By Gil Hale —

Part Five

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.

Continue on to Part 6 of 8