two cups of coffee and open up for us to go over to the barn—and do it without waking Nathan?”

Vin nodded. “Y’ think that’s a good idea?”

“I do. I’ll use the bathroom and see you over there. We need to talk.”

Nathan was asleep in Vin’s usual place on the couch in the den. Vin moved silently past, made the coffee quietly, took both steaming mugs with him and left the door ajar so Chris wouldn’t make a noise opening it. He’d barely gotten into the barn when Chris joined him, not moving easily but not looking like falling on his face either.

Chris took his mug, and sat down on a small stack of hay bales, watching Vin with the horses. Vin snatched gulps of coffee from time to time, but he wasn’t sorry to put off the talking. Chris drank his slowly, outwardly content to be here silently with Vin and the horses, but Vin knew he was waiting.

There was a limit to the chores that needed doing.

Vin lingered next to Peso, who tried to chew his hair.

“Vin,” Chris said, and the ‘come here’ was clear in his tone. Vin gave Peso a final pat. What was the point of putting it off anyway? It wasn’t going to sound any better however long he waited. Chris gestured to a place on the bales beside him, but Vin preferred to stand. Preferred not to look Chris in the eye, either.

“Sold Buck’s gun to Jose Guzman,” he said, getting straight to it. “Got one from him in exchange. I needed one that weren’t locked.”

Chris didn’t say anything, and Vin didn’t want to look at him to see what he was thinking. When the silence got too much, he went on, “Knew it’d be Varon and Henderson behind th’ crash. Knew they’d’ve made sure it wouldn’t come back t’ them. I took Buck’s gun in case we didn’t get what we wanted with th’ camera. Ez didn’t want me to. He didn’t want any part in a shooting. Then they caught Ez and he had the camera on him…”

Yesterday morning had seemed years away until he thought of the moment he’d seen Ezra surrounded; now it suddenly seemed much too close. He swallowed and went on. “Didn’t seem like much choice then. I wanted them t’ answer fer what they done t’ you. Thought maybe if I hit them at the pay off, there’d be enough evidence for Buck or Josiah or someone t’ finish them. I wouldn’t’ve aimed t’kill…” He paused. “Weren’t much of a plan.” He’d known that at the time, and he could see it a lot clearer now. Just hadn’t been thinking straight.

“I never fired at them, though,” he finished. “Saw Eli Jo, he shot Henderson, I shot at his car, hit his tire as he tried to get away. And then you came…”

He looked back at Peso, to blot out the memory of the car spinning towards him and of Eli Jo sprawled bleeding across the hood, and didn’t realise Chris had stood up until he felt the grip on his arm turning him around.

He braced himself to see Chris’s expression, but Chris pulled him close and he didn’t need to. He let his face squash against Chris’s shoulder for a minute, and relief shook him more than the memories had done. Held like that, he didn’t feel so bad when Chris said, “You know what kind of lowlife Guzman is. Don’t you ever go near him or anyone like him again.”

“No, sir,” he said, muffled.

“We’ll have to get the gun back, too,” Chris added, as though it was straightforward. “I’d better send Buck and Josiah this morning.”

“You got to tell Buck what happened?”

“No,” Chris said. “You’re going to.”

Vin pulled back far enough to see Chris’s face and saw he was serious.

“Doesn’t matter whether you trust him or not,” Chris said, reading Vin’s mind with alarming accuracy. “I trust him. You tell him what you told me—and I think you owe him an apology, too.”

He had the look on his face that Vin already knew meant you didn’t need to agree with him, just to obey him. Any last traces of worry Vin had felt about him had definitely disappeared. Chris might not look great, but he was back in charge okay.

“Be better if you told him,” Vin muttered.

“Not going to happen. You’re going to tell him, and you’re going to do it now. I can see him on his way. Nate must have sent him.”

Vin turned around sharply, and saw Buck had nearly reached the barn. He tried to take a step back, but Chris’s arm around his shoulders held him in place.

“Boy, Chris, you really do know how to piss Nate off,” Buck said as he came in. “You’re lucky he’d just promised to wrap Ezra’s leg for the shower, or he’d have come to haul you back indoors himself.”

“I was just coming,” Chris said. “Thought I’d have my coffee with Vin and the horses, and think about a slight problem we’ve got.”


“Vin, you explain to Buck what you just told me.”

There was no getting out of it. Vin wasn’t going to look down though, not this time. He didn’t care what Buck thought of him, and anyway, in his book, Buck owed him one for ever believing he could’ve hurt JD. He held his head up and repeated what he’d just told Chris.

“And…” Chris said, as he finished.

Vin looked at him and saw Chris meant it. Okay then. Chris wanted him to say sorry to Buck, he’d use Chris’s words for it.

“And I owe you an apology,” he said, just about managing to sound more like Ez than himself.

Chris’s hand tightened on his shoulder in a way that he knew was meant for a warning, not comfort, but he still found a reassurance in it. Buck didn’t say any of the things he had a right to say, just nodded and commented to Chris, “Guzman should still have it.”


“I’ll go and spoil his Sunday morning.”

“Take Josiah.”

“Can’t imagine anyone better to point out the error of Guzman’s ways,” Buck agreed with a grin.

“And take Josiah’s car—Vin’ll get the Pickup cleaned and polished for you while you’re gone.”

“Now that’s good timing,” Buck said. “I’ve got a date tonight, and I promised to pick her up. Make sure you do the inside well, kid.” He strolled back to the house with Chris. Vin let them go, and went back to Peso. When Peso was in the wrong, he generally bit someone rather than apologising, and he snorted with sympathy now.

“Weren’t that bad,” Vin said, making a fuss of him. “Buck had th’ right t’ be a hell of a lot madder than that. I’ll clean th’ damn Pickup so it looks like it’s come from th’ showroom.”

He did. He spent the morning on it after Buck and Josiah had gone. By then, all the men must have known what he’d done, and it was clear enough they already knew Guzman and what he was, but no one had looked at him different or treated him like he probably deserved. He laboured on the Pickup until it gleamed. Ezra, in a recliner on the porch, called advice from time to time, and Vin was glad of his company. When he’d finished, and even the interior was spotless, he decided he might as well do Nathan’s as well.

“Good job,” Chris said, coming up to look at his work.

“Done Buck’s fer my ‘pology,” Vin said. “This is fer yours.” And because he liked Nathan, and appreciated his quiet kindness, though he wasn’t going to explain that.

“Maybe I should give you a hand then.”

“No. Go talk t’ Ez. He’s getting bored.”

“He can practise using his crutches after lunch,” Chris said, but he went to sit on the porch, though he did about as much talking as usual. Vin whistled softly, no real tune, as he started to polish the Explorer. He hadn’t felt hungry at all until now, in spite of hardly having eaten for the last couple of days, but at lunch time he was suddenly ravenous.

Buck and Josiah came back early afternoon, with Buck’s Glock.

“No trouble?” Chris asked.

“No. You know Guzman. Very quick to be helpful when it’s in his best interests. We’re going to have to get enough evidence to take him down one of these days, though. Makes my skin crawl going near him. Think I might have to get a new back up piece now this one’s been in his hands.”

Once he’d fetched himself a beer, he walked over to the Pickup. “Nice work, kid,” he said to Vin, who’d decided he might as well make a clean sweep and was about to start on Josiah’s suburban. “Julie’ll think I’ve bought a new one.”

Vin flushed slightly at that generosity. “About yer gun…,” he started.

“I understand why you took it,” Buck said quietly.

Vin met his eyes, and saw that he did, perhaps better than anyone else could. He remembered the look on Buck’s face when he saw the crashed Ram.

“Yeah. Well, all th’ same, I’m sorry I sold it to Jose,” he said, and meant the apology this time.

“Don’t worry,” Buck said. “Josiah always enjoys a chance to preach with his fists. Guzman’s sorry he ever saw it.” He held out his hand. “I’m sorry about a few things too. New start?”

Vin took it. “New start,” he agreed.

“Damn, your hand’s colder ‘n a dead fish,” Buck said, his own grip warm around Vin’s. “That’s what comes of doing the cars with just a couple of buckets of water. Is that all old grumpy’d give you?”

“What else is there?” Vin asked.

“There’s a real long hosepipe somewhere, got a jet like a fire hose if you turn it on hard enough…”

After that, the afternoon got very wet, and Chris yelled at them both loud enough to prove his head must be mending.

JD learned a lot just by listening to adults talk. Sometimes they thought he was asleep; sometimes he guessed they thought he was too little to understand, especially if they used a lot of grown up vocabulary. He just kept quiet, took in what he could, and looked stuff up on the internet now they let him sit at a laptop some of the day.

He’d known for a while that he was getting a lot better, but it wasn’t until he heard his physiotherapist talking to an intern that he realised it meant he might soon be leaving hospital. After that, he kept quiet a bit more often, and soon found out that no one was seemed to know what was going to happen when he did leave.

He could have asked Buck, but he wasn’t quite sure Buck would want what he wanted, so instead of asking he made sure he seemed sound asleep a couple of times at night when Buck came, so he could listen to him talk to Julie.

This was good and bad. It was good, because he discovered Buck wanted to go on being his guardian and even to take him home, but it was bad because Buck didn’t think he’d be allowed to do it. Nothing was decided yet, because the doctors were still deciding how well JD was, but Buck was finding out what sort of arrangements there usually were for people JD’s age.

JD wished he could talk to Buck about it, now he knew Buck wanted him, but he didn’t want to admit he’d been listening in to grown ups talking. Maybe he could give Buck a few hints though. He started to mention how good he was at looking after himself, and how he’d always packed his own lunches and done the chores once mom was so sick. Buck wasn’t good at taking hints though. He just looked sad.

JD decided he’d better not get better too fast, so Buck had more time to understand. He tried not to make quite so much progress with his physio and not to eat so much, but he kept getting stronger anyway, and he couldn’t help being hungry. He looked up everything he could on the internet about kids in situations like his, but it all said the sort of things Buck had said to Julie. They’d want to find him a family. Well, that was stupid. Buck was all the family he wanted, with maybe Vin and Ezra to come visit.

His next plan was to talk to Vin and Ezra about it, but that was when all sorts of things happened that no one would tell him about, and it took two or three days before he found out that Buck’s friend who had had the car accident was Mr Larabee, and that Ezra had hurt his ankle and the policeman Vin and Ezra said you couldn’t trust had been arrested.

“They’re all fine now,” Buck said, when JD finally got him to talk. “How did you hear about it all, anyway?”

JD shrugged. “I heard some nurses talking about Mr Larabee. One of them said he was real scary, and the other said he just wanted to look after his boy, and after that a lot of people started talking about it. So when can Vin and Ezra come to see me, if Ezra’s okay on his crutches now?”

“Tomorrow,” Buck said. “Ezra’s got an appointment for a check up, so he’ll come to see you while he’s here.”

“Vin too?”

“I don’t know. Probably.”

In fact, Vin arrived first, while Ezra went to his check up. “Josiah’s gone with him,” Vin said. “Chris wanted to, but he needs t’ do some work, and anyway, Josiah says he puts th’ doctors’ workplace stress up too much.”

“Is Ezra all right?”

“Yeah. Gets around quicker on his crutches than he did on his feet. Buck says you’re starting to walk better, too.”

That reminded JD. He looked over at Buck who was fiddling with the TV. “I need to talk to you and Ezra,” he whispered quickly, then added more loudly, “I can do most things now, only I get tired quick. Casey wants me to be able to arm-wrestle with her, but I’m not going to because she’ll probably cry if I beat her.”

“You could let her win a few,” Buck suggested.

JD rolled his eyes. He wasn’t worried about Casey’s feelings, just the amount of fuss she’d make. He certainly wasn’t going to let her win anything. Well, not if he could help it, anyway.

“Brought you some pictures of the horses,” Vin said. “Chris got us a camera because he says we done good with one we borrowed. Ez took most of these, but I did this one. This is Peso.”

“Cool,” JD said. “I wish I could learn to ride.”

He looked at Buck, but Buck quickly turned to stare down the hallway, and said, “I thought Ezra and Josiah would have finished by now.”

JD sighed. It was clear enough Buck still didn’t know what was going to happen once he left hospital.

Before long, Ezra did arrive. Josiah looked in very briefly, before heading on to work, but he’d brought a golf game for JD’s Game Boy. They tried it straight away. JD had the Game Boy, which was fair since the game was new, but he let Ezra suggest ‘cheats’. Vin was paying more attention to the hallway and JD realised what he’d been looking for when he said to Buck, “Hey Buck—that nurse there, reckon she could use a hand.”

The nurse—a new one, whose chest reminded JD of Marge Simpson when she’d had the plastic surgery—was carrying an armful of files. Buck disappeared to her assistance in seconds.

“What did y’ want to tell us?” Vin asked, not wasting any time.

JD spilled it all out: how he was going to be better soon, and no one seemed to have decided what would happen to him, and that he wanted to live with Buck but he didn’t think he’d be allowed to.

He waited hopefully.

Vin and Ezra looked at each other.

“We’ll get on t’ it,” Vin said.

“Even if Mr Wilmington’s current living arrangements don’t conform to the requirements of the juvenile authority, things could be adapted,” Ezra said.

“And we’ll talk t’ Chris.”

“To Mr Larabee?” JD asked, slightly alarmed. He hadn’t seen their guardian very much, and although Chris had spoken to him kindly enough, JD wasn’t too confident with him.

“Chris’ll know what to do,” Vin said.

“He’s remarkably adept at dealing with obstructive administrators,” Ezra agreed.

“And he kept us,” Vin added.

“But he isn’t keeping you for ever. I want to stay with Buck always.”

Vin and Ezra looked at each other and JD didn’t understand their expressions.

“Nevertheless, Mr Larabee is the person to consult.”

“You okay with us tellin’ him?”

JD thought about it for a minute and then nodded. Vin and Ezra were mostly right about things. Anyway, Buck was coming back now—looking rather red in the face.

“Don’t know what’s the matter with that girl,” he muttered. “One minute we’re getting along just fine, the next she’s acting like I’m something she scraped off her shoe.”

“What did you say to her?” JD asked, interested. He thought you could design a good computer game based on the ups and downs of Buck’s love life.

“Nothing. Seriously, nothing at all. She was saying how overworked she was and how the management don’t care, and I sympathised with her. Even did my best impression of Mr Burns telling the workers they have to do more work for less pay. It usually makes them laugh.”

“That’d be it,” Vin said. “Bet she gets a lot of Simpsons jokes.”

“What? Why?”

“MARGE Simpson,” JD said, to give him a clue.

“After the… er… implantations,” Ezra said, when Buck still looked blank.

Finally Buck got it. He went to knock his head gently against the wall.

Really, JD thought, turning his attention back to the golf game, it would be a good thing for everyone if he could go to live with Buck. Then he could do the thinking for both of them.

“What y’ doing?”

Ezra started, and looked up. Vin had a disconcerting habit of appearing soundlessly.

“Has Mrs Travis finished with you?”

“Yeah. Gone to some school concert or such. What y’ doing?”

Ezra had in fact been looking up information—about foster care and the human services department. He had convinced himself he was doing this for JD, and not because JD’s artless comment about ‘always’ had reminded him of the uncertainties in their own future.

Vin looked over his shoulder at the internet page he was reading. Josiah, at his desk on the other side of the office, was paying no attention to them, but Ezra was reluctant to discuss anything in front of him. He saw Vin’s lips move silently, as he applied the reading skills he finally seemed to be mastering. He evidently worked out enough, because he nodded and asked no more.

Ezra went back to his search. Could you describe Mr Wilmington as exhibiting family stability? Come to that, would his apartment survive a home inspection? Useful resource though the internet was, it couldn’t tell him that.

Vin watched him close the page, and nodded in the direction of Chris’s office, empty now that Mary had finished her lesson. Chris was at a meeting and Nathan at the PD liaising with someone from IA, so they should be uninterrupted in there.

“I think our first idea was the most practical,” Ezra said once they had some privacy.

“Talk t’ Chris?”

“He will at least know all the elements of the situation. I’m not sure that even he can solve this problem, though.”

“They’ll want t’ put him with a family,” Vin agreed. “Especially after what happened with Mr Garriocci. Th’ judge made Buck guardian because Chris said JD was a witness, like us, and needed protection. Weren’t a normal sort ‘f arrangement fer a little kid.”

Or even for older ones, Ezra thought, but didn’t say it. That was no doubt one reason why the judge had said he would review all the arrangements after sixty days. It had sounded interminable at the time, but now it seemed short and rapidly passing.

“Chris’ll ask t’ have us again,” Vin said, obviously thinking along the same lines, but not sounding as confident as he probably intended to do.

It wasn’t that they didn’t trust Chris. They believed he wouldn’t let them be locked up; he’d said he was confident of getting the charges dropped. But that wasn’t the same thing as wanting to complicate his life indefinitely by keeping them. Ezra thought about it. Chris had to fit his work around them, change his lifestyle, take time from a demanding case to consider food and education—he seemed depressingly determined to consider their education—and they must be adding considerably to his expenditure. Chris even had to get up in the night…

He had done so with remarkable patience, for a man who wasn’t at all patient naturally, but Ezra still cringed slightly at the memory. It was one thing for someone JD’s age to have nightmares, quite another for people who were practically adults. Chris shouldn’t have had to sit there on the edge of the bed, quietly reassuring, until Ezra woke up properly and realised his leg was still attached, especially not when he’d almost certainly already gotten up to Vin. Mother would have thought they were intolerable nuisances at the moment.

“He kept Peso and Chaucer,” Vin said.

“It’s hardly the same thing.”

“We c’d ask him, when we ask about JD.”

“He may not have come to any decision yet. Besides, it would complicate the issue.”

