Josiah tried to slow his breathing. How the hell did that old man get him out of breath and barely be breathing hard himself?
"We're almost there Josiah. The truck will be just over this next ridge" Jax called.
"That's good" Sanchez panted out.
Sure enough when he got to the top and looked down into the arroyo below, there was a pickup and a one-horse trailer and a jackass. Taking several deep breaths first, Josiah gasped out, "How the hell did he get here?"
Freeman chuckled. "I told him to come to the trailer when we left the cave this morning. He's a good boy."
Sanchez watched Jax walk down hill. "Who is this man? Better yet what is he?"
"I'm just old, Josiah. I've lived a long time and picked up a few tricks along the way. Now let's get Jack loaded and get going. It's almost sunup and I told the boys I'd be to home before them."
"Sure," the empath said, as he walked down hill.
Josiah settled into the passenger seat and wondered how they were going to make it to the ranch house before the others.
"Hey, Josiah - wake up. We're here."
Prying open sticky eyes Sanchez looked around. They were at the gate. The dogs were sitting on the other side, tails making small dust storm clouds as Jax unlocked the padlock and pushed the gate open. They sat still while the truck drove through and went up to the small corral.
Jax got out and opened the trailer. "Back, Jack" he ordered and the burro was quickly unloaded. With a happy bray he trotted over to the water trough and then lay down in the sand and began rolling, legs sticking straight up.
Jax turned to the dogs. "How are my very good girls?" he asked as he patted his chest. Silver ran the three steps and jumped causing the old man to catch her. She twisted her neck so her head lay over his shoulder, her tail going ninety miles a minute. "That's my Silver. I knew you all could take care of things. Now, see Josiah has come with me and he's a friend. You three go watch for the boys while I open up the house and start cooking."
Silver jumped down with one last lap on Jax's cheek and led the others back to the gate.
Josiah shook his head in wonder and followed the other man into the house. "Sorry I fell asleep on you Jax."
"No problem, Josiah."
"I feel guilty. I could have at least helped you drive."
"Don't trouble your self, Josiah. You're still recovering and it was a long day."
Once inside the house Jax opened several windows and led the way to the kitchen. "Come on into the pantry. I'll show you how to get to the Priest's hole."
Josiah raised an eyebrow. 'Priest's hole?"
"Yeah it's "
"I know what it is, Jax. It was a secret place English Catholics hid priests during the reign of Elizabeth I."
Freeman laughed. "I should have known you'd know about them. Here, help me move this cabinet."
Sanchez looked at the large blue cabinet. It stood as tall as he and seemed to be around two feet deep and was full of shelves on top and drawers below all full of canned goods.
Jax reached around back and there was a muted 'click' and Jax pushed forward. The cabinet slid out quietly and smoothly, opening a passageway. Flicking a switch the two men went down the stairs.
Turning a corner they entered a large room perhaps twenty feet square. The air was fresh, not stale like Josiah expected. There was a small kitchenette to one side with a table and chairs. Off to another side were a couch and a couple of easy chairs, a TV and shelves of books. Opposite to that were two bunk beds with full beds on the bottom. Near them was a door Josiah assumed led to a bathroom.
Jax looked around. "You'll find clean sheets in those shelves, and while I start lunch you can make the beds. There are a couple of cots behind those curtains. I figure Chris and Buck can use the full beds and the boys can use the tops when they're ready."
Jax started to leave but Josiah held up a hand. "How? Why?"
Freeman smiled sadly. "Just chalk it up to me being an old survivalist who believes in being prepared."
Alone Josiah shook out the fresh sheets and explored the stores in the room. "This is much more then being 'an old survivalist'" he told himself.
JD sat on the foot of the bed munching on a sandwich and sipping the juice box. He never took his eyes off the sleeping Buck. Nathan had told him over and over to let the man sleep. It was the best thing for him but it was so hard to wait.
Wilmington moaned and tossed his head. He'd done this several times without waking but this time his eyes opened. He looked around the small room and his eyes settled on JD. Smiling he said, "Hey, Lil' Bit." His voice was rough from disuse.
"Hi Buck. Nathan says you gotta drink this as much as you can." JD held out the sports bottle. He waited for the man to take it, but when he didn't JD crawled closer and put the bottle in Buck's hand. He waited to see if Buck would drink it and when the rogue didn't move the boy lifted the hand and bottle to the man's mouth guiding the bottle to the lip. Like a little bird, at the touch Buck's mouth opened and he drank almost half of it before he stopped.
Feeling the vibration Buck looked around again. "We goin' somewhere Lil' Bit?"
"Yeah, back to Jax's place."
"Oh," Wilmington said mid-yawn. Then his eyes closed and he was asleep.
JD frowned at the strange behavior but told himself it was just that Buck was getting over having the thing in his head. Little Dunne would doze and wake every time Buck moved but the big man didn't wake again.
The lights were on and the oven set on warm as the two men sat on the porch and waited for the others to arrive.
The rockers were comfortable and the iced tea perfect. The quiet was calming and Josiah felt himself wishing they could stay here forever. Nothing's forever he told himself. But he still wished.
