By Gil Hale —

Part Seven

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.

Continue on to the Conclusion ( Part 8 of 8 )