Perhaps because of that, perhaps because they would rather postpone thinking about their own futures, they agreed just to broach the subject of JD. They didn’t get an opportunity until late in the evening, because Chris’s meeting ran over time, he had to wait to get reports from Buck, Josiah and Nathan, and then they stopped for a pizza on the way back to the ranch.

Ezra had qualms about disturbing Chris, who looked tired and grateful to get the chance to sit down with a cup of coffee at last, but Vin seemed not to share his reservations.

“JD’s lookin’ a lot better,” Vin started.

“Good.” Chris stretched his legs out and closed his eyes.

“They’ll be thinkin’ of lettin’ him out soon.”

Silence. Vin made a face at Ezra, but Ezra’s mind was occupied with not adding to the disturbance they already caused to Chris’s life. He shook his head.

“Means they’ll have t’ make some plans fer him,” Vin persisted.

Chris opened his eyes reluctantly. “You ever think of approaching a subject head on instead of stalking it?”

Vin grinned. “I ain’t con… what was that word Ez?”

“I have no idea.”

“Yes y’ have. Josiah said it was why he was taking you to th’ check up, because Chris was… whatever it was.”

“Josiah thinks I’m confrontational?” Chris asked. Fortunately he seemed mildly amused. “Well, why don’t you try confronting whatever it is you’re wanting to tell me.”

“JD’s worried,” Vin said, getting down to it. “He’s nearly well enough to go home, but he ain’t got one, and he thinks they won’t let him live with Buck.”

Chris put his coffee down. “And he wants to live with Buck…Yeah, I can see that, but I hadn’t thought about it until now. I hadn’t realised he was getting well so fast. Has he talked to Buck about it?”

“He don’t know JD knows about being better.”

Ezra decided it would be less tiring for Chris to hear this explained coherently. “JD is under the impression that Mr Wilmington himself is uncertain what will happen, and is possibly unsure of the requirements of foster care.”

Chris glanced at his watch. “No good calling Buck—he said he had a date when he left. But thinking about it, his apartment’s hardly fit for human habitation. He’d have to do something about that. And I don’t know if he’s taken on board that it would put one hell of a crimp in his social life having a kid there.”

“There are maid services,” Ezra pointed out.

“Buck’s real fond of JD,” Vin said. “And JD’s a good kid. He wouldn’t be no bother.”

“Any bother,” Chris said. “Anyway, ten year olds should be a bother. They’re children.”

Sometimes Chris’s views were incomprehensible, Ezra thought. Or had it simply been a grammatical error? Perhaps he meant JD ‘would’ inevitably be a nuisance.

“I suppose the child care service is going to suggest it’d be better for JD to be with a family,” Chris said, thinking it through.

“Buck’s been family for him while he’s been sick,” Vin said firmly.

“JD’s previous experience of foster care was hardly one to give him confidence in the system,” Ezra added.

“I don’t see Nettie Wells letting him go anywhere that wasn’t right for him,” Chris said. “In fact, it’s Nettie we should be having this conversation with, but it’s a bit late tonight. I’ll call Buck early, make sure JD’s not just worrying about nothing, and if Buck hasn’t already spoken to Nettie I’ll tell him to do it before he comes in to work. Okay?”

Vin nodded.

“Thank you,” Ezra said, nudging Vin.

“Thanks, Chris. I’ll wake y’ if y’ look like sleepin’ late.”

Chris winced slightly. “Maybe I’d better get to bed then.”

Ezra waited until he’d gone to point out forcibly to Vin that if they wanted Chris to ask for their sixty days to be extended, denying him a full night’s sleep was hardly a sensible strategy.

“We promised JD we’d get it sorted out.”

“I know, but not that it would be done instantaneously.”

“Don’t want him lyin’ there worryin’.”

“I know.” He too hated the thought of JD in the hospital wondering what would happen to him. But he also felt they must stop doing so many things to inconvenience Chris.

“Do you think we put a ‘crimp’ in Chris’s social life?” he asked thoughtfully.

“Don’t reckon he had one.” Vin considered it. “More likely, we c’d help him out. Maybe we should try t’ fix him up with Ms Travis.”

“I think we should leave well alone,” Ezra said hastily.

Vin turned the couch into his bed by the simple process of shoving the cushions up one end and grabbing a blanket. “Chris likes us,” he said stubbornly. “Wouldn’t’ve taken us otherwise.”

Ezra wished he could feel as confident. He closed his bedroom door when he went to bed, and pulled one of the pillows over his head. If he did dream, perhaps that would muffle any sound.

His precautions worked. When he woke, dry mouthed and sweating from some half-remembered dream distortion of his capture by Henderson, he did so inaudibly. He refused to acknowledge even to himself his appallingly infantile hope that Chris would hear after all and come in to say something reassuring. It was a long time before he managed to get back to sleep.

Buck woke, or half woke, to the sound of Chris’s voice growling through the answer machine. He looked for the clock, but it had fallen down a couple of days before and he hadn’t gotten around to replacing it.

“Pick up the damned phone!” Chris was saying.

Buck tripped over several days washing, slipped on a magazine, stubbed his toe against a six pack that he’d forgotten was on the floor, and finally picked the phone up just as he realised with horror it was 6.05a.m.

“I want to talk to you,” Chris said, proving that it wasn’t the sort of emergency that justified dawn calls. “It’s time you thought about what’s going to be done for JD when he comes out of the hospital. Have you talked to Nettie?”

“Chris, it’s not even morning yet,” he complained, his brain trying desperately to catch up with this.

“I’m up,” Chris said.

“Yes, but…”

“Nettie makes an early start.”

Buck would just bet she did.

“Seems like it’s worrying JD. He’s a bright kid by all accounts; he’s probably worked out pretty accurately what the situation is. He needs to know what’s being arranged for him.”

Buck sat down without looking at the couch and had to get up again hastily. The plate he’d sat on hadn’t broken, but he had to wipe the ketchup off his boxers. “I didn’t know he was worried!” he protested, concerned and a little hurt that JD hadn’t confided in him.

“From what Vin and Ezra say, he’s been listening in to some conversations, and didn’t want to admit it. Plus he probably doesn’t want to ask you outright in case you’re not so keen on carrying on with the guardian thing.”

“Hell, Chris, I’d give anything to go on being his guardian. I been looking into it, but every time I do I see more problems.”

“That’s why I think we should talk to Nettie Wells.”

“I was going to, but the first thing she’d want to do would be to inspect this place. You know I’m not that tidy, Chris.” He looked around him trying to see the place through Nettie’s eyes and winced. “I guess that’s an understatement. And then there’s things like school and the school holidays and what a kid ought to eat—it’s not like I had the most normal upbringing—and…”

“Buck!” Chris interrupted. “Slow down. Let’s take this one thing at a time. You want to go on being the kid’s guardian?”

“Yes, damn it.”

“Then Nettie needs to know that, and so does he. Why don’t you go and talk to JD—the nurses are used to seeing you at all hours…”

“On or off duty,” Buck couldn’t help murmuring reminiscently.

“…and if you like, I’ll have a word with Nettie. Wouldn’t hurt for you to get in some kind of maid service to clean up the apartment either.”

“Do you think I haven’t tried that? I’ve had two in to look at it in the last week, and they both turned me down. The second one said I should consider something industrial. And I’ll need to talk to Nettie myself. But if you want to soften her up, and discourage her from looking at the apartment until it’s a bit cleaner…”

“Never thought the day would come when you’d need me to soften up a woman for you,” Chris said. “Okay, I’ll set things rolling with her. Wouldn’t be surprised to find she’s ahead of us in giving it some thought. And Buck, do you want us to put in a team effort on the apartment this evening? Maybe that would get it down to a level where maid service would consider it.”

There were times when it was definitely worth putting your pride away in your ketchup-smeared boxers. “I’ll treat you all to beer and a take-out,” he said gratefully.

“Good. Get yourself over to the hospital and I’ll see you in the office by eight thirty.”

That effectively destroyed any hope of going back to bed. Anyway, Buck felt in need of a wash. He showered hastily—trying hard not to see the bathroom through Nettie’s eyes—and grabbed the pop tart he’d forgotten to take out of the toaster the day before.

The hospital, of course, was full of people who shared Chris’s approach to early rising, though to be fair, some of them had probably started their day in the middle of the night. At least they were more kind-hearted than Chris. Buck had hardly reached JD’s room before a smiling nurse—Kate, he thought it was—brought him a mug of coffee.

“Why are you here so early?” JD asked, and now that Buck was alerted to it he could hear the slight anxiety beneath the question.

“Ran out of coffee at home,” he said, which happened to be true. “Anyway, you’re so much better that I thought I’d better come early in case you went off for a run.”

JD smiled a bit wistfully. “Dr Rowley says it won’t be too long before I can run as fast as I used to be able to, but I’m only allowed to try walking at the moment. My legs get wobbly too quickly. But I’m out of bed a lot more of the day now. I will be better soon.”

He looked at Buck hopefully.

“I expect you’re looking forward to getting out of the hospital.”

JD nodded, uncharacteristically silent. His eyes watched Buck intently.

“Well, I guess if anyone had a choice, they’d naturally want to stay with a talented, handsome guy who the ladies just can’t resist.”

He expected JD to come back with his own joke about not knowing anyone like that, but instead he found himself with his arms full of small boy as JD dived against him and held on tight.

“I want them to let me live with you,” JD said, his head digging painfully into Buck’s chin and his arms getting a stranglehold around his neck.

Buck shifted so he could hold him safely on his lap and not strain any healing muscles. “I want that too, JD,” he said quietly. “I’d rather have you come live with me than anything else I can think of.”

“You’ve got to tell Mrs Wells,” JD said. “That’s how they do it. You have to tell her you want me. Today.”

“That’s what I’m going to do,” Buck said, hoping Chris really had done the groundwork. “Though I think she’s probably guessed already. And since I’m going to talk to Mrs Wells, you have to promise to do something for me.”

JD settled a little more comfortably against him. “Do what?”

“Stop worrying and concentrate on getting better.”

“I don’t want to get well if I can’t come to live with you.”

“Yes you do,” Buck said firmly. “You’re going to be a computer genius and win races in your spare time. You have to be well to do that.”

At last he managed to get something like a laugh from JD.

“And I’ll be ‘resistible to the ladies.”

“That too,” Buck agreed. “Because you’ll have learned from the best! Now, if I don’t want Chris to start the day by threatening to shoot me, I think I’m going to have to go soon.”

JD fastened on like a limpet again. “You’ve only been here five minutes. Anyway, he can’t really shoot you.”

In the end, Buck stayed until well past his deadline, but fortunately Chris had been called out to see Orrin Travis almost as soon as he reached the office. There was a note on Buck’s desk: Nettie 11.00 my office.

He fidgeted as he waited for Chris to come back. It was already ten o’clock. How was he going to convince her that he really was the right person to take care of JD?

Nettie Wells looked with some amusement at the two ATF agents who were waiting for her in Chris’s office. Buck Wilmington, in spite of his age, size and profession, was managing to look remarkably like an unruly boy who’d been sent to the principal’s office—with Chris standing beside him as the friend who’d come along, uninvited, to speak up for him.

Well, she wouldn’t begin by sending Chris out of his own office; she’d wait and see whether he let her handle the discussion with Buck.

She sat down and took out her files. Buck eyed them as if he thought they might be booby trapped.

“Sit down, Buck,” she said. “I just want to have a preliminary talk with you about what’s involved in being the primary carer for a ten year old.”

Buck sat down, but not at all at ease. Chris stayed leaning in the doorway, trying to look as if part of his normal day’s work was to protect his team from being interrogated by intimidating older women.

“I don’t want this to be too formal,” Nettie said. “Why don’t you just tell me some of the things you think you’ll need to consider?”

Buck glanced at Chris.

“He’s been thinking about schooling for JD,” Chris said. “The kid’s very bright by all accounts. He’ll need to go somewhere where his ability will be recognised.”

Nettie let it pass this once. “Buck,” she said, making it clear, she hoped, who was expected to answer, “have you considered any of the problems you might have fitting your work around a small boy’s daily routine?”

“Any problems, he’s got friends to help him out,” Chris said.

Nettie stood up. “Chris, I think you have more than enough to deal with being responsible for Vin and Ezra. I’d like to have this conversation with Buck, in private if that’s at all possible.”

Chris stood still for a moment, but Nettie had no intention of yielding on this one, and she expected to be obeyed. Chris looked briefly as if he might protest and then thought better of it, and nodded politely. “Ma’am,” he said, perhaps ironically, and went out closing the door carefully behind him.

Nettie sat down again and smiled at Buck. “Now we can talk in peace. I expect thinking about all this seems quite daunting to you. Why don’t you tell me what aspect of it worries you most.”

Encouraged, Buck finally started to talk to her. “It’s the details. I’ve got no problem with loving the kid and taking responsibility for him, and I don’t care about how much money or time it all takes—they don’t come much more special than JD. But I’ve never had to think about all the stuff that makes up a kid’s day, or how to organise things when school’s out, or what he should eat, and what happens if he gets sick, and probably a whole lot more I haven’t even imagined.”

Nettie nodded, sympathetically. He was being honest with her now, which was all she wanted. “It’s entirely natural to be worried about those things,” she said, “especially given the demanding nature of your work. Obviously, it’s all important—but it’s not the most important thing. I’ve seen you with JD, and it’s quite clear to me that the two of you share something special. The arrangement for you to be his guardian may have been made more as a form of witness protection in the first place, but you’ve been there for him all through his recovery. I’ve talked to his doctors and nurses, and they believe your support has made a real difference to how quickly he’s improved, and particularly how confident and happy he’s become. I know how many hours you’ve spent there with him. In view of the traumatic time JD has had over the last couple of years, with his mother’s sickness and death and that appalling foster placement, the fact that he feels safe and loved with you outweighs most other considerations. However, he must be cared for appropriately, and that’s where I have a proposition you may like to consider.”

Buck, listening to all this intently, nodded. “I’d be grateful.”

“You may know I’m retiring this year? And that I’m going to be fostering Casey.”

“JD certainly tells me a lot about Casey,” Buck said.

“They get on well, and neither of them has anything in the way of family of their own. It would be nice for them to carry on spending time together. It seems to me, you and I could help each other. I would be very happy to provide some day care for JD—take him to school with Casey, pack his lunch, give him a meal when you need me to, and so on. In return, maybe you could wear out my tomboy for me some weekends. She wants to ride and fish and go camping. I can’t tell you how glad I’d be to pack the picnic and send her off to do it with you and JD. What do you think?”

Buck had been listening carefully as she developed her ideas and was looking more relieved by the minute. “I think you’re an angel,” he said fervently. “In fact I’m thinking of asking you to marry me!”

“Well, I’m afraid I’ll have to turn you down, but it does bring me to another point. Have you thought about what a difference it will make to your social life having a little boy to be responsible for?”

Buck nodded. “I have, but he’s well worth it.”

“Good. But it seems a pity to deprive the young women of Denver completely. I’ll be happy to have JD to stay over occasionally, so that you don’t completely forget what it is to have a night out!”

She stood up briskly and picked up her files. Buck hastily got to his feet, went to open the door, paused, and turned back to wrap her in a bear hug and kiss her soundly on the cheek.

“Thanks!” he said.

Oh to be a few years younger! “You’re more than welcome,” she said. “Now we’d better go and reassure Chris that I haven’t eaten you alive.”

She hadn’t realised that Vin and Ezra had arrived while she was in the office. Chris was leaned over Buck’s desk watching them do something on the computer. They were so absorbed they didn’t even notice the office door open. Nettie walked over quietly, and saw they had digital photos of Chris’s horses on the screen, and Chris and Ezra were getting Vin to write the captions. He was doing remarkably well.

“That’s very good, Vin,” she said, making them jump.

The way they all glanced at Buck told her the boys knew exactly what had been going on, but the grin on Buck’s face was broad enough to reassure them without anyone asking a question.

“Would y’ like a picture of Peso, Ms Nettie?” Vin asked politely.

“Thank you Vin, I’d love one.”

She was secretly more impressed by the confident way Vin had learned to handle the computer and by the improvement in his literacy than with the photo of Peso, a horse who she was convinced would benefit from a very firm hand; but she accepted the picture in the spirit Vin offered it.

“They’re a very good set of photos,” she said as she tucked it safely into one of her files.

“Ezra’s got a real talent with the camera,” Chris said, “and Vin with the horses. They could probably make some pocket money around the ranches. These would print up well for the wall.”

Nettie smiled to herself as she went down to the car. Chris Larabee hardly seemed a likely person to see the best in a couple of boys the system had written off, but there was no doubt he did, and that they responded to it. She’d been looking closely at their faces, and had been interested to see that the praise had meant as much to Ezra as to Vin.

She also smiled at the thought of Buck’s expression at her parting words. “Oh, by the way, Buck, I forgot to say I will have to take a look at your apartment and make suggestions for any changes that might be necessary. Will next week be all right?”

She guessed some spring cleaning was going to happen there. Well, no doubt it was long overdue. And as Chris had pointed out, he did have friends to help him.

Chris hadn’t been to Buck’s place for a very long time. He’d remembered it being pretty untidy. That no longer seemed anything like an adequate description.

“Damn, Buck, you had burglars?” he asked, staring in dismay at the chaos within.

“Vandals and burglars,” Ezra suggested.

“With big appetites,” Josiah added, looking at the piles of dirty dishes, not just in the kitchen area.

“I brought gloves and buckets, but not face masks,” Nathan offered. “Maybe I should go get some.”

Only Vin didn’t seem to be daunted by the scale of the mess, in fact he hardly seemed to notice it. “Cool TV,” he said. “Where’s th’ pizza?”