It wasn't long before the sound of a vehicle coming broke the peace and the men sat up watching the dogs and the road. The truck pulling the fifth wheel stopped in front of the house and Ezra stuck his head out the window. "Where do I park this thing?" he asked.
"Behind the house like before," Jax ordered and followed the truck around back. Once stopped the trailer door opened.
"You all wanna help me get them unloaded" Nathan called from inside.
Josiah entered the trailer. "You carry Buck, he's all skin and bones but he's still heavy. I'll get Chris, he'll be lighter and I'm still recovering."
Nathan grumbled good-naturedly but reached down and picked up the unconscious brunet he followed the empath into the house.
Josiah called behind him "We're taking them down here. Jax is full of surprises and this is one of them."
After laying Larabee down Nathan looked around. "I don't remember seeing this room before."
"Nope, like I said Jax is full of surprises."
Shaking his head Nathan said, "I guess."
When Josiah started to help with Buck the rogue woke and started struggling.
//Stop fightin' Buck. Josiah is just gonna carry you downstairs to bed.// Vin called to the struggling man.
Wilmington stopped struggling and looked around. "Hey junior. You here too?"
//Yeah, I'm here. Now don't fight Josiah and we'll have you and Chris in bed soon.//
Buck looked up at the big man. "'Kay" he said meekly and went limp while the two men carried him.
They laid him on the bed next to the one Larabee lay on. Chris never woke and Buck seemed to fall deeper into sleep once he was down.
Jax looked at Nathan "I've a bed set up for you over there but I think first you and the boys should come up and eat."
Nathan looked at the two little boys and the teen. "I think you're right. Come on boys, Josiah can watch them while we eat and relax."
//Not hungry.// Vin shot at him.
"I don't care. You haven't eaten all day and you need to eat. Come up stairs and do so," Nathan ordered in the best 'daddy voice' he could muster.
Larabee lay perfectly still. He hadn't opened his eyes yet but he knew something was different. He was hungry - he couldn't remember the last time he felt hunger. He was thirsty too, and that was odd. But mostly the nothing/noise in his head was gone. That's stupid - nothing/noise, what does that mean? But try as he might there was no other description that fit. Funny, just being able to think that seemed odd.
Taking a chance, Chris opened his eyes just enough to see where he was. Didn't do any good, he didn't recognize where he was. The bed was reasonably soft, he felt warm but not hot. Where the hell was he? Was this a new torture the helmets thought up? "Helmets", that was JD's word. No, He shouldn't think of the boys. Can't do anything - think anything - that would lead them to the others. Buck? Wasn't Buck with him? Hadn't Buck been captured with him? He seemed to remember Buck being with him in the nothing time. Maybe that was a dream. Maybe this was a dream. How was he to tell?
//Chris? Are you awake?//
The small voice sounded in his head. His heart beat faster. Vin? NO! It couldn't be Vin; the boy was safe at the other place. It was a dream, a trick. It couldn't be real.
//Chris? Nathan wants you to drink this. It don't taste too bad. Nathan says it'll make you feel better. Come on, I know you're awake.//
The voice insisted and he felt something press against his lips. Without thought his mouth opened and he sucked on the hard plastic that was suddenly inside. Once he'd started he couldn't stop. He felt the liquid flow down his throat and into his stomach. It felt good, it filled up some empty place he hadn't know he had.
//That's right. Drink it all down. Can you open your eyes for me, Chris?//
The voice kept talking but that was all right too. It felt good, the way it was supposed to feel, this small voice in his head. It took a lot of effort but he managed to open his eyes wider but it seemed looking around was too hard, too much effort. All his strength was going to sucking the liquid into his mouth and swallowing. Everything was a blur anyway.
Then the plastic was gone. He waited; it didn't come back, so he moved his mouth a little hoping that would bring it back. Ask for more. Somewhere that thought came to him. Ask? How? He moved his mouth and pushed air out. "ughhh."
That wasn't right. It didn't sound right at all.
//Did you say something, Chris?//
The voice, why didn't it understand? Chris rolled his head just a little and with the movement he could see a face. He knew that face, the boy with the longish hair. "Vin." He felt his mouth say the word.
The boy smiled //Yes, I'm Vin.//
"I'm Chris" he said. It came so easy this time. He wanted to touch the face, to know it was real and not a dream. Willing his hand to come up off the bed and reach for the face He could do this. The hand came up a little and fell down, then up again to finally brushed the cheek with his fingertips. It felt real. He licked his lips "Vin son real?"
The boy's face smiled bigger //I'm real Chris. You're safe now. No more helmets.//
At the word 'helmets', Chris pulled his hand back as if burned. Fear filled his whole being. "NO! Keep safe. Not tell, not tell anything" he almost sobbed.
The boy leaned over and held the tossing head with his hands, forcing the man to look at him. // Ya didn't tell, Chris. Ya kept us safe. Now we're keeping you safe. We're at Jax's place. Safe! No one will find us. No one will hurt you now.//
Chris didn't want to hear, he didn't want to trust but the bond from the boy came through and encircled his mind making him believe. "Safe? Buck safe?"
//Yes, all of us are safe.// Vin relaxed his hold on the man's head.
Larabee turned his head more and saw another bed with someone laying on it. Strange disjointed visions of Buck being hurt, of him being hurt and the feeling of helplessness overwhelmed him. "Buck hurt bad."
//Yeah, but Nathan is fixing it, like he's fixing you.//
The blond stared at the boy until his eyelids grew heavy. "Tired" he managed to whisper before he fell asleep.
Tanner slowly pulled back his hand and got off the bed. He looked over at the empath that sat watching. Vin almost ran into the big man's arms. Once he felt those strong arms wrapped around him and holding him tightly he began to sob.
"Shhh, Vin. It's okay. You did good."
//They hurt him so, Josiah. I can feel it how they messed with his mind. Made him forget things and remember other things. They hurt him, over and over.//
"Yes they did and now we are going to heal him - Nathan, and me, but mostly you. It'll work because he loves you and you love him. That's what will bring him back. Just keep telling yourself Chris is still in there, he's just hiding. Not for himself, but for you and he has to come back for you not just for himself. He will come back, Vin. He's strong, the strongest man I know." Josiah talked softly to the boy as he rocked. He could feel how hard this had been for Vin. It wasn't fair to ask a boy to do this, to drag the man back to reality but there was no one else who could do it. Not even Ezra, who'd, tried and whom the traumatized man had ignored. The ten-year-old was the only one who could reach Chris Larabee. The empath knew if the roles were reversed it would be only Chris who could reach the boy.
~~~ ~~~ ~
Chris drifted, half awake. He was aware of the small warm body snuggled close to his. He wrapped his arms around it tighter. Not it, Vin. It was Vin that was tight against him sleeping. He could feel the boy's heart beat and feel the quiet breath brush his hand. Larabee moved his head so he could breathe in the little boy smell from the sun-warmed hair. It felt so good, so safe. Were they truly safe? He felt safe, but this room was all he knew - this room and the men that seem to come and go.
Nathan had wanted him to go up the stairs yesterday. The healer had wanted him to go outside so he'd know where they were. He could see for himself but he'd refused. NO, he didn't want to go outside. He wanted to stay here where it was safe where Vin was, and JD and Buck. He wanted to stay here and and be safe.
The mug whizzed past Josiah's head and shattered into a million pieces against the wall. Another one hovered in the air moving back and forth. Larabee stared at the empath and his anger screamed for an outlet. The second mug flew.
"You can keep breaking things, Chris. Or you can suck it up and face the stairs. But you're going to run out of things to break sooner or later."
"How bout I break you, Preacher?" Larabee snarled through his teeth.
"You can try, Chris. But do you think it will help?"
"I want Vin!"
"I told you he's upstairs and outside. He's playing with JD and the kittens and helping stack firewood. He's being a little boy today instead of your keeper."
This time a glass flew by and Josiah had to duck. "Missed," he said.
"I WANT VIN!"
"NO! If you want Vin, walk up those stairs and go to him."
Hazel eyes stared at the first steps. "I can't," he whispered.
"What was that?"
Hazel eyes looked at Sanchez. "I can't I can't go up there."
"Why Chris? You've been up there before."
Larabee shook his head slowly and looked at Josiah. "Not since I can't go up there. THEY are up there."
Josiah's heart sang, at last. "Who's up there, Chris?"
Chris looked down and squeezed his eyes closed, his hands balling into fists. "You know who" he stated flatly.
"No I don't, Chris. You tell me. Who's up there?"
The tall blond gasped for breath, the big chair beside his bed hovered two inches off the floor. "The h helmets. The Guild, okay? They are up there waiting. I I can't be taken again Josiah. I'd tell them everything I can't."
There - it was said, Chris Larabee was a coward. He'd lost his mind. He was unfit to be their leader, their friend, Vin's father. He wasn't fit to draw free breath.
"No they are not up there. There's no one but family up there. Ezra would know, Jax would know. The dogs would be having a fit. There's no one up there. But you'll never know that for sure until you climb those stairs and see for yourself. If you don't do that then THEY will have won. Oh, you're still breathing but they won, and they'll keep winning until all the sentients are dead or in hiding. You told Vin you'd protect him. How can you do that down here?"
Larabee bowed his head. He knew Josiah was saying it right but the very thought of taking one step up those stairs sent his heart pounding and his palms sweating. He started shaking until if felt as if his still too-thin body would shake apart. His mouth was dry yet he felt like he needed to vomit. COWARD! he screamed at himself. Faintly he heard Vin.
//I wish Chris could see the kittens, JD. He'd really like the black one.// The boy's voice was sad with longing.
The blond took a trembling step and then another. He stopped and stared down at the first step. Slowly, so slowly that his joints popped, he raised a foot and placed it on the step, then another. Another, and another until he walked through the door and into the big kitchen. He seemed to know where Vin was and wouldn't let himself think of anything else but the boy.