Chris cleared a path to the couch by kicking aside everything in his way, and swept the contents of the couch over the side. “Ezra, sit down and put your ankle up. You can direct operations. I don’t want you trying to move about in here.”

He hadn’t thought about the difficulty of negotiating Buck’s floor on crutches—possibly because his most pessimistic guess at the state of the apartment had fallen well short. Buck had been spending all the spare time he had at the hospital, and it looked as if no chores had been done for weeks.

“I suggest you each adopt responsibility for a particular aspect of the task,” Ezra said, relishing the role. The prospect of doing something that would indirectly benefit JD—and perhaps the sight of this anarchic chaos—seemed to be cheering him and Vin. Chris was relieved; they’d been too subdued since the disasters of the previous weekend, and although it didn’t surprise him that they were still reacting to events, he’d been looking for ways to turn their thoughts forward. The camera had worked; they’d spent hours on getting the images they wanted and then manipulating them, but even doing that they’d been rather quiet. It wasn’t going to be possible to clear Buck’s apartment out quietly.

“Where do you suggest we start?” Josiah said. “Prayer?”

“I’ll see to the dishes,” Nathan said, “and the fridge.” He was peering into its interior with a sort of fascinated horror. “I didn’t even know mould came in so many colours. Wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve a new antibiotic in here Buck—or maybe a new biological weapon!”

“Mr Wilmington would probably prefer to do his own bathroom,” Ezra said, glancing in the right direction, perhaps because of the line of towels strewn towards the door.

“The rest of us would rather he did it,” Chris said. “I’ll get rid of some of the trash—at least, I’ll fill the bags, Vin can take them. Josiah?”

“I’ll start the washing,” Josiah said, lifting a pair of lurid boxers with his foot. “Buck, this looks as if you sat in ketchup!”

“As you do…” Ezra murmured, taking the camera from his pocket and settling back to the double pleasure of watching other people work and catching them looking ludicrous as they did it.

Nathan, ever well-prepared, had brought black sacks for the trash and an assortment of cleaning materials, tending strongly to the bleach and antibacterial end of the spectrum. Polish and finer touches weren’t likely to be necessary.

With Vin’s help, Chris began to clear the floor, being careful not to let Nathan see if an incautious move made his healing ribs twinge. Quite a lot of what was there could go into Josiah’s ever-growing laundry pile or to the kitchen area to Nathan, but he filled several sacks as well. He was satisfied with his progress and beginning to think it was getting to be time for a break when his phone went.

The caller was Orrin Travis. “Where are you at the moment Chris? And the rest of the team?”

“Buck’s apartment. We’re all here.”

“Good. After nothing for days, we suddenly have four possible leads for places Martinez might show up tonight. Team 3 can cover two of those with support from the PD—I’d like you to cover the other two—also with support of course, but Martinez has no record and he’s not well known to the PD. With the surveillance you did on him before, you’d all recognise him easily.”

“You want us in now?”

“Yes. These all look promising. And I’ll need the whole team, Chris. I’ve managed to avoid that until now, but you four know Martinez and I don’t have anyone else who does. If the boys are a problem, I can arrange secure care for a night for them.”

“No.” Chris didn’t have to think about it; that just wasn’t an option. “They aren’t a problem.”

He didn’t elaborate, and Orrin didn’t ask but went straight on into the details Chris needed to know. By the time he’d finished, Chris had made his decision. The only people he might have considered asking to have the boys were Nettie or Gloria, and apart from the time and the shortness of the notice, it would take a while to get them there.

He tersely updated everyone. “You boys stay put here,” he finished. “Lock up when we’re gone—Buck and I have got keys. You’ve got my cell number, and Josiah’s.”

“They’ll be hungry, and there’s nothing here fit to eat,” Nathan said.

“We c’n manage,” Vin said quickly. “Snacks are okay.”

The only food group represented in the place seemed to be ‘junk’, but there wasn’t time to do much about it. Chris sent Buck hastily down to the nearest small store for bread, ham and juice, and Vin investigated the stock of pop tarts, chips and cookies.

“Call if anything at all comes up,” Chris said as he left. It wasn’t that he worried whether the boys could look after themselves; they’d been doing that for years. And he had no problem with trusting them. What niggled at him was the fact he was technically breaking the terms of the custody order, and he didn’t like doing that.

He forgot about it though once they began the evening’s surveillance. He was fully in the picture about the leads they had by then, and he could see Orrin’s dilemma. All of them sounded promising; there was a real chance that more than one of the places was on Martinez list for the night.

“We think this guy Martinez may have a record in Mexico.” Price, the police captain who was pulling things together in Henderson’s department was with Chris watching the back entrance of a rather smart restaurant. It seemed that Varon had played a part in the sale of this to its present owner—a sale that had included the disabling of the former one. The restaurant’s manager was doing well, but he couldn’t afford any scandal, and the word they’d had was that Varon had evidence of his involvement. It was exactly the sort of place Martinez might visit if he was trying to recoup some of Varon’s losses.

“Nothing on Varon?” Chris asked.

“We think he may have flown to Texas the afternoon Henderson was shot. Couple of reasonably reliable witnesses and a scatty one all place him on that route. Martinez is still in town, and of course we’ve no actual evidence against him. We know he’s here from our contacts, but no one knows where he’s staying. You’re right about why he’s here I think, though. He was seen around a couple of dealers yesterday evening and our informant thought money changed hands. He was long gone by the time we got there though.”

Chris nodded. He rather liked Price. The guy was straightforward and professional, and didn’t appear to share the resentment there was among some of Henderson’s ex-colleagues about the ATF coming in like ‘cowboys’ to take a cop down.

It was about ten minutes later that the call came through from Travis terminating the evening’s surveillance. Team 3 had blown it. Well, Orrin didn’t put it like that, and Chris refrained from doing so in front of Price, but that was what it came down to. Martinez had shown at the ‘escort’ agency they were watching, and someone had moved too soon. Martinez had taken fright, and Travis thought their chances of seeing him again tonight were small. Surveillance would be kept up, but only at the level where Team 3 (for their sins Chris assumed) could handle it. He and Price, and the rest of their men were off the hook.

“You might pass a message on from me to Wilmington,” Price said as he and Chris parted company. “You know there are a few hotheads who haven’t come to terms with the Henderson business? One of them, Danny O’Toole—he’s honest enough, but solid bone above the neck—still has the idea Wilmington let the guy down, old friends and that crap. I’ve put him straight, but one of my men tipped me off that he was thinking of going around to Buck’s place tonight and having it out with him. I was going to let you know, then this came up and I knew Buck wouldn’t be there anyway. Now it’s called off you’d better mention it to him, though I imagine he could handle Danny with one hand behind his back.”

“Shit!” Chris said, dismayed. “You think he was going there tonight?”

“Yes, why?”

“I left Vin and Ezra there,” Chris said shortly. He checked his phone to make sure it was switched on. No one had called, which probably meant it was okay. He dialled hastily, and was relieved when it was picked up at the second ring.

“Vin? Listen, don’t open the door…”

“…To some asshole who wants to rip Buck’s head off? We worked that one out!”

“What’s happening?”

“This guy’s in the hallway, shouting. We had th’ TV on, so he knows someone’s here, but he thinks it’s Buck. Uh oh. Hold on a minute.”

“Vin? Vin!”

“Vin is just making sure the door will not open under the current onslaught,” Ezra said. Chris could hear the crashing in the background.

“I’m on my way,” Chris said. “I’ll call Buck. We should be with you in about thirty minutes, maybe just over. I’ll call you back as soon as I’ve told Buck what’s happening.”

“Reinforcements might be advisable,” Ezra agreed, not sounding particularly worried. “Mr Wilmington’s friend is threatening to bring in allies of his own to help, and, I quote here, ‘kick the fucking door in’. Vin has things under control, however.”

Chris didn’t find that particularly reassuring. He called Buck hastily, and left him to tell Nathan and Josiah.

“I’m coming with you,” Price said quickly. “That idiot O’Toole is my responsibility. Anyway, we’ll get there quicker if I drive, unless you have a siren.”

Chris let him drive; it meant he could keep in touch with Ezra. The commentary Ezra was giving didn’t seem so bad to begin with. Things had gone quiet outside the apartment, except for the occasional shouted threat. O’Toole was waiting for his friends. But while they were still at least ten minutes away, the bulletins became more worrying.

“There is a perceptible increase in the level of noise in the hallway; I would estimate at least two more people have now arrived…

“Unfortunately, a renewed onslaught on Mr Wilmington’s door has begun. Does he have no neighbours? You would think someone might notice this…

“The upper half of the door is not proving as robust as we might have hoped. There is now a hole in one panel. On the plus side, Vin can see the opposition. He says to tell you there are four of them…

“He wants to know if he has your permission to use minimum force to delay the collapse of the door…

“Ez, we’ll be with you in less than five minutes,” Chris said. “Tell Vin just to put the couch up against the door or something.”

“He did that some time ago,” Ezra said. “Ah—he’s managed to remove the bedroom door from its hinges and stack that on top of the couch as an additional barrier. Did you say five minutes?”

“Less. Do those guys still think it’s Buck inside?”

“Probably. I don’t think they’re entirely sober.”

Beside Chris, Price was swearing softly but eloquently, and he shot the next two lights, cutting perhaps another minute off their arrival time. They could see Buck’s Pickup pulling up as they got there. Chris and Buck took the stairs together two at a time and reached the hallway just as Buck’s door finally gave way under the combined onslaught of four big men.

Chris grabbed one man, hauled him back and hit him. Something vile smelling and sticky poured over another, who had lost his balance and fallen across the couch blocking the lower half of the entrance. Buck pulled the third back.

“O’Toole! What the hell have you done to my apartment?”

“Buck? How’d you get out here? You sneaky bastard!” He took a wild swipe at Buck, who flung him impatiently out of the way. The fourth man, who seemed more sober than the rest, had prudently removed himself from the action, and made a hasty move towards the stairs, only to find his captain blocking the way. The sight of Price had an added sobering effect.

“Vin? Ezra? You okay?” Chris had only been interested in clearing a way to the door. The man still blocking it was scrubbing wildly at whatever the stuff was that covered him, and it stank enough to make Chris hesitate to get ahold of him. Fortunately though he staggered back, and was violently sick across the hallway.

Vin appeared in the shattered doorway. He had a scratch down one side of his face where a splinter from the door must have caught him and was holding the bucket into which Nathan had scraped the decomposing contents of the fridge.

“It’s one of those damn kids!” That was the man Chris had hit, who was sitting on the floor holding his face. “What the hell are they doing here?”

Vin was struggling with the couch, and managed to haul it out of the way, while Price started to read the riot act to his men. “Larabee could have your badge if he wanted it!” he snarled at O’Toole.

“I don’t want it,” Chris said, trying to avoid the slime that coated the entrance to the apartment. “Just get them out of here. If they’ve got an argument with us, we’ll settle it in the gym.”

Three of the men looked relieved. The fourth, the one who had been trying to run, looked even more resentful. “You think you’re so fucking perfect, putting a good cop behind bars. Well, I’ll tell you one thing Larabee. If he goes down, so will these kids. They should have been locked up in the first place and they would have been if you hadn’t interfered. We may not be able to get Henderson off, but we can see they get what they deserve as…”

He was cut off by Price’s fist, which lifted him clean off his feet.

“Nice one, cap’n,” O’Toole said, evidently a man to appreciate a good punch whether he was drunk or sober.

Price glanced at Chris. “You happy for me to deal with this? Wilmington?”

“They can pay for the damn door.”

“I’ll see to it,” Price said. “O’Toole, you’re a fool if you’ve been listening to Rawlings spew out all that spite.” He hauled the man up the man he’d floored. Chris hadn’t known the name, Rawlings,—though he noted it now—but when he’d been at the PD he’d noted the man as one of the most surly and unhelpful.

“All of you get out of my sight.” Price said to his men. “I’ll see you in my office at seven tomorrow morning. And Schultz, go get a shower. You stink.”

The four went off, O’Toole and Schultz propping each other up.

Price turned to Chris and Buck. “I’m sorry about that. And they will be, I promise. Thanks for not taking it further. You had every right.”

“The guy Rawlings needs watching,” Chris said. He hadn’t liked the way the man’s bitterness was directed at Vin and Ezra, and he’d seen how Vin withdrew when he heard it.

“I know,” Price acknowledged. “I hadn’t realised he’d got so many fools listening to him. I’ll do my best to put a stop to it.”

Chris nodded. He trusted him to try, at any rate. Without further words, he picked his way into the apartment. Splinters of wood were all over the couch and the floor, and everywhere had a sticky coating of the grunge from the fridge. He ignored it all, and went to Vin and Ezra.

Ezra was sitting in the easy chair, Vin perched on the arm. He suspected they’d been enjoying themselves before Rawlings’ outburst. Now they looked subdued. He tilted Vin’s face up to look at the scratch. “Better wash that, and get some antiseptic on it. Ez—you okay?”

“I was merely a spectator,” Ezra said, but he looked tired. Chris knew his ankle was still painful, and it tended to wear him down by the end of the day, especially when, like now, it was hard to get into a comfortable position. Chris found him his painkillers and a mug of water, and threw a clean handkerchief to Vin in time to stop him drying his cheek with a rag he’d picked up in the kitchen.

“Nathan, Josiah, glad to see you,” Buck said from the doorway where he was sweeping up splintered wood. “You missed the excitement.” Chris had been expecting them before this, but their positions had been further away, and they’d probably driven more soberly.

Josiah stopped in the hallway. “Well, Buck, if this is karma, I don’t like to think what you might have done!”

“It wasn’t karma; it was that lunkhead O’Toole and a few of his friends.”

“This is worse than before we started,” Nathan said, accidentally touching the doorframe and hastily wiping his hand. “What the…?” He caught sight of Vin. “Vin! Don’t rub that cut with your hand, you’re filthy. Let me take a look at it.”

He took Vin off to the bathroom, to clean him up more thoroughly. Josiah looked at the smeared couch, shattered door and general mess. “Hope you showed O’Toole and friends the error of their ways.”

“We did,” Buck said. “And Vic Price was here—he’ll see they spend the next few weeks regretting it.”

“You’re not going to take it further?”

“No. O’Toole just doesn’t want to believe the evidence against Henderson. He and the others had been drinking. I don’t want to do something that’ll cost them their careers. They’re good enough cops.”

“Rawlings is a nasty piece of work,” Chris said shortly. “I’d earmarked him as a potential troublemaker from the times I’d been at the PD, but I’d no idea what a poisonous line of shit he was pushing until tonight.”

“Can’t go after Rawlings and not the others,” Buck said. “He’s all hot air anyway.”

“Well, we’d better start on clearing this up,” Josiah said. “I’ll get you something for those pieces of wood, and see if the couch will come clean.”

“Leave it,” Buck said. “I wanted a new one anyway. We’ll get rid of it. And anything else that stuff spilled on. It’s going to take us most of the night to clear everything… Chris—you ought to be getting home.”

Chris hesitated. He’d called Yosemite when they first decided to come to Buck’s place, so the horses were okay, and he felt partly responsible for the chaos here. Besides, he’d have to borrow one of the others to take him to pick his car up if he went.

He opened the door to Buck’s bedroom. Josiah had started his collection of laundry for the Wash-a-thon there, and it was definitely better than the rest of the apartment. “I’ll stay for a while,” he said. “Ezra can put his leg up in here. Come on, Ez. It’ll be more comfortable than that chair.”

The floor was even less crutch-friendly than it had been before Vin started moving furniture. Chris helped Ezra to his feet and kept hold of him so he only needed to use one crutch. He could feel the tension in Ezra’s movement, as if he wanted to lean on Chris’s support but refused to let himself do it. Vin, escaping from Nathan, came to lend a hand by sliding his arm around Ezra on the other side, making the crutch more or less superfluous.

He and Ezra came to an abrupt halt as they entered the bedroom.

“That’s a lot of girls!” Vin said.

“With remarkably little in the way of clothing,” Ezra murmured.

Chris hadn’t looked at the walls, or if he had, his brain had filtered out the fact that Buck had a particularly fine collection of calendars celebrating the female form.

A collection that would have to go, even if it had removed the subdued look from Vin and Ezra’s faces.

“Sorry boys,” he said, leaving Vin to help Ezra the last few steps to the bed. “I don’t think we want Nettie meeting the Bikini Babe of the month.”

He took down the calendars, and with a sudden memory, looked under the bed. Among the dust bunnies and scraps, stood Buck’s box of magazines. That would have to go as well.

“We c’n sort ’em out for you if y’ like,” Vin offered.

“Separate the art from the trash,” Ezra agreed.

“It’s all going to be trash.” Chris knew there would be nothing there that was harmful, but Buck couldn’t afford the slightest slip up if he was going to foster JD. He took the box and the pile of calendars out to Nathan. “In the dumpster with everything else,” he ordered. If Buck didn’t see them go, well, that would spare him the sad moment of parting!

He went back to Vin and Ezra.

“I c’n help,” Vin said.

“In a minute.” He sat down on the edge of the bed. “I don’t want the two of you worrying about what Rawlings said. It’s not going to happen. Vic Price is a good man, and he’ll put a stop to any trouble coming from the PD. Eli Jo’s evidence is completely discredited anyway, and it’s clear now you did the right thing in helping JD get away, even if it was in an unorthodox manner. It won’t be like it was before. Henderson’s gone; you have a lot of people to speak up for you—including me and Nettie—and the judge showed already he wasn’t too tied to the system.”

They looked relieved, but he knew there was still something…

“What?” he asked.

Ezra closed his eyes. Vin took a deep breath. “Say the judge don’t want t’ lock us up, what’s he likely to do with us?”

Damn. It had never occurred to Chris for a moment that they might not expect him to ask to have their stay at the ranch confirmed and extended. He saw the doubt now though; even Vin’s confidence looked as if it was only just holding up against it.

“If he’s got the sense I think he has, the judge’ll let you stay with me,” he said, putting it too plainly for misunderstanding. “That’s what I’ll be asking him. You got any objections?”

Ezra, eyes wide open now, shook his head. The fact he’d silenced him told Chris more than any words would have done. Vin relaxed a little, settling back next to Ezra. He too was silent, but his eyes met Chris’s, assessing, accepting that this was a promise.

“Good,” Chris said. “Now I’m going to help clear up this apartment if it takes all night, so stay here and see if you can get some sleep. Those painkillers working yet, Ezra?”

He could see that they were; Ezra was looking sleepy and the slightly drawn look had eased. Chris’s aim had been to remind Vin. Vin looked up and nodded. He knew what Chris had in mind—he’d stay with Ezra so he didn’t get far enough into some nightmare to embarrass himself waking up shouting. Chris wondered wryly why it was Vin could understand him so well over something like that and still not be sure he wanted to keep them both at the ranch. Well, maybe that sort of confidence only came with time.

“Chris. You didn’t throw out my calendars?”

That was Buck, looking in and discovering his loss.

“You want Nettie t’ see them?”

“We could have had them up at the office. Be a change from gun of the month or quarter horses.”

“I like th’ horses,” Vin said.

“So do I, but there’s fillies and fillies…”

He caught Chris’s eye, and went. “I’d better go and make sure he doesn’t get them back out of the dumpster,” Chris said.

Nathan, going beyond the call of duty, had cleared up the rotting food for the second time that day, and Josiah had developed an almost puritan zeal for getting rid of anything that couldn’t usefully justify its existence in the apartment. Chris decided his best option would be to fix up a door they could close for the night, and since Vin had already taken the bedroom one from its hinges he found Buck’s tool box and got to work using that to replace the broken one.

Two slightly ditzy girls returned to the apartment opposite, stared and giggled, and a guy about his own age stopped to call in to Buck: “You got women breaking the door down to get to you now?” If he had any less laid-back neighbours, they didn’t show.

By 2 a.m., it hardly looked like the same room, and Nathan, who’d sterilised everything in sight decided to give up for the night. Josiah had followed him before Chris remembered he didn’t have his car, but Vin and Ezra were asleep by then anyway. He tucked a cushion under Ezra’s ankle, threw a blanket over them, stood and thought a while.

They’d had so little of security or permanence in their lives; maybe it was no wonder that they didn’t expect it now. Well, he was going to make damned sure that they knew the ranch wasn’t just another stopover. For as long as they needed it, and he hoped that would be a few years yet, the ranch was going to be home.

“It’s not going to be enough.”

Martinez scowled at the flat statement. “It’ll have to be enough. It’s all right for you. You’re safe on this side of the border. Well, that’s where I’d prefer to stay. I’m not going back to Denver.”

Varon tilted his chair back, though in the tiny office he had here there was hardly room between the desk and the wall. He felt a bitter resentment at how much he’d lost: money, prestige, opportunity. The only one of those he could immediately do something about was money.

“You only collected from half of the people on my list.”

“I told you, everywhere was being watched. Too many people know my face now, and we don’t have friends in the police any more.”

Varon considered his few options. He’d lost Eli Jo; Henderson would talk in the hope of a lighter sentence; his ex-partners had either cut their losses and bolted, or would be proving their innocence by giving up anything they knew about his less legal dealings.

That left family.

“What about Raoul?” he said.

“He’s too young and too hot-headed. Already he drinks too much and his mother thinks he takes drugs. I told her, not from us, but she says from somewhere, she’s sure. He wouldn’t be reliable.”

“Raoul could do it,” Varon said, warming to the idea. “If you stay out of town but close enough to keep an eye on things. He’d be well paid.”

“My sister wouldn’t like it. The boy may be worthless, but he is her son.”

“There’s no reason why it should be dangerous for him. He isn’t known.”

Martinez hesitated. “If we use Raoul, it must be one job at a time. He isn’t trustworthy.”

“All right. One job at a time. You stay outside Denver and have him come to you.” He paused. “It was the ATF who were waiting for you?”

“I think so. Not Larabee though.”

“He’ll keep. All we want at the moment is the money. If Raoul thinks there could be a problem, he’s to back off, come to you for his next instructions. Once we have money, we can start again properly, and after that will be time enough for revenge. You’d better set off this evening. Give my regards to your sister.”

“Well, Buck, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Josiah said truthfully.

It had taken a week and the spare time and skills of the whole team, with Rain and Gloria Potter offering some extra help, but Buck’s apartment was finally fit to be shown to Nettie Wells.

“JD’s room’s not very big…”

It was the room Buck had used for stowing anything not frequently used and had looked tiny when it was piled high with boxes and camping equipment. Now, although as Buck had said, it wasn’t large, it made a bright and cheerful bedroom. There was room for bunk beds—in case JD ever had a friend to stay over—a desk and chair, and a collection of books, toys and games that had been contributed by almost everyone who knew Buck.

“It looks good,” Josiah said. “When is Nettie coming?”

“Chris is bringing her over straight after work this evening. The boys and Casey are going to eat with Nathan and Rain. Maybe I should take the day off, just make sure everything’s right…”

Josiah had been told by Chris to call in on the way to work specifically to prevent this happening—not because Buck couldn’t be spared, but because the apartment was just about perfect and definitely didn’t need Buck trying any last minute alterations.

“Nettie will think it’s just fine,” he said. “Better than fine—this room has a heart.”

Unlike most newly furnished rooms, this one already had a sense of home. There was a fine collage on the wall of all the horses on the ranch, which Vin and Ezra had made and had framed with Josiah’s help; the bright throws on the bunks had been given by Nathan and Rain; Josiah had carved and fitted the small shelf under the window, which held books from Gloria. There were boxes of Lego and other toys from many different people, and on the bottom bunk was a huge bear that Chris had brought—with a glare that had intimidated any comment. It sat there splendidly now, not a child’s teddy but a ‘grown-up’ facsimile of a brown bear, the sort of lifelike replica sold in a zoo—but with all the cuddly qualities of any soft toy.

“It looks perfect to me, brother,” he said to Buck. “All it needs now is JD. Are they suggesting a date when he might be discharged?”

“I haven’t asked. Not until Nettie’s approved everything. I need to look around again and make sure there nothing we’ve forgotten.”

Josiah managed to get him on the move in the end, but it preoccupied Buck’s mind completely at work until Chris sent him off to the PD to follow up a report of Martinez being sighted near Boulder.

“Not that it was a reliable report, or the PD aren’t perfectly capable of handling it, but it’s that or handcuff him to his chair and gag him,” Chris said. “If Mary wasn’t teaching Vin in there I’d have locked myself in my office. Buck’s going to have a nervous breakdown before this evening at this rate. Think if I called Nettie she’d be able to make it earlier?”

Josiah smiled. “Sorry Chris, she has an all day meeting with the guy who’s taking over her cases when she retires.” He paused as the office door opened. “Hi, Mary. Finished for today?”

“I could hear Chris,” Mary said, amused. “But I was done anyway. Vin’s getting so fluent now he should really start on more challenging study. Maybe I could discuss it with you sometime, Chris?”

Josiah noticed that Vin and Ezra both took an interest at this, moving closer so they wouldn’t miss anything.

“I’ve got half an hour now,” Chris said. “Why don’t you come along to the break room and talk about it over a coffee.”

As soon as they’d gone, a heated, whispered argument broke out behind Josiah.

“You cannot possibly, by any stretch of imagination, describe inviting someone to coffee in the break room as a date.”

“Chris ain’t romantic. Come on. Pay up.”

“Certainly not. This is a… a necessary meeting. Such as he might have with Mrs Wells.”

“He don’t look at Nettie like that.”

“Ah, but looking doesn’t constitute dating.”

“He invited her t’ coffee. That’s like askin’ her t’ dinner.”

“Heaven help any woman ever unlucky enough to be invited out by you! I suppose a handful of dandelions constitutes a bunch of flowers, and a bag of Oreos would be an acceptable alternative to truffles.”

“What’s wrong with Oreos?” Vin asked, genuinely surprised. “Anyway, stop changing th’ subject. Y’ owe me a dollar.”

“Boys!” Josiah said, trying to sound ominous rather than amused. “I hope you’re not betting on what I think you are.”

They did look startled, and slightly guilty, but not very worried.

“Gambling?” Ezra asked, trying to look as if the very concept was hard to understand.

“What gave y’ that idea?” Vin asked.

“It is quite normal for us to exchange small sums of money.”

“J’siah, you’d agree y’ don’t have t’ spend a lot of money t’ make it a date with a girl.”

Josiah was not being drawn into any discussion that could touch, however remotely, on Chris’s relationship or lack of one with Mary Travis.

“Many poets would certainly agree with you, Vin,” he said smoothly. “I’ll just find a few of the more famous works it might be interesting for you to study—Ezra will benefit from this as well. He can explain the sonnet form to you.”

He managed an hour’s paperwork in peace after that, while Vin and Ezra speculated on Shakespeare’s love life instead.

After that, Buck came back, and Vin and Ezra seized on the chance to give up work while he told them—again—about JD’s room and Nettie’s inspection. It was the only topic of conversation for the rest of the day; even Nathan got drawn in. They all discussed it to the point where Josiah decided the only choices were escaping into Chris’s office or banging Buck’s head up and down in his desk to the refrain: the apartment is FINE.

It was close, but he opted for Chris’s office. You could even hear them from in there. Chris looked up with a wry grin from the report he was trying to read. “I called Nettie half an hour ago. She says she’ll manage to finish early and I can pick her up at four thirty. Rain’s getting Casey and Nate’ll take the boys. You want to come along and hold Buck’s other hand?”

Rawlings was working late again. Vic Price had been suspicious at first, but he’d looked over his shoulder enough times to be sure the guy was just going through some of their outstanding cases. Unnaturally conscientious, but Price had given him, O’Toole and the others the week from hell. Maybe it had had some effect.

Rawlings glanced up as the captain left, and grinned. Price had no idea. And he wouldn’t have until it was too late to do anything about it. The only easy way to strike back at that smug bastard Larabee was through those kids he’d taken in. Why he should want them was anybody’s guess—Rawlings personal ones were lurid—but anyway, he did. It would hit him hard if the judge had them locked up. Rawlings knew they wouldn’t go down on the charges Larabee knew about, but there were other possibilities. He’d already found details of three incidents where their guilt was in no doubt at all—they’d evidently kept themselves in food by playing in illegal gambling places. As far as he could make out, Standish had done the actual gaming, Tanner had acted as his bodyguard, but they were certainly in it together. They’d only been picked up for that once, but there were a couple of other cases where they might have been arrested if they hadn’t been so slippery.

Maybe he could get Larabee, too, on infringement of the custody order. He didn’t know the terms of it, but he could make a pretty good guess the boys shouldn’t have been on their own in Wilmington’s apartment. That wouldn’t look good to the judge.

Gratifying his resentment against Larabee was a great motivator. Rawlings didn’t even notice the time until he’d been working for a couple of hours past his usual home time. When he did finish, he was aware of the warm satisfaction of gratified malice. He saved what he’d found and went off with a good appetite.

Vin liked going to eat with Nathan and Rain. He’d even gotten used to the fact that half the food on the table was either vegetables or salad. But he couldn’t help looking at the clock tonight, wondering when Chris would make it. He couldn’t imagine Nettie thinking JD’s room was anything but great, all that stuff just for one kid, but he’d still like to hear it from Chris. And maybe Chris would know when JD’d be allowed out of the hospital.

He finished the green beans on his plate and watched Casey push hers sulkily about. Trying it on, Vin thought. He’d bet Nettie made her eat them. Rain thought so too it turned out. While she and Casey ‘discussed’ it, Vin helped Nathan clear the dishes. Ezra had to miss helping out while he was on crutches, something which mostly seemed to Vin to speed the chores up.

After that, Ezra taught Casey how to play backgammon and Vin helped Nathan to put up a bathroom cabinet. Rain had said that if he could do up Buck’s apartment so well there were a few jobs she could think of at home.

Vin helped with assembling the cabinet, but his mind wandered. Seemed a long wait for Chris. How much time could you take looking around one apartment anyway.

“You’re quiet,” Nathan said, marking on the wall where he was going to drill.

Vin shrugged. People were always saying he was quiet. He talked when he had something to say. Same as Chris.

“You’re not worried about JD are you?” Nathan asked. “The apartment’s fine. Nettie will be more than happy with it. She’s probably just taking a bit of time to give Buck some advice. You don’t want to listen to Buck worrying. Lots of kids have rooms as small or smaller than JD’s, and not to themselves either. I used to share with two brothers.”

“I used t’ share with my ma,” Vin said. “And granda had a camper.”

“You never had a room of your own? Here, hold the spirit level for me.”

“I don’t want a room,” Vin said quickly in case Nathan should think he was complaining. “I like th’ den.”

Nathan nodded, and they had to stop talking for a bit while he drilled, but then he said, “Chris asked you if you’d like to sleep in Adam’s old room, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, but it’s useful t’ have a spare room. ‘Sides, I c’d go back in with Ez if I wanted t’ sleep in a bedroom.”

“Hold the cabinet in place for me while I put the screws through,” Nathan said. “I think maybe when we were doing the room for JD Chris thought you didn’t have much by comparison.”

“Wouldn’t want a lot a stuff,” Vin said. “Bein’ at th’ ranch, that’s enough.”

He stepped back and looked at the cabinet in its place on the wall. “Looks good.” He paused. “You know much about judges, Nathan?”

“A bit.”

Vin had been thinking since the night they’d heard Rawlings’ threats. “If Chris says he wants us, and Nettie says th’ place is right for us, th’ judge still don’t have t’ let us stay.”

“He doesn’t have to, but it’s much more likely he will.”

More likely was okay, but it wasn’t the same as definite. He heard something now though, and abandoned the conversation.

“Where are you going?” Nathan asked.

“I c’n hear Chris.” No one else ever seemed to notice the arrival of Chris’s new black Ram—Buck said Chris knew a place where they cloned them—but Vin could always hear when it was pulling up.

Chris was smiling, well as close to it as he mostly got, so that was okay.

“Nettie thought we’d done a good job,” Chris said.

“It took her almost three hours to come to this conclusion?” Ez always knew how long Chris had been, nearly to the minute. Vin reckoned Ez probably listened out for the Ram too, but he could never get him to admit it.

“Well, it was a bit more complicated than that,” Chris said. “But basically she was very happy with it. Said she thought JD’d be thrilled with his room when he saw it at the weekend.”

Vin grinned. Chris had said that last part casually, like it wasn’t news, just to enjoy seeing everyone do a double take as his words sank in. Vin and Ezra didn’t rise, but everyone else did.

“This weekend!” Rain exclaimed. “Buck must be panicking.”

“He’ll need to stock up on some better food than he’s got in at the moment, and maybe some vitamin supplements,” Nathan said, looking for some paper to make a list.

“Can I be there when he comes home?” Casey tugged at Chris’s arm. “I want to see his room. Did aunty say I could visit?”

“Not straight away,” Chris said. “You’re going to spend Saturday with us, while Nettie helps Buck get JD settled in.” His look at Vin and Ezra said plainly that it didn’t matter what they thought of this arrangement. “I thought we might all go over to the ranch of a neighbour of mine, Sally Logan. She runs riding lessons there amongst other things. Then if JD’s well enough, everyone can visit Sunday.”

The prospect of horse riding consoled Casey for the prospect of having to wait to see JD in his new home, but she still pestered Chris with questions as they drove her home. “What does his bedroom look like? I hope you did the walls blue—blue’s his favourite colour. What games has he got? Will I be able to sleepover sometime?”

“Ezra,” Chris said, chickening out, “describe JD’s room to Casey will you?”

Vin listened, half impressed, half amused, while Ezra described the room to Casey in perfect detail. He even knew the titles of most of the books.

“You’d make a damn good witness,” Chris said, also impressed.

“Auntie doesn’t let me say damn,” Casey said. “It sounds a lovely room. I wish I had bunk beds and a… a urs…”

“Ursos arctos horribilis,” Ezra said. “Please pay attention to me, not Chris, to extend your vocabulary.”

Vin grinned at the expression on Chris’s face.

“Was nice of Chris to get him a teddy, though,” he said. “Not everyone would think of a cuddly toy.”

“Very important in recovery from trauma,” Chris said quickly, regaining the upper hand in the conversation. “Nettie gave me some papers to read on it. That bear is a therapeutic something or other, not a cuddly toy. Oh, and apparently it’s good for all age groups.”

“We don’t want one,” Vin said firmly.

“I’m sure Mr Wilmington could give us advice about what is appropriate for our age group to cuddle,” Ezra agreed.

“You haven’t seen what I’ve got in mind for you yet,” Chris said, in a voice that made it real hard to be sure if he was joking or not. Vin was pretty sure Chris wasn’t about to go get them toys, but he did sound like he might be thinking of something. Vin looked at Ezra, who gave the slightest of shrugs.

“You can get me one if you like,” Casey said. “I don’t like dolls, but animals are okay. Ezra, tell me about the other rooms in the apartment. Please.”

The description of these took them the rest of the way to Nettie’s, where they picked up a tin of flapjacks to take back to the ranch—and ate quite a lot of them on the way.