The screen door pushed open and he was standing half in the sun watching the light play with the boy's streaked hair. Vin looked up at him and smiled, holding out a small fur ball of black and white. //See Chris, I named him Blackie. JD named the red one Fireball for Buck.//
Swallowing dryly Larabee said, "I see that. You know we can't keep him. He wouldn't like living in the fifth wheel. But that doesn't mean we can't play with him here." The man walked across the yard and sat down in the sunshine and reached for the kitten.
It was late. Josiah walked through the dark house. He sought a quiet room in which he might be able to collect himself and find some balance. Hopefully everyone was asleep, hopefully although he doubted Jax, was sleeping. That man seemed never to sleep.
Being an empath had its drawbacks. He was bombarded with the constant raw emotions of the last few days. Worry from Nathan, Ezra and the two little boys: Anger from Chris: And Buck Buck was a blank wall while Jax was just a wall. While his own shields could block the worst of the turmoil he would be of no use to his friends if he shielded that strongly. He forced himself to stay open in hopes of helping somehow but there was a price to pay. So now in the dead of night he sought some solitude in hopes of finding his balance and getting rid of the monstrous headache.
Opening the door as quietly as he could, he went outside. The cool almost cold night air hit him with full force. He quickly went to the fifth wheel and stepped inside, closing the door behind him. Thankfully it was still warm inside. Here perhaps he could find the elusive balance. The big man walked quietly toward the back where the tiny bedroom was.
That's when he heard it. The sobbing, soul wrenching and heart breaking in its hopelessness tore at him. He knew almost at once it was JD. Their youngest, who seemed to bubble with optimism and a love of life, was bawling here alone.
Going toward the bed Sanchez could just make out the small boy doubled over clenching the blanket that had been left on the bed. Reaching for the boy Josiah realized that this was the bed Buck had laid in. "JD? Son, what's wrong?"
The eight-year-old jerked into silence, and awareness that he was no longer alone stilled him. Sniffling he said completely unconvincingly, "Nothin'."
Sitting down beside JD, the empath reached out and laid a big hand gently on the small shoulder. The tension and despair almost made him gasp. "JD, it has to be something - you are out here by yourself, crying your eyes out. You can tell me what's wrong."
JD shook his head. "No can't. It's just me being silly."
Josiah awkwardly gathered the boy into his arms. "It's not silly if you're out here alone crying. It's something that is troubling you deeply."
Little Dunne didn't fight being held. In fact, he leaned into the big chest letting just the presence of the big man comfort him. The tears slowed but didn't stop and Josiah wisely let him cry. Crying was one of the best releases.
Finally when Sanchez felt JD was just about cried out he began again. "Talk to me, JD. It's what I do. Everyone talks to me eventually."
JD shook his head "Not Vin or Ezra or Chris."
"You'd be wrong there, JD. Chris has talked to me often, especially after Sarah and Adam died. Ezra too, although he wants everyone to think he's a tower of strength and would never admit it. As for Vin, he talks to me sometimes but I think he mostly talks to Chris."
"Oh," the little boy sniffed again.
Josiah could almost see the wheels turning as the boy thought.
"Josiah? Why's Buck still acting well, wrong?"
"What do you mean JD?"
"Well, Chris is better. He's mad a lot but he seems better, an' he was mad a lot before. But but Buck's just wrong." JD searched for a word that would tell what he was feeling but found none.
"Perhaps Buck is just taking longer than Chris to shake off the effects of being in Camp Normal."
"No, it ain't that. Haven't you noticed? Buck don't call us by our names no more. It's as if he's forgot or something."
"I did notice the nicknames, but Buck always uses nicknames."
"Yeah, but not all the time, an' he don't he won't you have to help him do things. Even eat. If I don't put the spoon in his hand he'll just sit there, and half the time I have to put it in his mouth so's he'll remember to eat. Nathan has to take him to the bathroom an' he don't say nothing 'less you ask him direct. He ain't changed at all since he first woke up.
Something's wrong, Josiah. The helmets hurt him in a way Nathan can't see, I guess." The boy started crying again before he finished his long speech.
Josiah held the boy tighter. He rocked a bit patting JD on the back while he reviewed the days since they'd returned. JD had been Buck's almost constant companion and he'd seen more than the rest of them when it concerned Buck. He'd talk to Nathan tomorrow.
The barking and loud braying of the jackass woke Josiah. He groaned at the stiffness he felt from holding JD most of the night. At the continued noise outside he laid JD down.
"Jax, ya ol' hermit, get out here a'fore yer mutts make me mad an' I shoot them," a loud rough voice broke the morning quiet.
Josiah walked out of the trailer and watched as Jax stumbled out the front door shotgun in hand.
"Keith Two Feathers, what the hell ya doing hollering at the crack of dawn in my yard?"
The man on the large horse laughed. "Spreading the word to old ingrates like you who won't get a phone. I'm doin' my imitation of Paul Revere."
"Costs too much, you know that. What's your news?"
"There's a raiding party coming up the valley. Fools don't pay any attention to people like me. Anyway, them damn PCCA is searching all the homes up and down the valley. Says they're searching for some 'dangerous criminals'. Me, I don't trust them people. Tried to take Bertha Shakes in the Wind once. Said she was a dangerous mutant. Thought the whole tribe was gonna go to the old ways an' take some scalps over that one. But they didn't get Bertha nor any one else on the rez. Anyhow, seeing as how we owe ya, I rode over to give ya a heads up."