Vin thought about JD having a safe home now, and toys and things like regular kids, and he was glad for him. Only thing he envied him, was that JD knew for sure he’d be living with Buck. If Vin and Ezra had gotten past the judge’s review and knew they’d always be at the ranch, Vin wouldn’t care about anything else, even if he had to sleep out in the barn with Peso. Which actually would be quite cool…

Chris said it’d be okay when they saw the judge.

Chris was pretty much always right.

But judges and such like could take you away even from your family…

Yeah, he envied JD that he knew he’d got his home.

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?”


“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?”


“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?”


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.”


“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…”


“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.”


“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?”


“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.


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.


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.

Nettie watched JD and Casey in the garden trying to play swingball, laughing and bickering. She’d decided not to start Casey in school ’til the following Monday, and she was glad of it now. Both the children needed to get reaccustomed to the normal rough and tumble of play with their age group. JD had missed a lot of education through his mother’s illness, and the foster placement had never registered him anywhere. Casey had been moved from school to school as relatives tried to help her mother through increasingly frequent crises. To be confident in one friendship would give them a good start.

She turned away from the window as the phone rang. That was the third time this morning; none of her colleagues seemed to have grasped the idea of a personal day. She made herself greet the caller politely, and was glad of it when it turned out to be Tom Carrington, one of the few people she did want to talk to.

“I think it would be an excellent idea to bring the review forward,” she said when she had heard him out. “I’m quite happy to make a recommendation now, and I’m sure Chris Larabee has left you in no doubt as to what he wants.”

“No. In fact, it was his suggestion that the review should be earlier. He thinks the uncertainty is unsettling for the boys.”

“If he feels that, I’m sure he’s right.”

There was a pause, and she felt the judge was trying to find the right way to put something he perhaps thought she wouldn’t agree with. She waited quite patiently. If he had any reservations, she wanted to hear them.

“Chris Larabee is a formidable individual,” Tom said at last. “It’s clear he wants to offer the boys a home, and he’s certainly been more effective at keeping them under control than any of their previous brief encounters with the system. But I wouldn’t like to think that this is simply because they are intimidated into accepting the arrangement. I imagine he’s a man who is more familiar with boot camps than care homes.”

Nettie just about managed not to laugh aloud. The idea of Vin and Ezra leading the sort of cowed existence the judge was worried about struck her as funny. “I warn him far more against indulging them than intimidating them,” she said.

“I respect your opinion,” Tom said. “And I don’t really know Chris Larabee. But on paper he’s a dangerous man, with a background in Special Forces, doing a job which involves a good deal of violent action. Are you sure the boys feel secure with him?”

“Why don’t you ask them?” Nettie said briskly. “See each of them individually at the review before you give your final decision. That should put your mind at rest.”

“That’s a good idea. I think I’ll do that. Now, as to the review—I’ve a couple of slots I could clear, both quite soon. That would be Friday afternoon at 3.00 or Monday morning at 10.00.”

“Ezra should be having his cast removed on Friday afternoon,” Nettie said. She believed in knowing every detail of her cases. “Monday morning should do fine, although you’ll need to check with Chris.”

“I’ll call him at the ranch. He’s off duty for the next two days after the shooting last night.”

The violent end to the stakeout had been widely covered on the morning news. Nettie realised that it had probably prompted the judge’s concerns. “I gather the young man who was killed had already shot a policeman and a passer-by,” she said.

“I’m not querying Larabee’s actions,” the judge said hastily. “Orrin Travis says it’s just a matter of routine and he’ll be back at work shortly. But he seems to see a lot of violent action.”

The reservation was still there in his voice. Nettie had known and worked with Tom Carrington for a long time. She liked him as a person and respected him as a judge, and she felt free to speak her mind to him.

“Those boys belong with Chris Larabee,” she said bluntly. “The change in them since they’ve been at the ranch surprises and impresses me. Chris understands them and he cares about them, and if they stay with him they have a good chance of growing up into decent human beings.”

And if that didn’t convince him, she’d just have to hope Vin and Ezra found the right things to say. She could imagine Vin standing there tongue-tied and Ezra trying to blind the judge with smooth talk. Well, Tom would just have to allow for that if it happened, and make the right decision anyway. Perhaps she’d recap her opinions in writing to help him get it straight.

With one eye on JD and Casey, she sat down to add another paper to the pile she’d already sent.

“What’s th’ judge want t’ see us on our own for?” Vin asked suspiciously

Ezra shared his suspicion. If there was one thing they knew, it was that no one in the system was on your side.

“I expect he wants to know if I’m treating you okay,” Chris said. “He’s right to do it. Arrangements shouldn’t be made for you without you having a say. Besides, you know what can happen when care goes wrong; you were the ones who helped JD out of the situation he was in. The judge needs to know how you feel about being here.”

“We just tell him we want t’ stay here?”

“And answer any questions he has,” Chris said.

“What’s he goin’ t’ ask?”

“Whether you’re happy. What it’s like living here. Whether you want to stay on the ranch.”

Ezra thought that sounded a little too easy. “He’s not going to ask us about our past encounters with the judiciary?”

“Maybe, but he wouldn’t need you on your own for that—just the opposite in fact. I’m sure he just wants to make sure I’m not railroading you into something you don’t want.”

“Why’s he decided now?”

“He may always have planned to talk to you privately. He just told me about it in the context of the review being brought forward, so you’d have time to think about it and know what to expect.”

“Ain’t because of th’ news?”

Ezra hadn’t considered this, but when he thought about it, Vin’s idea was plausible. Chris dismissed any connection, but later, when Chris was chopping wood, Ezra broached the subject again with Vin. “I think it’s possible the judge is concerned that living with Chris might be a violent environment for us. He presumably knows that we spend some of our time at the ATF building, and that we’re aware of what Chris’s work involves.”

“The streets were a ‘violent environment’, come t’ that.”

“I know, but even so, I think it’s important that we stress to the judge that we feel safe and unconcerned, and that Chris is… well, not violent. Kind? Sensitive? Thoughtful?”

“He is all them things, in his own way,” Vin said loyally. “But he don’t look it less you know him.”

“Then it’s up to us to convince the judge. And perhaps we should enlist the aid of anyone else who appreciates Chris.”

Vin was happier when he had something to do. He seized on this idea readily. “Good thinking. Nettie’ll have had her say. But there’s Ms Travis; she thinks Chris is nice. I got to call her later t’ tell her I won’t be in fer a lesson t’day—Chris is goin’ t’ teach me. I’ll ask her then. Mr Travis knows th’ judge.”

“Mrs Logan seemed resourceful,” Ezra said thoughtfully, “and she’s evidently an old friend of Chris’s. I’ll mention it to her when we go over to see our pups.”

“No good talkin’ t Nathan or Buck or Josiah, it’d just get back to Chris. Anyway th’ judge’d listen better t’ someone not in th’ team. Yosemite?”

“I suspect he’s better with strangles and laminitis than with legal terms.”

“I’ll tell him anyway. What about Mr Price, he’s okay.”

“We can hardly call the PD.”

“Y’c’d find his email address. Yer good at that.”

“I don’t usually employ my talents on Chris’s computer.”

“It’s fer his own good. And I know Julie’s cell phone number—you know, JD’s nurse. She’s nice.”

“How do you know her number?” Ezra said, piqued at Vin being the one with this interesting titbit of information.

“JD give it me. He was playing with Buck’s cell phone th’ other morning, and Buck’s got it on there. JD wanted me t’ have it so we c’d invite her here when Buck’s coming.”

“That’s four, then, if we don’t count Yosemite,” Ezra said thoughtfully. “That should be enough for today.”

The people they called on for help were enough—much more than enough, in fact—for Tom Carrington that evening. The calls started as he sat gloomily over his micro-waved dinner and wondered about how to snatch his wife back from the grandchildren.

The first one came before he’d even swallowed a mouthful. It was Vic Price, a man he barely knew, making only a perfunctory apology for calling him at home. “Heard you’d brought the review for Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish forward,” Price said. “I just wanted to make sure you understood about last night’s events. I put in a report clearing Larabee of any blame at all. The youth he shot nearly killed one of my men with no warning all. Bloodwork showed he was high on drugs, and we’ve uncovered some background of violence that suggests he was borderline psychopathic. If Larabee had been a second slower in his reflexes, he’d have been taken out. The kid was firing on sight. Chris Larabee’s a good man, and he’s done a damn good job with Vin and Ezra. It’d be a real shame if protecting the city meant a man lost his kids.”

And there spoke someone used to dealing with the press, the judge thought wryly. He wasn’t going to be threatened, though. “All I want is the best for the boys and for the community,” he said. “They may be steering clear of trouble while they’re with Chris Larabee, but it’s my duty to ensure that they are also safe and happy.”

“They think the sun shines out of Larabee,” Vic Price said. “You take them away from him, and they’ll never trust the law again.”

“I’ll take your views into consideration,” Tom said. “Now if you’ll excuse me…”

“You want me to put it all in writing?”

“No, no. I’ll come back to you if I need any further clarification. Thanks.”

He managed to reheat the lasagne and eat most of it before the next call came. This time it was Mary Travis, less blunt than Price, and much sweeter in her apologies—but with the same basic message when she got down to business. “Tom, I just wanted to have a quick word about Chris Larabee. I thought you might not really appreciate how good he’s been with Vin and Ezra. He’s so understanding with them, and he’s actually very good with children in general. Billy adores him.”

The judge snatched a mouthful of his congealing lasagne while he listened to her catalogue of Larabee’s virtues. He wondered if it was appallingly cynical to think she might find the guy attractive. “And he’s even getting these pups for the ranch from Sally Logan, and I know it’s basically for Vin and Ezra,” Mary said.

As he politely finished the call, and assured Mary he thought her views were very helpful, the judge’s mind was on that last remark. He knew Sally Logan; his wife had worked with her on some dog charity, and had talked about riding lessons there when the grandchildren were older. She knew Chris Larabee, then, and she was a woman who never hesitated to speak her mind…

His forebodings were proved correct when she called him as he poured his coffee. Obviously the only thing on the grapevine today was ‘Judge slanders Larabee; needs deluging with new information’.

“He’s good with horses and dogs, and as far as I can see he’s good with boys,” Sally said, getting her priorities clear. “I’ve spoken to Laura, and told her how he’s training up Vin and Ezra, and she’s impressed.”

She’d spoken to Laura? When he tried to speak to Laura he always found the phone off the hook so it wouldn’t wake the baby. And really she shouldn’t have done that…

“You know, it would be quite wrong for Laura to try to influence any of my professional decisions,” he pointed out mildly.

Sally made a noise that sounded like one of her horses snorting. “Rubbish. She’s brought up two kids, and I’ve brought up three, and we know when they’re in a good home. Those boys are thriving with Chris, and I wouldn’t be sending any of my pups there if I wasn’t confident in him.”

Judges were better protected in the courtroom. He could try ruling Sally out of order, or indeed, in contempt, but it wouldn’t do him any good. He just had to listen until she’d finished. It did occur to him to ask how she’d heard about the review. “Not from Chris, if that’s what you mean,” Sally said. “There are lots of people concerned about him and the boys.”

That was ominous.

It worked in his favour in one way, though. The next caller was Laura herself. He told her how much he was missing her. “My conversation or my cooking?” she asked, without a word about rushing home. “Now what’s all this about you threatening to take those two boys from Chris Larabee?”

“I’m not threatening anything of the sort!” he protested. “Why everyone has this idea I just can’t imagine.”

He managed to convince her of his good intentions and turned to more important things. “It’s not like home without you,” he said.

“Really, Tom, a lot of men enjoy looking after themselves. I expect I’ll be back at the weekend. Now I must go. It’s his bath time…”

Resigned, Tom decided he was entitled to a post prandial brandy. It improved his mood for the next caller, a rather sweet nurse, who—surprise, surprise—wanted to tell him what a lovely person Chris Larabee really was. “I know he has rather a gruff exterior,” she said, completely understating the black menace which was Tom’s recollection of the man, “but he’s a sweetie underneath.”

No, Tom couldn’t picture this, not even with the visual aid of Larabee as soft toy provider for little boys leaving hospital. Apart from Price, perhaps all of his callers had been unduly influenced by the fact that Larabee could probably be considered attractive, if you were female and susceptible. Not that in his wildest imaginings he’d have called Sally Logan susceptible, but you never knew.

His final caller of the evening was not only male, but a retired acquaintance of his from the judiciary. The man had always rambled, even when he was a judge. It took him a long time to get down to the point of his call. “Don’t know if you’ve heard me mention Yosemite. Guy who looks after our horses when we’re in Europe?”

Tom had heard the name Yosemite. He couldn’t immediately think where.

“He just wanted me to have a word with you about another rancher he works for, Chris Larabee; can’t say I know him well, but Yosemite does and he’s a very good judge of character…”

The worst of it was, Tom thought, as he resigned himself to listening, was that he just couldn’t understand how he’d unleashed all this. Nettie wouldn’t talk about a case; Larabee was the last man to have anyone else fight his battles. Who had the devious sort of mind to set all this in motion?

He couldn’t imagine.

“Don’t go borrowin’ trouble,” Vin said.

He’d been up around dawn and gone riding with Chris early. That was so as not to rub it in to Ezra who wasn’t getting his cast off ’til tomorrow. Later they’d gone over to see the pups close enough to lunch time that Sally had given them bread and ham and cake. It was a good day, and he’d learned long ago to make the most of those when they came along. He’d worry again tomorrow.

Ezra couldn’t think like that though, and Vin knew he’d never convince him.

“Y’ okay about goin’ t’ th’ hospital?”

“Yes. It’s a straightforward procedure removing a cast. Nathan told me what to expect a long time ago.”

“Chris says he’ll go with you rather than Josiah if y’ want.”

“They remove casts with a saw. I’d rather he wasn’t making them nervous.”

“Just thinkin’ about Monday, then?”


Vin had thought about it on and off, but for once he knew what he wanted to say, and he’d decided how to say it. Chris said the judge was straight, and so did Nettie, and Vin was going to put it out of his mind for now.

“Come on outside,” he persuaded Ezra. “Y’ can talk t’ Chaucer even if y’ can’t ride him. Sun’s still shining and Chris is fixin’ that rain pipe that leaks.”

Ezra looked at him and Vin realised just how unhappy he was. “It makes it worse,” Ezra said. “How do you enjoy Peso or the ranch when you know you may not get to keep them?”

Vin shrugged. “First off, Chris is mostly right, and he says th’ judge is a good man. We know th’ charges are dropped, so it won’t be jail. If they don’t let Chris keep us, we won’t stay where we’re put, but when we run, we come back here. Every time. Until they let us stay. They can’t call it runnin’ if we come t’ Chris. Reckon they’d get tired of it pretty soon and let him have us.”

“I don’t think you could call that a plan,” Ezra said, but it seemed to have dispelled his gloom for the time being. He came out and enjoyed what remained of the day, or at least had a good go at it. It wasn’t until the evening he started to look like he was thinking again.

“Reckon I’ll sleep in a bed t’night,” Vin said, nearly making Chris drop his coffee. “Anyone put the covers back on it?”

Gloria Potter had washed them after Buck had spilled his early morning coffee the night he stayed. Vin had thought he might like a cup in bed, but Buck had mumbled things about ‘dawn’ and ‘go away’ and dropped it. It had got him up, just not quite the way Vin had intended. But Chris had been able to sleep in, which was the important thing.

Vin went to check whether the bed was ready, and Chris came along with an armful of linen. “Ez worrying?” he asked.

“Some,” Vin said. He’d known Chris would’ve noticed. “He don’t like waiting for somethin’ to happen. He’ll be okay Monday.”

“He’s all right about the appointment tomorrow.”

“Yeah. Think so.”

“I could go with him. I could change the time of my meeting.”

Vin shook his head. “Josiah’s okay. I’ll go along, though. Keep an eye on things. I’ll call y’ if there’s anyone needs glarin’ at.”

Chris cuffed him lightly and went to lock up. If Ezra was grateful for company for the night, it didn’t show, but on the other hand he slept okay. He was ruder the next day when he discovered Vin had decided to come along to the hospital with him.

“I do not intend to become the other half of a Siamese twin act. Why do you feel your presence is continually required?”

“T’ stop y’ broodin’. Anyway, I want t’ talk t’ Josiah.”

“Why?” Ezra asked. “And why can’t you talk to him here?”

“I want t’ go t’ church with him Sunday. And I want t’ talk t’ him about it in peace.”


Vin grinned. That had almost been a squeak from Ezra. “I been thinkin’,” he said. “See, th’ main trouble with judges is they got a lot of power, right? Even Chris’d have a problem going up against that. So I reckon y’ need someone with more power than a judge. Seems like that’d be God. You c’n come along t’ church too. Two askin’ fer something has t’ be better than one. Then there’s Josiah. That’s three.”

“You can’t… I can’t… Anyway, the idea is irreverent. You can’t just go to church because you want something. And I don’t believe in God.”

“Can’t be irreverent if’n y’ don’t believe it,” Vin pointed out. “Anyway, y’ can still ask, can’t y’?

“How am I supposed to ask anything of a deity in whose existence I doubt?”

“Things can be different from what y’ believe,” Vin said. “Y’ didn’t believe in Chris come t’ that, but he was him just the same, and now y’ know he is.”

“Wading through the general incoherence of that remark, if I’ve understood you right you are talking about an entirely different sort of belief.”

“Ain’t different.”

“It’s completely different. I knew Chris existed, I just didn’t trust him.”

“Y’ didn’t trust him because y’ thought he was a different person from what he was and that he was goin’ t’ let y’ down. So y’ didn’t really b’lieve he existed. Not th’ real Chris.”