"I thank you, Two Feathers. How long do you figure we got?"
The dark man leaned over and patted the horse's neck. "I'd say not much past noon. I figure the Travis' will give 'em hell. The judge may be retired but he'll make them double check every dot for the 'I's and every crossed 't'."
Jax nodded in agreement. "Thanks again. Come on in and water your horse. I'll rustle up a sandwich for you." Jax said as he opened the gate. "Silver, Gretchen, Heidi - House!" he ordered the dogs. "Help yourself, Two Feathers." Jax called as he disappeared into the house.
Josiah went in the back door and followed the smell of coffee brewing.
JD woke to an empty trailer. He went outside and saw a stranger watering a horse. Walking over to the man, he stood watching. "'Lo."
"Well, hey there kid. You ol' Jax's grandson?"
"Yeah." JD looked the man over. He was tall and thin and very wrinkled, but the thing that really caught JD's attention was the two thin, waist-length braids. They were mostly black but had silver streaked through them.
"Are you an Indian?" JD asked.
The man smiled at the boy. "Yep."
"What's the matter, kid? No Indians where you come from?"
"I don't think so..." JD answered shaking his head and frowning.
Jax came out and handed Two Feathers a bundle. "Thanks again" he said.
The man nodded, and mounting he turned the horse to go. "Better git rid of that trailer, it's a dead giveaway."
Freeman nodded as he watched the horse gallop away. Without turning Jax said, "JD, go get Ezra up and then tell Nathan to come upstairs. We have a lot to do and not much time."
"Yes sir" the boy said running inside to start with Ezra.
Josiah came out as JD went in. Sipping on the strong coffee he watched Jax. "Any idea where we can put it?"
Jax frowned as he turned. "What?"
"Where we can put the fifth wheel?"
"Oh. Yeah, there's a place in my barn. We'll back it in and stack bales of hay around and over it. It'll look like its all hay. Gotta thing that'll block any detecting of metals and stuff, too."
"You know Jax, for a low tech guy you sure have some interesting high tech 'thingies'."
Freeman just smiled. "Maybe Chris can work off some of that anger moving 50 pound bales of hay around."
"Sounds like a plan, brother."
Back in the kitchen Ezra, in his underwear, was sipping coffee with his eyes half-closed. When the two older men came in he glanced toward them. "What in the world possessed you to turn that little hellion loose at the crack of dawn? It had better be nothing less then the apocalypse coming."
"Almost Ezra. Got word the PCCA is coming like a swarm of locust down the valley. Looking for sentients, and us specifically."
That woke Ezra all the way up. "How long do we have?"
"Noonish, we need to get all sign of the others out of sight. You and the boys are expected. The ID's you made will hold up, won't they?"
Ezra thought for a minute. "They should hold up for the casual inspection. They are not however in the main database.
Hopefully the acceptance of the townsfolk and lack of cell towers here will prevent deeper checking."
Nodding, Jax continued gathering items from the fridge and pantry to take down stairs.
"You realize the difficulty in separating Vin from Chris and JD from Buck, of course?"
"Yes, but it has to be done. I'm not worried about the boys it's the men. They are not the type to stay hidden while the rest of us face the dragon."
"No sir, they are not."
Jax looked at the boxes he'd filled. "Okay, Ezra help me carry these down stairs."
Once everyone was downstairs Jax explained. "Josiah, you and Nathan will have to stay here with Chris and Buck. We'll close the secret door and you four will have to be fairly quiet for the time the door is closed. While it's not sound proof, it is insulated and fairly quiet."
"You expect us to hide down here while our sons face the Guild alone?" Chris growled.
"No, Chris, I expect you to save all of our lives by staying down here and letting the boys and I do our part. There's no hiding in it. Listen, Chris - all of you. I'd put the boys down here in a heartbeat except everyone around here knows my grandson and my nephews live here. The Guild will expect to see them but not see you."
Larabee deflated under Jax's stare. "You're right" he admitted.
//But Chris // Vin started to protest.
"Now Cowboy, Jax is right. They will expect you, Ezra, and JD to be here with him. Buck and I will be fine. Nathan and Josiah will be here with us. We will keep things quiet." He said not only for Vin but to the adults also.
JD looked around at all the serious faces. "But Buck needs me with him" no one seemed to notice the small voice. Taking a breath JD shouted. "BUCK NEEDS ME WITH HIM!"
All the adults stopped talking and looked at the boy.
"JD " Josiah started.
"No! Buck needs me to be with him. I gotta be with him, too. He don't understand what's going on." Seeing the doubt and confusion in the faces of the others, Dunne stood up a little straighter. "Go ahead ask him something, you'll see."
Chris walked over and knelt in front of the rogue. "Buck, JD and Vin are going to have to stay top side for a few days. Understand?"
The dark eyes stared at some point past Chris' shoulder. Pain flickered across his face, but Willmington didn't say anything.
"I'll show you" JD said as he pushed Chris out of the way. He stood directly in front of the man sitting in the chair. "Buck?"
"Hey, Lil' Bit." Willmington smiled but his eyes never quite focused on the boy.
"Buck, I need you to stay here and be real quiet for a while."
"Okay Lil' Bit."
"You won't be by yourself Chris will be here "
Another flash of pain crossed the handsome face and then it was gone.
"So will Josiah and Nathan but you gotta be quiet 'cause the Guild is searching all the houses."
With the mention of the Guild Buck's face again flashed pain and terror he began shaking all over. "Nooo. Not here. They can't get here." All the time the man's eyes remained unfocused as if he were watching something far away.
JD reached out, holding the rogue's face with both hands. "It's okay, Buck. You're safe here. Just you an' me."
Instantly the face cleared and the trembling stopped. "Hey Lil' Bit " he said once again as the bland unfocused look came upon the rogue.
JD looked around the room. "See, I been trying to tell ya an' no one would listen. He just ain't right."
The adults remained still in stunned silence. Small things began flying around the room smashing into walls.
//Chris, this ain't the time to start throwing things.// Vin sent.
"Well, what do we do?" Ezra asked.
"It was JD mentioning the, uh, you know, that agitated him. If we don't say anything this room is pretty sound proof and Jax assures us it's shielded, we'll be fine. But JD, you have to be with Jax." Nathan said finally.
"I know. I just wanted you to know to understand about Buck." The little boy who wasn't a child anymore said quietly.
Ezra stood apart watching the little drama. He wondered at JD's courage at facing the adults in the room and wondered if he'd have the same courage at the little boy's age.
Things blurred and grayed until superimposed over the basement room was the living room upstairs. Ezra watched, as all were present in the room. Vin and Chris were playing chess; Buck was reading a book with JD. The others were relaxing listening to the radio. The prevailing feeling was one of safety and home. Home? Was that the feeling that was so strong to Ezra? He puzzled over the use of that word. Home! He hadn't used it in such a long time yet that's what it felt like.
Ezra was back in the basement room again. He took a shaky breath.
Josiah glanced at his nephew. Frowning he asked, "Ezra, you okay?"
"Yes Uncle. I'm fine." The teen smiled and thought of the little gift his talent had given him hoping with all his might that it was a true Seeing.
After lunch everyone sat around on the porch. JD was practicing his reading. It was a good book about a horse and a boy. JD was an excellent reader and Vin enjoyed listening to him.
Vin sat up straighter. He stared down the road. //They're coming!// he announced to them.
Right after that the dogs jumped up and ran to the gate. Jax reached for his shotgun and said. "Stay here and try to act like 'normal' kids. Don't forget your part Vin. No telepathy while they are here."
"Yes, sir." Ezra and JD echoed.
Jax walked down to where the dogs stood their lips curled in an unfriendly snarl.
The jeep had stopped and a middle-aged man in some kind of uniform stood waiting.
"You lost, young feller?" Jax asked. "The sign says 'no trespassing'."
"Sir, I am duly authorized by the PCCA to search all domiciles within a one hundred mile of Wilson."
"Authorized by who? Never heard of this Pissants thing."
The man stiffened at Jax's seeming misunderstanding but he didn't say anything because the old coot didn't seem to be dangerous. "Please sir, I represent the Federal Government. We are looking for several dangerous criminals who somehow escaped a prison not far from here. Sir, call off your dogs and open the gate. I'd prefer not to break it down or shoot the dogs in front of the kids" he nodded at the three boys on the porch.
Jax hesitated just a few seconds before he said, "Girls, to the house." Then he began grumbling under his breath as he unlocked the gate and pushed it open. "Dadgum government. bustin' in on an honest man. Treating descent folk like the criminals." Then louder, "Now son, I know my rights. You got a warrant to look in my house, scaring my grandsons? Probably scaring my chickens so they won't lay for a month" Jax looked up at the man, "Well, where is your warrant?"
"Lieutenant Smith, show Mr. Freeman the warrant" the man ordered as he waved the trucks inside.
Jax grabbed the paper from Smith and walked back to the house, supposedly reading it. As the men got out of the truck, Jax yelled. "Now don't be scaring Vin he's deaf and don't take to strangers at all."
Vin was playing the part well, by hiding behind Ezra, who himself looked very young and scared.
The soldiers pushed past the boys and stormed into the house. They could hear doors banging as the men went through every room. They came back out and reported. "Nothing sir."
The leader turned to Jax. "Is this all that live here, sir? You and the three boys?"
"Yep, me, my three boys, three dogs, a dozen chickens, barn cat and seven kittens and a jackass."
"That's quite a list, sir."
"Well, been planning on getting a milk goat or two. Boys need milk to grow."
"Yes sir. We'll just check out the barn and then be on our way." The leader nodded as his men went toward the barn.
They waited. It wasn't long before mama cat ran out with a yowl and was followed by the soldiers. "Nothing sir, it's just as the old man said."
"Thank you sir for your cooperation. It seems all is as you said. Please be advised these escapees are considered extremely dangerous. If you see or hear anything please give us a call." The man held out a card.