“I don’t think you have an adequate vocabulary for metaphysics,” Ezra said nastily. Vin grinned. If Ez got mean, it meant he thought he was losing the argument. He let it go for a while and came back to it much later, when Ezra was safely extracted from his cast. Ezra was sitting and looking anxiously at his pale and rather stringy ankle, while the nurse went to get a chart of exercises he could do to strengthen the muscles again. It would take his mind off it to argue about something.

“J’siah,” Vin said. “Y’ can ask God fer something the first time y’ go to church, even if y’ ain’t reg’lar?”

“You can,” Josiah said, without a lot of irritating questions.

“Good. And it don’t matter if you b’lieve in Him or not? Y’ can still ask.”

“Every baby has to take a first step before he knows he can walk.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Ezra said. “The theological illiterate meets the fortune cookie writer.”

Josiah grinned. “We forgive you for that unkind remark, don’t we Vin?”

“Yep. We’ll come t’ church with y’ Sunday, J’siah. Okay, Ez?”

“If I must,” Ezra said, agreeing as Vin had known he would. “Though I think that if you do postulate the existence of a deity, it seems rather rude to turn up merely because we want something. We have hardly merited consideration.”

“That’s where grace comes in,” Josiah said. “We all need some grace. Vin, does Chris know about this, and if not, would you like me to mention it?”

“Nope. My idea. I’ll do it,” Vin said. “Ez, yer nurse is comin’.”

Vin hadn’t known what to expect when the cast came off, but as the day went on it seemed like Ezra felt worse now than with it on. Chris said that was okay though, and it always happened that the muscles needed strengthening again. They encouraged Ezra to do the exercises, and he tried to walk around, though he complained it felt weird. Helping him, Vin forgot he planned to talk to Chris and they were heading for bed before he remembered.

Chris came out of Ezra’s room. “Wouldn’t hurt for you to sleep in there again tonight,” he said. “Come and get me if he’s uncomfortable—aches or cramps or anything.”

“I was plannin’ to,” Vin said. He followed Chris along the hallway. “Chris…”


“We’re goin’ t’ th’ church service with Josiah, Sunday. I asked him t’ take us.”

Chris looked at him, then nodded. “All right. Suit yourself. Don’t expect me to come.”

Vin hadn’t. Josiah never said so, but Vin guessed Chris hadn’t been anywhere near a church since the day the car bomb blew up his family. He could understand that, and if there was any point going to church at all, he was going to have to reckon God did too.

Chris’s eyes met his, and held the look, and any unease between them evaporated.

“Tell Josiah I’ll drive you in,” Chris said, and gave him a light push in the direction of bed.

Martinez eventually got his sister’s message on the Saturday afternoon, nearly five days after Raoul had been killed. The precautions he’d taken to make sure no one traced him as he went to hand over the latest payments to Varon had also prevented anyone from getting in touch with him easily, and the news story hadn’t reached this side of the border.

He was with Varon when distressed plea came, via several intermediaries. “Don’t call her from here,” Varon said sharply.

“She’ll be frantic. She doted on the boy. I have to go to her.”

“It was five days ago. Was he on a job for us?”

“”No, I was giving him one task at a time. I told you how difficult he was being—I was hoping he might have gained some sense while I was away.”

“Coincidence, then,” Varon said. “But they were watching the place; it must be because we did business there. Why did they try to arrest Raoul?”

“I don’t think they did. From this account, someone inside recognised that the man following him was a cop and alerted him. He was high… he was a bit crazy when he wasn’t high… They must have had a lot of police in the area. Even so, he was fast and he knew his way around. If Larabee hadn’t been there…”

“Larabee’s mine,” Varon interrupted him quickly. “If you must go and play vendettas, you leave Larabee out of it. You couldn’t stand Raoul anyway.”

“He was still family.”

“Well, if you feel honour demands it, go and shoot someone else who was involved. One of the cops. That’ll be enough to make your sister think someone’s paid for his death.” He paused, thinking. “Or better still, hit one of those kids Larabee took in. They caused half the trouble for us. That would be an eye for an eye. But whatever else you do, you leave Larabee. When I’m back in business, I’ll deal with him myself.”

Martinez accepted that, not too reluctantly, and left to go as rapidly as possible to comfort his sister.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Varon called after him. “Raoul was expendable. I need you.”

Buck was exhausted when he got back to Nettie’s on Saturday evening. How could two ten-year-olds, one of them still convalescent, seem more tiring than a day of assault courses? It was the incessant chatter, he decided, that and keeping the peace between them while making sure they had real fun without coming to any harm.

Nettie opened the door, accompanied by a wonderful smell of dinner wafting from the kitchen. “Come on in,” she said. “JD, Casey, go and wash your hands.”

They went, transformed suddenly into reasonably quiet and sensible kids. Buck wondered how she did it. He would have ended up having to pretend to chase them there to a din of squeals and giggles.

Nettie smiled. “Sit down,” she said sympathetically. “The roast’s almost done, and I’m just getting the apple pie out to stand. Don’t touch that cake though—that’s for Chris. I’ll give it to him on Monday.”

“You’re pretty sure the judge is going to let the boys stay there?” Buck asked, realising the implication of what she’d said. Cakes belonged to celebrations.

“Well, I know what my recommendation was. Is Chris worried about the outcome?”

“Hard to tell with Chris. The boys are certainly worried.”

Nettie sighed. “Well, it’s understandable. So many people have spoken up for them though. I really don’t think they should need to worry unless something unforeseen happens to affect the judge’s decision.”

Rawlings was sure he was on to something. It wasn’t easy following it up without attracting attention—Price seemed to be watching him in a slightly threatening way—but he was persistent, and Price wasn’t working the weekend.

Rawlings had spent his own time all day Saturday, and now he was making progress. Everything from the scene of Eli Jo’s death was recorded somewhere, it was just a case of working out exactly what he needed to know and then tracking it down. He carefully reread forensics report on the bullets. The one in Eli Jo had come from Chris Larabee’s gun; the ones in the car had come from a different weapon, which had been found on the ground beside the crashed car. He wanted to take a look at that gun.

Ezra hated the feeling of weakness in his ankle. He hadn’t been so naïve as to expect to be instantly back to full fitness, but nor had he expected his limb to atrophy so disconcertingly. He worked relentlessly at his exercises in every spare moment. It was uncomfortable, and by the evening his whole leg ached, but it was preferable to sitting and thinking.

Thinking only led in one direction… what it would be like no longer to have the ranch, and Chaucer, and his pup, Rosie, who already seemed to recognise him… no longer to have Chris…

It was all very well Vin saying they could run to Chris if the authorities tried to send them somewhere else. All that would do would be to put Chris in an impossible position with the law. He wondered about all the people they had asked to speak to the judge. Would any of them have bothered? It was a lot of trouble to go to, and he and Vin had no claim on them.

He forced himself back to the exercises, but even when he refused to think about it, the prospect of the review was at the edge of his thought, heavy and dark and depressing.

He awoke sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning with agonising cramp in his leg. Gasping aloud, he doubled up, trying to rub at his knotting muscles. Vin, who never slept through anything, was out of bed almost immediately to help him, his fingers digging skilfully into Ezra’s calf. “Reckon y’ overdid th’ exercisin’.”

“Possibly,” Ezra agreed, sighing with relief as the pain finally eased.

“Y’okay now?” Vin asked, sitting on the edge of Ezra’s bed rather than going back to his own. Ezra didn’t object. For once he would rather talk than return to his slumber.

“The cramp has gone,” he said “But I don’t think I will be anything like okay until after Monday.”

“Me neither,” Vin agreed softly. “Me neither.”

They didn’t go back to sleep.

Josiah knew at once when he saw Vin and Ezra on Sunday morning that they’d slept badly. For the first time in weeks he saw the resemblance to the pale and tired kids Team 7 had encountered that first day. Ezra was limping, and Vin was even more silent than he normally was.

Chris didn’t get out of the Ram. “Where are you taking them?” he asked briefly before Vin closed the door.

“The Community Church—north of 1-25, you know the one—the congregation have connections with the people who run the coffee and drop in places for street kids, and they’re welcoming.”

Chris nodded. “What time’ll you be finished?”

“There’s coffee… I don’t know if the boys will want to go to that. Best if I call you?”

“Do that,” Chris said, and went.

Josiah managed to get about two words out of Ezra and nothing at all from Vin as he drove to the church. Vin looked around the parking lot, and at the small groups and families walking along towards the hall, and seemed to brace himself. It was only once they were inside that Josiah realised why—the sheer number of people in one place, all ages, all types, must have been something Vin had almost never experienced. And he clearly found it daunting.

Josiah, who came here fairly often, exchanged greetings with a few people he knew, and found a reasonably quiet place to sit. He was beginning to wonder if this had been a good idea.

“We don’t have to stay,” he said, leaning across Ezra to speak quietly to Vin.

“I’m okay,” Vin said. He had the look on his face he had when he was about to try something on the bike that might come off or might end in a painful crash. Josiah wondered whether to change places with Ezra. He’d left Vin at the end, so he’d feel less trapped, and had seated Ezra between them so he was trapped; if something was said that struck Ezra as irrational, Josiah didn’t want him to get up and walk out to make the point that his logic was offended.

“I c’n do this,” Vin added briefly, and Josiah stayed where he was. Vin hadn’t sounded too sure, though, and neither was Josiah. As the time for the service to start drew closer, Ezra folded his arms and leaned back. The expression on his face said very clearly that he was unimpressed and was going to remain that way, and his cynicism would be unimpaired by anything up to and including miracles. More people came in and Vin started to shift uncomfortably, as if willpower alone was keeping him from bolting.

There was a stir, almost a ripple of unease among the people sitting behind them or still standing near the door. Josiah, maybe already in a biblical frame of mind, thought it was reminiscent of the anxious stirring of sheep when a predator prowled around the fold. He looked around, surprised, because the congregation here were genuinely warm and welcoming.

He was far more startled when he saw the source of the unease. No wonder even the most friendly of the people were slightly unnerved. Striding through, not worrying too much who he forced out of his way, his expression even blacker than his clothes, Chris Larabee made his way to join them. Everyone moved hastily to let him through, one or two people recovering and smiling a welcome, but no one venturing a spoken one. It was quite clear that Chris was angry: with God, Josiah, this place, everything and everyone—except the two who were actually responsible for him being here. For them, apparently, there was nothing Chris wasn’t prepared to do.

Chris reached Vin and Ezra and his expression softened a little. Josiah had been trying to keep his surprise and pleasure at Chris’s arrival from being too obvious, but he couldn’t smother a smile as he saw their reaction. Ezra, his cynicism apparently only prepared for exotic miracles, not mundane ones, turned towards Chris eagerly. In Vin’s eyes there was a look of utter relief.

They all moved along and Chris sat down beside Vin, wrapping an arm around him—though not without glaring around at anyone who might assume he was the hugging type. Josiah didn’t really think there was much danger of that, but he was severely tempted to grab Chris in a bear hug himself. As the service started, he could see that Vin and Ezra’s feelings had been transformed. Ezra’s determined wall of disbelief had cracked apart, and Vin, Chris’s arm protecting his back and guarding his space, looked up with confidence.

Josiah raised his voice in song with the best. It was definitely a morning for praising God.

Tom Carrington spent Sunday afternoon reading and rereading the piles of notes and reports and statements he’d accumulated on the case—far more than he could ever recollect having before. He’d been through everything once, but he wanted to be certain of his decision.

He looked again at the most recent file he’d received, only the previous afternoon. That one was from Vic Price, and was a long and detailed list of all the ways in which Vin and Ezra had assisted the PD with information and identifications. Price felt it more than out weighed the relatively minor charges which still stood against them. That was straightforward, and Tom checked his own note and put the file to one side.

Nettie’s notes and recommendations, well-organised and thorough as always, he’d already read more than once. There was the occasional comment he wasn’t sure how to take—’I have found Chris Larabee’s approach to the boys’ education truly innovative’ was one—but basically her views were very clear.

There were two questions that Tom wanted to be sure he’d answered to his own satisfaction, and he began to collate all his notes with regard to that. Was it in the boys’ best interests in every sense to be with Chris Larabee, and was it in the best interests of the wider community for them to be placed there?

The place where he’d jotted down the most queries, was in the file where he’s collected reports about the weekend Larabee’s Ram had been forced off the road. It was certainly the time when his original decision to place the boys in Larabee’s custody had been most severely tested. Certainly, as Orrin pointed out, it had all worked out well in the end, and there was no doubt that Vin and Ezra had been of some considerable assistance to the authorities over the Henderson case, but there were a few things which didn’t seem to him to add up—not least the question of why Larabee and Vin Tanner had been present when Eli Jo Chavez carried out the hit on Henderson. He could just let it go; that was the tone of what he’d received from Orin and from Price. But he didn’t like to leave loose ends where he could avoid it.

As he reread everything he had, it seemed to him the only person who could give him any of the answers he’d like, was Chris Larabee. He also wanted to be sure that Larabee had considered fully the implications of those events—both that the boys could have been with him in the car, and that if he really had been killed, they would possibly have returned to their former lawlessness.

He’d already been considering asking Larabee to come in early, so he could speak to him individually before he spoke to the boys. He decided now that for his own peace of mind, he wanted to get some of these questions answered, even if they made no difference to his final decision. He called the ranch, and was able to arrange to meet at eight the next morning, which would give him plenty of time to see Vin and Ezra s well before the official review.

Rawlings had reached a dead end at the PD; he’d found out about the second gun, but before he could investigate anything else about it—like fingerprints—Vic Price had unexpectedly caught up with him, and made it clear he knew about Rawlings sending the previous report to the judge and that he’d better back off.

“Did you get fingerprints run on the gun?” Rawlings asked insolently. “Or didn’t you want to know.”

“I had the fingerprints run,” Price said. “There were several sets. Of course, it shouldn’t have been handled at the scene, but you can’t expect a kid like Tanner to know police procedure.”

So that was how Price was going to play it. Rawlings couldn’t go up against him on this, not when he had no evidence of any other sort. He went sullenly from the building, but he hadn’t given up yet. It was inconceivable that Tanner had had a gun while he was with Larabee. That meant he must have obtained it in the brief time he was on the loose. For a kid like that, the obvious choice would be to go to Guzman, which was a criminal act in itself.

Rawlings decided to go and pay a Sunday evening call on Jose Guzman.

Martinez tried not to be sickened by his sister’s self-indulgent wailing. She would not talk or listen to him talk, only sob hysterically for hours. A neighbour sat and tried to comfort her; another helped by cleaning up the apartment. Maria showed them no gratitude. When she wasn’t crying she blamed everyone and everything for Raoul’s death—everyone except Raoul himself, and everything except the overindulgent upbringing he had had.

Martinez tried to spend as little time as possible in the stuffy living room with her. A series of phone calls brought him, eventually, the useful information that he wouldn’t need to go out to Larabee’s ranch—a risky proceeding he hadn’t decided upon. A legal ‘friend’ knew that there was to be a hearing about the custody arrangements for Tanner and Standish the next day, at the City and Council building. That suited Martinez much better.

When they were alone, late that evening, he told her that he would see Raoul avenged. Briefly, her tears stopped.

It had been a long and busy day, and Chris was glad of it. He knew how little Vin or Ezra had slept the night before; maybe they’d be too tired to worry tonight.

They’d been to lunch with Nettie after the service—which meant the boys had eaten; Nettie didn’t believe in good food being picked at. After that, they’d been to see the pups, and helped with Sally’s horses as thanks for the fruit cake and cookies they’d brought home with them. They’d done their own chores, and finally sat down in front of a familiar movie with coffee and the cake. If the boys’ eyes weren’t ready to close, Chris’s were.

He woke with a start to realise he’d actually dozed off. Bruce Willis had almost finished blowing things up, and Vin and Ezra had fallen asleep on the couch. Chris looked at them, undecided. They weren’t in the most comfortable of positions. On the other hand, they were asleep, which was a hell of a lot better than lying awake worrying.

It seemed a pity to disturb them. He fetched the quilt from Ezra’s bed and put it over them, squashing a couple of cushions and pillows in between them and the arms of the couch for support.

“Chris?” Ezra mumbled without opening his eyes. He wasn’t really awake; Chris had learned to recognise the signs.

“Everything’s okay. Go back to sleep,” he said. Ezra was less argumentative when he was almost asleep. He dozed off again obediently.

Vin’s eyes were open, just about focussed on Chris. “Ain’t moving,” he said drowsily.

“Not asking you to,” Chris said. “If you’re stiff in the morning, it’s your look out.”

Vin grinned, but his eyes were already closing again. “Ain’t old like you,” he murmured, managing to have the last word by instantly falling asleep again.

Chris watched them a moment, then went along to the study. He’d for once managed to field a call from the judge without Vin and Ezra hearing it, so it hadn’t added to their worries. It had to his own, though. He printed off a copy of the report he’d sent the judge about the Henderson shooting and Eli Jo’s death, and went back to the den with it.

He’d hoped he wouldn’t be called on what he’d left out of his account. The judge was dauntingly thorough. He sat down to read it and to decide how much of the truth he could safely tell. The TV was a soft background noise. Vin and Ezra slept.

Chris decided to stay in the den. By now, he knew the slight sounds of a nightmare starting and the word or touch that would halt it.

Who else would understand or give a damn whether they slept soundly or not?

He had to find the right words to convince Tom Carrington that the ranch was their home and they needed to stay.

It took Rawlings until late Sunday night to track down Jose Guzman, and he was hardly likely to get a cooperative welcome if he showed up at that time. Frustrated, he went back to the shabby apartment he’d moved into when his wife kicked him out. He hated it there. Every time he went in the door, he felt as if life was shouting ‘loser’ at him. He’d got fuck all to show for years of working unsociable hours and risking his neck for Denver’s indifferent citizens.