"Won't do no good giving me that don't have a phone. Invades a person's privacy."
The soldier cleared his throat. "Uh, yes, well please keep an eye out. Good day, sir."
"You lock that gate when you go through it, ya hear?"
They all stood very still watching the soldiers drive away.
The message came to the four waiting men. //They're coming.// Short, to the point and then nothing.
Nathan and Josiah watched the reaction of the other men. Buck sat as he always did; seemingly unaware of what was going on.
Chris on the other hand became a tight, tension-filled figure that silently paced the length of the room. After several trips back and forth he ended in an empty corner. He leaned into it, his forehead pressed into the blocks, hands in a fist.
Josiah walked over and started to lay a hand on Larabee's shoulder.
"Leave me alone, Josiah. I don't need your so-called help right now."
"They'll be fine, Chris."
One hazel eye raked over the empath "You don't know that. No, I'm sure they'll fool the Guild. It's just I can't even feel Vin right now. It's all empty: it's as if the boy doesn't exist."
Shaking his head, Josiah turned in time to see a wild-eyed Willmington coming out of the chair.
Buck looked around the room - he didn't know this place. Where was he now? More important where was JD? Buck saw Chris standing by the wall. CHRIS! Chris had said the Guild. The Guild had the boys? An agonized "NO!" came out, rising in volume. "No! JD!" He started to move but someone was before him. NO! MOVE! "JD? Gotta help JD!" He reached out to move the large man in front of him.
Willmington fell limply into Josiah's arms. The empath looked at Nathan in confusion. "What did you do?"
Jackson grinned and snapped his thumb and first finger together. "I calls it my Vulcan nerve pinch."
Josiah raised an eyebrow and picked up the unconscious rogue and laid him down. "Well, that's a handy talent to have, especially right now. Nathan, I don't want to tell you your business, but maybe you should look over Buck while he's 'sleeping' to see if you can find anything that would explain his unresponsive behavior."
"Good idea. I'd thought of it. You, my friend, keep an eye on our more volatile patient. Do try to keep him from banging his head against the wall."
"God Nathan, you sound like Ezra on a bad day."
Jackson threw his head back and laughed. "I claim tiredness. Ezra influences me at odd times. Go on though, try to keep Chris from hurting himself or Jax's wall."
The boys stood stiffly as they watched the trucks leave. To anyone that didn't know them they looked relaxed and calm but Jax felt the tension literally hum around the three boys.
"Don't be too quick to move, boys. They could be still watching."
Ezra snorted, "Make that a certainty. There's at least two up on the hill. JD, shall we go back to that book? Vin, get your pad and pencil and start sketching." Ezra reached out and pushed the smaller boy toward the porch swing. He picked up the book and started reading, although he was sure no one was listening.
Jax sat in the rocker and scratched Silver's ear. He seemed to relax and even doze but his eyes were ever scanning the horizon it was more than an hour before the old man moved. Slowly standing he stretched and headed to the door. "Stay here," he ordered the boys and the dogs.
Once inside he went to the bathroom and leaned against the wall. //Josiah? They have gone but we're being careful in case they are still watching.//
Down below by the same wall Josiah nodded and turned to the others. "Jax says they've gone but he thinks they're being watched. We're stuck down here until they say its all clear."
Larabee nodded and spreading his fingers he carefully placed them on the wall for support. //Vin? Are you truly okay?//
//I'm fine, Chris. Ezra thinks we're being watched. Are you okay?//
//Better, now that I've heard from you.//
Vin put another leaf on the tree he was drawing. He felt calmer now also. Even though his connection with Chris was only a whisper of what it usually was, it was reassuring.
Chris let out a sigh. Vin was okay. The promise was not needed, once again. Once more he had managed to avoid that horrific promise. Vin was okay. Larabee told himself that over and over. After Camp Normal he now understood why Vin demanded such a promise. Understood it but hated it even more.
Turning, he saw Nathan still working on Buck. Buck, the man who was his friend for most of his life. He'd told Buck to leave him that day to get out while he could but the big lug wouldn't go. He remembered the look of resignation in Buck's eyes just before he blacked out the last thing he'd seen before he woke up in the hands of the PCCA.
Buck seemed to be waking up. He tossed his head and moaned. Chris forced himself to move. He sat down beside Willmington and gently laid a hand on his chest. Larabee swallowed and closed his eyes at the feel of the rapid heartbeat. He heard the moan grow louder and opened his eyes. Looking down. he found himself staring into those familiar dark blue eyes. "Hey, Buck. How ya doing?" He didn't expect an answer but he had to say something.
Willmington looked around the room and then back at Larabee. Licking his lips, the rogue asked. "Where are we, Chris?"
"We're in Jax's basement."
Buck frowned. "Jax has a basement?"
Chris smiled slightly. "Sort of - he calls it his Priest's Hole."
The brunet nodded and tried to sit up. He failed with a groan.
"Easy, Big Dog. You've been out of it for quite a while."