He microwaved a meal that had less taste than an MRE. Before he flopped down on the unmade bed, he took a long, bitter look at the one clean thing in the room: a photo frame with a snapshot of Joan holding Pattie when she was about three months old. It was so damn stupid. She’d thrown him out because he was never there for her or Pattie, and now he was almost never there at all. Pattie wasn’t even sure who he was any more. How could a two-year-old build a relationship with someone who she only saw for a couple hours every two weeks?

And Larabee came along so fucking smug, acting like the whole PD was dirt, taking Henderson’s guilt for granted because some street kid with a record as long as his arm had taken a photo or two. They said Henderson had admitted it, but even so… It wasn’t justice. It wasn’t justice that Larabee chose who got to pay for what they’d done.

Rawlings couldn’t do anything about most of it, but he didn’t see why those kids should get off scot free. He’d see Guzman first thing in the morning.

Nathan got the call from Chris just as he woke. He grabbed the phone hastily, hoping Rain might sleep a bit longer. Chris, as usual, didn’t bother with a greeting, just stated who he was and got down to business.

“Want you in the office from seven. Can you make that?”

“Yes, sure. Is there a problem?”

“Judge called me last night. Wants me to go clear up a few details. I’ve got to be at the City and County building at 8.00; I don’t want to drag the boys along that early. He says 9.30 will do for them, so I’ll drop them off with you and Josiah. Buck’s home with JD.”

Nathan vaguely remembered that Nettie had to take Casey to her new school and then go to the review and Gloria’s mother had had a fall. “So one of us will bring the boys over?”

“Josiah will. Orrin wants someone’s comments on that warehouse fire, and you’re the only one who’s been through the file thoroughly.”

“Okay. I’ll see you when you drop the boys off.”

Chris had sounded stressed under the terseness, but when Nathan saw him later, he was keeping any tension from showing. He was doing his best to convince Vin and Ezra that the meeting he’d been called to with the judge was just a matter of tidying up details, that the fact it was last minute was probably more to do with the review being brought forward than with a problem, but they weren’t buying it. Nathan guessed they knew Chris too well.

“If there is a problem, I’ll deal with it,” Chris said to them at last. “Hang in there. Have a coffee and try to think about something else. I’ll have to go now, and Josiah will bring you for 9.30. Okay?”

Ezra was silent; Vin mumbled “yessir.” Nathan had never seen them look less okay. Ezra was actually shivering slightly, and Vin’s fingers were drumming incessantly against the side of his jeans. When Chris went, they looked as if they thought they’d not see him again.

Josiah tried to coax them to talk; Nathan made coffee, spooning in heaps of sugar for Vin without a second thought, but nothing made a difference to their silent misery. It was a relief, in the end, when Josiah had to set off with them.

“Call me!” Nathan said.

He tried to make himself settle down to work, but it was five minutes before he even noticed he’d picked up the wrong file.

Martinez, reconnoitring the City and County building early, saw Chris Larabee’s black Ram. Presumably Larabee was inside already. Did that mean the boys were? It wasn’t a major problem; he could hit them when they left as easily as when they were arriving, but he would have preferred to know when to be ready. He found a position from where he could watch anyone approaching or leaving, and settled down to wait.

Vic Price noticed that Rawlings—conspicuous by his presence over the weekend—was unexpectedly absent this morning. He made some inquiries, then made some more forceful inquiries, and eventually prised out of Schultz the information that Rawlings had gone to pay an early morning call on Jose Guzman.

He decided to follow this up himself.

Guzman was sullen, not at all happy about two visits from the PD, but he knew that even if Price couldn’t pin a charge on him he could make his life a misery, so he cooperated. “Your man wanted to know about a gun,” he said. “Showed me a picture of the kid he thought might have bought it.”


Guzman shrugged. “I recognised the kid. He’d brought in another gun to trade in. Looking back, I should have asked more questions,” he added, trying—and failing—to sound like an honest man. “Turned out the gun had been stolen from an ATF guy, Wilmington, you probably know him. Naturally I returned it to Wilmington, and he recognised it had been an honest error on my part.”

Vic Price winced inwardly. What a gift for Rawlings. He could not only offer some evidence that Tanner had stolen the weapon and sold it, but that Team 7 had been involved in covering this up.

“Where did Rawlings go?” he asked, though he could make a guess.

Guzman smiled unpleasantly. “He seemed to think this was evidence that could get lost at the PD, and anyway he wanted to get it somewhere in a hurry. I don’t know where.”

Price didn’t know either, but he could make a good guess. It was common knowledge at the PD that Vin and Ezra’s review hearing was this morning. If Rawlings was in a hurry, it sounded like he wanted to get to that. If nothing else, the judge would have to stop and look into it.

Resisting the temptation to wipe the smile off Guzman’s face, Price set off for the City and County building.

Ezra felt as if the drive to the hearing was taking place in slow motion. There was a lump of ice in his stomach; the coffee he had drunk hadn’t even begun to thaw the chill. All the things he’d lain awake at nights planning to say to the judge seemed futile now, and he was too tired to think of anything new.

He glanced at Vin, but Vin was staring into the distance, looking quite calm if you didn’t notice his fingers drumming on his knee.

When Josiah had parked and they followed him towards the building, it was like swimming against a current. Ezra’s legs just didn’t want to move. His ankle still ached, but it was his reluctance to have the conversation with the judge that really held him back.

“Come on, will y’,” Vin said sharply.

“There’s plenty of time,” Josiah told him.

“Why are you so enthusiastic all of a sudden?” Ezra snapped, feeling as edgy as Vin evidently did.

Josiah put an arm around each of them. “It will be all right,” he said firmly. “You’ll both be fine talking to the judge. We’ll just go in and find out what room…” He’d been looking towards the building as he spoke, and he suddenly broke off.

“Down!” he said in a very different voice, and flattened them both to the ground as without any warning a rattle of automatic fire started and flecks of earth and grass flew up near them.

Ezra was almost winded as he hit the ground. His ankle hurt and Josiah’s arm was heavy across his back. Startled and confused, he was only just beginning to work out what was happening when it was all over. There was the sound of a car engine racing, bullets hitting metal, a screeching of brakes, all before he’d even recovered his breath. He looked up and saw a car spinning around in front of the building, evidently hit by whoever was shooting. A woman somewhere was screaming.

The rattle of gunfire stopped as abruptly as it had begun.

They heard a siren, and a car that he recognised as Vic Price’s raced up, its blue light on.

It had all only taken a couple of minutes, and now it was almost silent.

“Are you all right?” Josiah asked anxiously, looking around to check that the danger had really passed.

“Was he? “I think so,” Ezra said. His voice shook annoyingly and he made an effort to control it before he asked, “What happened?”

Josiah shook his head. “I’m not really sure.” He saw Price and officials from inside the building running to the car. There was no further sign of the gunman. A few other people who’d also dived to the ground were getting up.

Slowly, Josiah helped Ezra to his feet. Vin shrugged off any help and stood a little away from them, staring at the car. He had one hand pressed against his side, Ezra noticed. He looked his question. Vin shook his head.

“‘M fine,” he said to Josiah. “That was Rawlings in th’ car. Someone took him out.”

“You could be right,” Josiah said. “I thought it was someone about to fire at us; I just saw the movement rather than the actual gun. But the car must have been coming up fast.”

“He was aimin’ t’ hit Rawlings,” Vin said, very firmly, looking towards the shattered bodywork of the vehicle.

Ezra looked as well, then away again hastily from the sight of the slumped and bloody driver.

“You boys certainly don’t need to be seeing this,” Josiah said quickly. “I’ll take you inside and find out where you should be, then I must see if Vic Price needs some help.”

He wasn’t completely convinced they hadn’t been the targets, Ezra realised, and was keen to get them safely inside, although it was clear now the gunman had fled after he hit the car.

People were streaming out of the building to see what had happened. Josiah forced a way in against the tide, and after a minute or two, found someone to direct them.

“C’n I use th’ bathroom?” Vin asked.

Ezra looked at him doubtfully again, because he had sounded somehow not quite right. Still, it wasn’t surprising. Ezra didn’t feel remotely right either. The sight of all the blood on Rawlings had made him queasy, and he was having to brace himself against that and everything else before he went in to speak to the judge.

Vin was so long in the washroom that a man had come to call them in to see the judge before he came back.

“It doesn’t matter,” Josiah said. “Judge Carrington wanted to see you one at a time anyway. You go in, Ezra, and I’ll wait for Vin.”

Ezra took a deep breath, remembered how he had learned to put on an appropriate face for any occasion before he was old enough for kindergarten, and went. He’d expected something like a courtroom, but he was shown through a tiny waiting room and into a small office that was more like someone’s study.

The judge had invited him to sit down, and had begun with one or two predictable questions about living at the ranch, when the man came back with a note and waited while the judge read it.

“I heard something, but we’re on the other side of the building here,” the judge said. “They just witnessed this?”

“On the way in, apparently. The man who brought them felt you should know. It’s a nasty mess out there.”

“Quite shocking to see, I imagine,” the judge said. “Thank you.” He turned back to Ezra as the man left. “I’m sorry—I had no idea you’d had such an unpleasant experience on the way here. I think I have only two questions I really feel it’s important to ask you, so I won’t make this any longer than I have to.”

Ezra waited, suspicious of this apparent kindness.

“First of all, I need to ask about the whereabouts of your mother, and what she would want for you.”

How like mother to manage to make things difficult even when she was nowhere around.

“I haven’t seen my mother since I was thirteen,” Ezra said. “She would be more than happy for me to live with Mr Larabee. She has always been quite content for someone else to take the responsibility.”

“Well, so far we haven’t been able to trace her,” the judge said—to Ezra’s relief. “For the time being, I’ll accept your assessment of the situation. The second thing, the most important thing really, is that as you’ve said you want to stay with Chris Larabee, I’d like you to tell me why.”

Ezra had thought of a thousand fluent answers to this question. They all deserted him now. He was so tired and shaken that all he could think of to say was the simple truth. “I trust Chris,” he said.

It sounded pathetic. He had to elaborate. “I learned how to run a con almost before I could walk. I grew up believing everyone has an angle, that no one gives you anything freely and the only person you can trust is yourself. Chris doesn’t have an angle.” His voice was shaking again, and he stopped abruptly. Everything was rushing back in on him: the fears of losing their life on the ranch, the ugly sight outside, the fact that all he wanted just now was to see Chris…

“Thank you, Ezra,” the judge said quietly. He opened a second door at the side of the room, and Ezra saw that this one did lead into a courtroom—a courtroom where Chris and Nettie were waiting, talking to Josiah.

Ezra was on his feet the moment he saw Chris. He didn’t worry about the fact that it might look immature to be in such haste to get back to his guardian; he didn’t care about anything very much except the fact that Chris was the one bulwark against everything that was threatening to overwhelm him. Behind him he was vaguely aware that the judge was speaking, telling Chris and the others that he would talk briefly to Vin, then begin the review officially.

Chris stepped around the tables to meet Ezra and put his arm around him, managing to make it look like a casual greeting, not the rescue it actually was. Normally Ezra would have been grateful to have his dignity preserved, but today he was beyond caring. He leaned thankfully into Chris’s hold, closing his eyes.

Over his head, Chris said to the judge, “This was never going to be an easy day. Add the shooting outside, and I think Vin and Ezra have had about enough. Can we keep this short?”

“I’ll not be long with Vin,” the judge promised, “and I’ll be as expeditious as possible afterwards.”

Ezra heard the door close, and thought about Vin—and realised he was worried about him. He wanted to tell Chris, but he couldn’t define the worry. It was just that he was sure something had been wrong… more wrong than everything else about this morning.

He let Chris draw him to a chair and sit him down. It was ridiculous that he couldn’t stop shaking. He felt cold and sick, and the only warmth in the world was Chris still holding him close. Neither of them said anything, though he was aware of the murmur of Nettie talking to Josiah over by the door. He knew why Chris was silent. He could feel it in the way Chris’s arm tightened, that he wanted to say everything would be okay—and couldn’t.

If the judge decided against them staying with Chris, nothing would ever be okay again.

Tom Carrington wondered if he should have let Vin wait in the courtroom with the others. When he had made his arrangements for this morning he had wanted to make sure that Vin and Ezra felt they could speak freely, completely uninfluenced by Chris Larabee, Nettie or anyone else, and so he’d booked this office with its small waiting area. Now as he called Vin in and saw that he looked even paler than Ezra had done, he wished he’d changed his arrangements when he heard of the incident outside.

“Sit down, Vin,” he said quickly. “Do you feel all right to answer a few questions?”

Vin nodded. “Got some things I want t’ say.”

“About living at the ranch?”

“And about Chris.”

The judge had had a disastrous meeting with Chris Larabee, and he blamed himself entirely for it. Early in the conversation, preoccupied with his own thoughts on Vin and Ezra’s safety, he’d asked Chris whether he’d thought about the fact his job could place people close to him in danger. It was only when he saw the look on Chris’s face, he realised what he’d done. He’d been furious with himself. What kind of idiot asked that question of a man who’d lost his wife and child to a car bomb? He’d apologised at once, but he’d lost all chance of making the conversation more friendly and informal.

Chris had replied more politely than the judge felt he deserved. “I’ve thought about it a lot. For a start, I think they’re a hell of a lot safer with me than on the street. Add to that, I don’t know of anyone else in the ATF who’s lost family or friends to anything connected with the job. Anyone in any profession can be targeted by someone with a grudge—judges, cops, a company boss who’s sacked employees. I think I’m offering Vin and Ezra as safe a home as any law officer gives his family.”

It had been a fair answer to the question, but the tone it had been delivered in was icy, and that was how their exchanges continued. Chris had explained some of the gaps in his report on the Henderson shooting, stating that Vin had wanted to be present at the payoff between Henderson and Varon because he and Ezra had heard it being arranged, and that the rest of Vin’s movements were a reaction to his recognition of Eli Jo. The judge was sure there was more to it, but the answers were adequate. Professionally, he could accept them.

He had attempted to ask one or two more personal questions, but the opportunity had been lost. They parted coldly, and the first sign he’d seen of any more human side to Chris Larabee was the difference in him when he moved to meet Ezra. Extraordinary that so hard a man could look so easy and natural making a gentle gesture. There was no doubt that Ezra had felt safe with Chris…

That was also his first question to Vin, who looked as if he didn’t find it a very intelligent one.

“Anyone’d feel safe with Chris. Even JD, and he’s just a kid. And th’ horses trust him, and th’ dogs.”

The judge, who’d had several more calls along these lines from Sally Logan, felt he could only give marginal weight to the opinions of the animal kingdom, but it was clear enough Vin’s answer was yes.

“If you could choose, would you stay where you’ve been placed?”

“At th’ ranch, with Chris? Yes, I’d do whatever it took.”

Given the look of determination on Vin’s much-too-pale face, the judge could believe it. He just had one more question.

“Could you tell me—quite simply, in your own words—why you want to stay with Chris?”

Vin looked him in the eye. “Yeah. I could. It’s kind a long.”

“That doesn’t matter.” Tom doubted if anything Vin was likely to say would be long by most people’s standards.

Vin shifted in the chair, as if he was finding it difficult to sit comfortably, gathered his thoughts and started. “When I was a little kid, when my ma was still alive, I used t’ like them TV shows, cartoons, about Superman and such like. Super heroes. Can’t remember that time so good, but I remember my ma telling me there weren’t really no super heroes, and ordinary folk just had t’ help each other if they could. But I still liked th’ shows. Then I lived with granda and we didn’t have a TV—didn’t have much, I guess. Granda couldn’t get money fer me.” Because a judge then had taken Vin away from someone who loved him. Tom could see the accusation in the intent blue eyes.

“I still liked stories ’bout heroes, though,” Vin went on. “In an evenin’ granda read me some from an old book he had. He weren’t a great reader, but he could make ’em out okay, and we had th’ same ones over again. I remember a guy called Horatius, who kept th’ enemy off of this bridge, and Robin Hood and Gen’ral Pulaski o’ course. I asked granda once why there weren’t heroes now, at any rate, didn’t seem t’ me like there was. Never forgot what he told me. He said, maybe th’ stories don’t get told th’ same way now, but there’s still heroes in th’ world. Y’ don’t got t’ look at th’ outside of a man, but at what he does ‘n why he does it. Told me t’ learn t’ look and I’d see when a man had a hero’s heart.

“Well, granda died, and I was mostly on th’ streets. Weren’t so bad once I hooked up with Ez, but y’ learn not t’ expect too much of folks. Didn’t reckon I’d ever get t’ find out what granda meant. But I did. I found out that day I saw Chris in th’ warehouse. Didn’t take more ‘n a look, but I seen it every day since as well. If ever a man had a hero’s heart, it’s Chris Larabee.”

He took a deep breath. “It was th’ best thing that ever happened t’ me, goin’ t’ th’ ranch and livin’ with Chris. I don’t want t’ lose it.”

The judge had been surprised and moved by hearing simple truth from Ezra; he was spellbound by Vin’s rough eloquence and final plea. He’d never expected anything so heartfelt from either of them.

“Thank you, Vin,” he said quietly. “Your granddad was a wise man. Now come with me this way to join Chris and the others—the court room is just next door.”

It was ten o’clock now, and everyone who needed to be in the court room should have arrived. He’d run this case in an unorthodox way from the start, and had dispensed with most of the people who might normally have been present—Nettie had anyway taken the place of any probation officer—but he had arranged for an officer of the court to attend. As he followed Vin through into the court room he noted that the man was there, and that Josiah Sanchez had stayed, which he welcomed; it provided an additional representative of the boys’ interests.

He got the few necessary formalities over with quickly. He was aware, too aware, of Vin and Ezra’s eyes fixed on him. Ezra, Chris’s arm still around his shoulders, looked the more shaken by the morning’s events; Vin, who had for some reason gone to sit on the other side of Ezra rather than next to Chris, was very white but he had his head up stubbornly.

Neither of them looked as if they had much confidence in the judge.

“I’ve quite a lot of details I need to go into,” Tom said, noting Chris break his grim concentration for a moment to lean forward and try to get a proper look at Vin. “But those can wait. I’ll deal with the most important matter first. I haven’t come to the decision I’ve made lightly. I believe it’s the right one, not just for those of you directly involved, but also for the wider community.

“I have received the recommendation that all the charges against Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish should be dropped, and I have concurred with this. Therefore this is no longer a custody hearing. I have agreed that these charges should be dropped on the condition that you, Vin and Ezra, live in a permanent home, properly supervised until you come of age. Mr Larabee has asked to become your guardian and I believe that he will provide you with a caring and disciplined environment. Both of you have spoken to me very honestly, and I may say movingly, about what it means to you to remain with him. Therefore I intend to make the present arrangement permanent, and…”

The end of his sentence never made it to his lips. He’d been watching Vin and Ezra as he spoke, and now he saw the final traces of colour leave Vin’s face as Vin started to slide in a slow collapse from his chair to the floor.

Tom stood. Chris, realising simultaneously what was happening, pushed back the table in front of him but moved too late to grab Vin. Everyone else stood up, alarmed. The judge hurried forward. He thought Vin had just fainted, but Chris had already realised there was more to it than that. As Tom reached them, and leaned over the table to see if he could help, Chris swept the chairs out of his way and unfastened Vin’s zipped bomber jacket. Nettie gasped, and they all stared shocked at what was revealed.

Vin was bare to the waist under his jacket. The T shirt he must originally have been wearing was screwed up into a wad and fastened tight against his side with the belt from his jeans. It was heavily bloodstained, and had clearly been serving as a makeshift bandage for some time. Dried blood soaked the top of Vin’s jeans and the liner of his jacket.

Vin’s eyes blinked open as Chris gently eased the T shirt away to look at the injury underneath. “Ow,” he said. “Leave it, Chris. Reckon I stopped th’ bleeding.”

For a moment Chris was speechless, then he said forcefully. “Damn it, Vin, this is a bullet wound! You’re going to the hospital. Why the hell didn’t you tell someone?”

“Ain’t deep,” Vin said. “Wanted t’ have my say t’ th’ judge. You’d’ve fussed if y’d known.” Lying flat on his back seemed to have restored him a little. “Chris—Ez don’t much like blood.”

Ezra was on his knees beside them, but now their attention was drawn to him, the judge realised that he looked in danger of pitching forward to join Vin on the floor.

“Shit,” Chris said, and although Tom discouraged any sort of bad language in his court room he had to sympathise. Chris kept one hand on Vin’s makeshift bandage and reached to steady Ezra with the other, while Nettie, Josiah and the judge started to move tables out of the way so that they could help more easily.

“We’re okay,” Vin said, in complete defiance of reality. “Ez—tell him.”

“We are fine,” Ezra said, unconvincingly, but straightening up.

“We want th’ judge t’ finish,” Vin added, trying to pull his jacket closed over his bare chest as Nettie crouched next to them.

Tom Carrington looked down at him. “Whatever it took,” Vin had said. And so he’d hidden from everyone, even Ezra apparently, the fact that he’d been hurt. He’d done it so he could put the judge straight on just what sort of man Chris Larabee was, and he was offering to carry on even now if that was what he had to do to be sure of staying with Chris. An offer they were certainly not going to take up.

“You’re going straight to the hospital,” Chris said again, though he seemed slightly relieved now that he’d gotten a look under the bloodstained T shirt. “This may not be that deep, but you’ve bled enough.”

“I’ve finished everything important, Vin,” Tom Carrington said quickly. “You don’t have to be here. It’s all settled: you’re officially, legally staying with Chris.”


“And permanently. But I’m making one final condition to the arrangement, and that’s that Chris takes you straight to the hospital now and sees that you get whatever treatment you need.”

For the first time in their acquaintance, the judge got a flicker of a smile from Chris Larabee. “You heard the judge, Vin,” he said. “Can’t go against a judge’s order. It’s just paperwork to finish here; Mr Carrington can do that with Nettie. You, me, Ezra and Josiah have a date with the emergency room.”

Vin sighed. “Knew y’d fuss.”

“Vin, you’re lying flat on your back bleeding all over the court room floor. I’m not damn well fussing. Now can you walk if I help you, or do you want carrying to the car?”

“I c’n walk,” Vin said quickly. “Just … help me up?”

Chris lifted him to his feet. Nettie, who was quite clearly itching to help, managed to hold back, though she did quickly check the T shirt bandaging and zipped up Vin’s jacket for him.

Vin leaned heavily on Chris’s arm. Ezra moved to support him on the other side if he needed it and Josiah hovered in reserve.

“Bates,” Tom said to the court officer, a bemused spectator of all this, “go and make sure the elevator’s ready for them. Chris—I’ll call you about any details we need to tidy up.”

“Any time,” Chris said. “And… thanks.”

Tom decided he would make a date to see Chris at the ranch. He wanted to see Vin and Ezra in what was now their home, and he felt he’d put in the time—and stress levels—to deserve it. He walked to the court room door to watch them safely into the elevator. Vin’s legs wobbled under him again before he got there, and this time Chris simply stooped, slid his free arm under Vin’s knees and swung him up.

Tom listened with some amusement to the discussion that followed.

“I c’n walk.”

“The hell you can. You tried walking. Now you’re getting carried.”

“Over y’r shoulder then. Ain’t being carried like this. Y’ carry kids like this.”

“You are a kid.”

“Little kids! And girls!”

The elevator door closed before the judge could hear Chris’s reply to that. “There goes a man with his hands full—in every sense,” he said to Nettie.

“He’s thriving on it, and so are they,” Nettie said robustly. “Don’t second guess yourself, Tom. You made the right decision.”

“I wasn’t doubting it,” Tom said, truthfully. He’d had reservations when he made the decision, though he felt on balance it was the correct one, but all of his doubts had been removed when he listened to Vin and Ezra. “They may only have been with Chris a few weeks, but it’s quite clear that’s where they feel they belong. All I was thinking was that they should continue to receive any support they need.”

“Now there I agree with you,” Nettie said, turning back into the court room. “You and I still have some work to do. We’ll finish here and then perhaps just call ER to check everything has gone smoothly.”

“From Chris’s expression, I don’t think it was too serious,” the judge said. “But I’d like to know that Vin will be going home today. I feel I should have seen that he was hurt.”

“He made sure you didn’t see,” Nettie said. “He fooled Josiah and didn’t tell Ezra and I’m quite sure he chose to sit where Chris couldn’t see him too easily as well. It takes a while to learn what it means to be in a family, and I suspect a lot of people will be putting him straight. Now—you and I have paperwork to do.”

Martinez only realised he’d shot a cop when he got back to his sister’s apartment. He’d waited in the position he’d chosen, standing reading a newspaper as if he was waiting for someone to meet him. He’d recognised Sanchez, seen the two youngsters with him, dropped the paper and brought his gun up. And then it hadn’t gone according to plan.

First, Sanchez had been a lot too quick on the uptake, flattening the kids behind the only bit of cover there was. Then as he’d begun to fire some lunatic driver had come up far too fast, and gone straight across his line of fire. He’d thought only official cars ever came up to this point. You didn’t expect those to accelerate up to the entrance as if they were at some race track.

He’d always aimed for a quick hit and a hasty exit, and he didn’t change his plan, especially when he heard a siren already too close. He’d find out later whether he’d hit Sanchez and the kids. The few people who were near enough to challenge him saw the gun in his hand and had the sense to stay well away. He had the dispatch rider motorbike he’d arrived on standing nearby waiting. He drove off on it as the police car arrived, and by the time the witnesses had told them about him, he was safely away.

Disposing of everything that could be traced took him a while, and then he made his way cautiously back to the apartment. His sister, to his astonishment, flung her arms around his neck as soon as he got in, weeping copiously and praising him for avenging her poor Raoul. She smelled of strong perfume applied on top of sweat. She’d been drinking, too. He detached her, and saw the news story running on the TV behind her.

He’d taken out a cop. Better than that, a cop who’d actually been involved the night Raoul was shot. What a hell of a coincidence. He wondered why the guy had been driving up to the City and County building in such a tearing hurry.

Henderson’s replacement, Price, came on saying the usual stuff about the investigation. It didn’t sound as if he had a clue. The cop was touch and go. They didn’t say anyone else had been hurt.

Martinez watched the news a while, and thought. He was sick of his sister and her cloying grief. He didn’t like Larabee, but he hadn’t liked Raoul either. What was the point of risking his neck again? His sister was satisfied. No one could say he’d let the family down.

He could go.

He was lucky with the flights and was on a plane out of Denver within a couple of hours. Maybe one day, if Varon wanted to come back and make a few more people pay, he’d come back with him. For now, to hell with it.

“Ez?” Vin said softly.

Thanks to some kind of two-for-the-price-of-one deal Chris had done with the ER staff—why did everyone at this hospital act like Chris was chairman of the board?—Vin and Ezra were in together, and had been for what seemed like hours. The doctor was talking to Chris just outside, probably telling him what Vin could have told him: Ez was kind of shocky but he wouldn’t die of it, and Vin had a hole along his side and had lost a bit of blood, but he wouldn’t die of it either.

Admittedly he didn’t feel so great just now. His side throbbed and he felt giddy if he sat up, but that might be partly because it had been hard to eat or sleep for the last few days. He didn’t feel too bad to get out of here and go back to the ranch as soon as someone gave the word. He felt worse about what he’d done to Ezra.

“Ez?” he said again. “I’d’ve told you if it looked bad. I’d’ve told you anyway but Josiah was there all the time.”

Ezra was sitting in the chair looking down at his hands as if he’d never seen them before. He went on flipping cards over. Vin knew he wasn’t even seeing them.

“What else weren’t you telling us?” Ezra asked, doing something clever with an ace.

Ez knew him too well.

Vin watched him turn the cards. Ezra’s hands were still shaking slightly if you looked close enough. Vin glanced at Chris outside.

“I think it was Martinez,” he said, low enough for only Ez to hear.

Ezra did look up then. He didn’t ask the obvious question, either. He knew why Vin hadn’t said anything before. Martinez could have been targeting Rawlings, but he probably had more reason to go after Chris or the people connected to Chris.

“Didn’t want th’ judge t’ start thinkin’ life wasn’t safe around Chris,” Vin said.

“Chris needs to know,” Ezra said.

“I’m goin’ t’ tell him.”

He knew he had to, even if he wasn’t a hundred percent sure, but every time he got ready to say something to Chris the doctor and nurses kept interrupting, wanting to fix his side up and take more blood out of him. They’d taken blood out of Ez, too, because Chris was worried he still looked like he might pass out any minute, but Ez hadn’t had to take most of his clothes off.

Ezra was flipping the cards again. He hadn’t quite forgiven Vin yet.

Vin lay back again and closed his eyes. Didn’t seem right for everything to be so gloomy. They should’ve been celebrating. Shouldn’t be so hard to take in that the review was over and done with and they’d got what they wanted. He kept saying the judge’s words over in his head but it wasn’t quite like it was real.

He could hear the flip of the cards in Ezra’s hands, and hospital noises, and Chris and the doctor talking just too quiet for him to make out the words. He wished he could sleep, but although he felt exhausted, his side was just too uncomfortable. He picked miserably at the dressing without opening his eyes, maybe dozed a little, picked some more.

After a bit, a hand closed over his, stopping his movement. He knew without opening his eyes that it was Chris, though he hadn’t noticed the talking stop. Chris held his hand still and said quietly, “Want to go home?”


He opened his eyes abruptly and would have sat up, but Chris was ready for that and easily held him flat. “I’ll take that as a yes,” he said.

Vin looked to see why Ezra wasn’t saying anything and saw the chair was empty. Confused, he realised he must have slept deeper than he thought.

“Josiah’s taken him to buy him a cup of tea and something to eat,” Chris said. “The doc reckons you haven’t been eating or sleeping enough as well as everything else. He’s given us the go ahead to take you home, but with orders for plenty of food and sleep as well as the more usual medication.”

“C’n I have m’ clothes back?” He’d believe he was getting out of here once he was dressed again.

Chris helped him to sit up slowly. It hurt more than he’d expected, and when he was up, he had to lean against Chris until he got his breath back.

“We’ll take it slow,” Chris said. “You won’t feel too good today, but the doctor’s written a prescription for some painkillers that’ll help. He says there’s no lasting damage done; just bad luck you got in the way of a stray bullet.”

Vin had to tell Chris, and do it now. “Chris—I think it might have been Martinez,” he said.

He felt Chris go kind of still next to him. “Just when did you start thinking that?” Chris asked, after a moment of silence.

“When it happened,” Vin said. He felt bad enough about the things he hadn’t told Chris. He wasn’t going to lie to him as well. “Weren’t sure. Only got a glimpse.”

“So it might not have been a stray bullet,” Chris said, thinking it through. “Vin—I’ll have to get straight on to Vic Price. He needs to know this. It could still have been Rawlings who was the target, but it could have been Josiah or the two of you.”

He made the call quickly, still sitting next to Vin. Vin listened to Chris’s end of it, and his misery lifted just a little because it didn’t sound like it had been a disaster him keeping quiet.

Chris ended the call. “Looks like you were right, but Vic thinks Martinez has left town. Like we guessed, there was a family connection between Raoul and Martinez. Seems Raoul’s mother is Martinez sister. Price is kicking himself he didn’t trace it quicker. Anyway, the mother’s been in a state ever since Raoul’s death, and the neighbours have been trying to help out. Today, when she’d been drinking, she told one of them she could finally put her son to rest because her brother had taken revenge for the shooting. When the neighbour found out she was talking about the cop who’d been killed, she called the PD. Martinez had already left though, and Vic’s got a positive ID from the airport. He’s trying to find out now which flight he took. The sister seems to think Rawlings was the target, and she’s no reason to lie about it.”

“Maybe Martinez didn’t care,” Vin said. “It’s just vendetta, ain’t it. Y’ hit someone in return for them hittin’ you. Us or Rawlings, it’s all the same. Why was Rawling’s coming here in such a hurry?”

“If Vic knows, he’s not telling anyone. They don’t know yet whether Rawlings will live, either.”

Vin nodded. It had looked bad when he saw Rawlings in the car.

“Anyway,” Chris said, “Martinez is gone, and it looks like it wouldn’t have made much difference if you’d told me earlier. Now let’s get your clothes back on.”

Vin ought to have felt relieved now, but he didn’t feel anything much except sore and tired and kind of flat. The certainty he’d felt in the morning had deserted him somewhere along the day. He’d felt okay before, even when he was having to fix up the T shirt and make sure none of the blood showed, even when he was having to find the right words to explain what he felt to the judge. The judge had come through for them, and they were going to stay with Chris, so why did he feel so low now?

Chris finished putting on his socks and sneakers for him and straightened up. “You need some sleep and some food,” he said, as if he could guess Vin’s thoughts. “Not long now and we’ll be home.”


It did seem a bit more real when Chris said it.

“Judge Carrington called a little while ago,” Chris went on. “He wanted to be sure that you’d be okay. He told me that you and Ezra impressed him—says I should be proud of how the pair of you spoke up.”

Vin was pleased about that… somewhere deep down… or would be when he didn’t feel so tired. It was hard to take it in just now.

Chris unexpectedly stopped trying to ease him into his jacket, and held him close for a moment. Vin leaned against him. There was a feeling of home in that.

“Y’ain’t mad then?” he asked.

“About you not telling me you were hurt? I guess I understand why you did it. You just about scared the heart out of me, though, when you passed out and I saw the blood.”

Nothing much scared Chris. Vin’d’ve felt like that or worse, though, if he’d seen Chris hurt, or Ez. “Guess that’s why Ez ain’t speaking t’ me much.”

Chris leaned him gently back, zipped up the jacket, ran a hand over Vin’s hair to flatten it where he’d been asleep on it. “Don’t think Ez has slept properly in weeks, what with the ankle, then worrying about this, and he was already running on empty before he saw what had happened to you.”

“I knew it weren’t that bad,” Vin said. “I been cut before. Weren’t as much blood as it looks. I wouldn’t’ve passed out, but it was tryin’ t’ take in th’ judge had really said we c’d stay, and everythin’ else as well.”

“Well, medical opinion seems to agree with you,” Chris said. “The doctor’s blaming stress and too many missed meals and broken nights sleep as contributory factors. I’ve told Josiah to bring you back some chocolate and a cola. It being doctor’s orders…”

“Doctor’s and judges ain’t s’ bad sometimes.”

“Not when they let you go home.”

Vin drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. That was the third time Chris had said ‘home’ and it sounded better every time. Although the ranch had felt that way for a long while, there had always been the bitter doubt about how long it would last. They’d been set free of that today.

Suddenly, it did begin to feel real. He met Chris’s eyes and saw the same thoughts there. Slowly Vin held out his hand, like he was sealing a promise, though they hadn’t needed to say the words. Chris gripped it, not hand to hand, but so they held arm to arm in an unbreakable hold.

At last, Vin’s heart lifted.

He and Ez and Chris they’d fought for this, and they’d won. And now they really could go home.

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.”


“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.


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…


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?”


“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.


“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?”


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.


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.”


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.


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 ~