Buck frowned and squinted his eyes. "We we're not at Jax's. We left and we raided that camp we were trapped " He stopped as if the memory was too hard to continue. "We the Guild had us trapped Are we dead?"
"No Buck, we're not dead. And we're free from the PCCA."
Willmington shook his head. "No, I saw I saw them take you. Shoot something into your neck. I saw you fall."
Chris picked up Buck's hand. "Yeah, but it's gone now" he said as he guided the unresisting hand to the back of his neck. "It's gone, Buck. Nathan pulled it out. He pulled the one in your head out, too. Just like he did with Vin."
Buck pulled his hand away and reached up to the back of his own neck. He felt the shrinking scab and frowned again. "I don't remember."
"I know - neither did I."
Buck looked around the room again. He paused briefly on Josiah and Nathan. "Where are the boys, Chris? Where are Ezra, Vin and JD?"
"They're upstairs with Jax." Chris answered as simply as he could.
"I don't understand."
"I know. But you will, soon. You need to get some rest. We've had a long day."
"I want to see JD."
"I know - soon. When you wake up."
"Okay" Buck said with complete trust that whatever Chris said was right.
Nathan came closer and gently pressed on Wilmington's temples. He sent sleep suggestions to the brain centers. When he relaxed his hold his hands fell to his sides.
"Nathan? Is Buck back?" Chris asked holding his friend up.
"I'm not sure, Chris but I think it's a start. I just don't know."
It wasn't the answer Larabee wanted but it was one he'd have to accept, at least for now. "Go rest, you've done enough for today" he ordered the healer.
Nathan stumbled over to the cot and taking the large glass of water handed him, downed it before he lay down and instantly fell asleep.
Josiah watched as their leader sat beside Buck, studying his hands. Larabee turned his own hands over, looking at them as if they belonged to a stranger. "What went wrong, Josiah?" he finally asked softly.
Josiah leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. His voice came calmly and softly. "Nothing, everything. We are not perfect, Chris. We've had a remarkable string of luck on our mission to bring down the PCCA. We have done more than anyone else to get equal rights for sentients. Even with two children and a teenager tagging along, we've had remarkable success. Ezra would be quoting you odds. I'm sure, but he'd be right in that it was bound to happen that we'd fail at some point."
"But before you say anything, no, I don't consider our raid against Camp Normal a failure. Yes, some got hurt. But Nathan and I escaped because you and Buck held them off so we could get away. Even though you were captured and the horrific things you and Buck went through, we still managed to close Camp Normal and expose the PCCA for what it has been doing. Jax has been bringing us reports the whole time we've been here. The boys and Jax risked everything to come get us and to break the two of you out. As a team we work."
Chris smiled at the long speech from Josiah. "Going back to your preaching days, Josiah?"
"No, just wanted to share some thoughts. There has been little to do but think the past week or so."
Hazel eyes rested on the empath and then down at the mustached man. "I lost myself for a while there, Josiah. I lost who I am."
"No you didn't, Chris. You managed despite of what the Guild did to you, to keep the boys safe, to keep Nathan and me safe. You almost sacrificed yourself for us. I have no doubt you would have willingly died rather than give us up. No matter what they did to you, you didn't give them what they wanted."
Chris shook his head. "But Buck "
"Buck did the same. He buried himself rather than risk those boys or the rest of us. I just hope he didn't bury himself so deep we won't get him back. Today gave me hope."
"Yes. Now we have nothing to do but rest and wait." The empath sent strong suggestions of rest and sleep to the exhausted blond. He watched as Chris yawned and drooped. He said in his hypnotic voice. "I'm really tired - it's been a long worrisome day. I need to stretch out." Josiah kept talking and Chris' eyes shut and he relaxed against the back of the overstuffed chair.
In silence the empath watched the three men sleep. He smiled and sent a prayer of gratitude up that these special men seemed to be overcoming what had been done to them he closed his own eyes relaxing against the soft cushions and trying to ease the tension between his shoulders. As he drifted he listened for the scrape of the cabinet being moved, signaling the boys coming down.
JD tiptoed into the room, carefully carrying the steaming cup of coffee. He hoped today Buck would wake up and be Buck. He hated the haunted look that he saw in the man's eyes now. So the grownups wouldn't worry, he pretended not to see. But he did see. He saw and felt a lot more then anyone knew, except for maybe Vin.
When Buck didn't wake the boy sadly placed the mug beside the bed and left. He went outside and sat on the edge of the porch, staring at nothing in particular and swinging his legs back and forth.
"Something troubles you, grandson?" Jax asked as he sat down beside the boy.
JD smiled. He liked it when Jax called him grandson. Shrugging he said, "Just wishing Buck would get well. Be who he was before everything" he finished lamely.
"You know, Buck has been through a lot. It's going to take him a long time to get over it."
"I know, but he's a grownup. Grownups are supposed to be I don't know, something "
"Grownups are supposed to be so strong that they don't get hurt so bad that it takes a long time to get over it."
"Yeah, I guess" JD said sadly.
The old man thought for a minute "JD, when Buck found you, were you scared?"
"'Course I was."
"And worried about your mama?"
"Did you miss her?"
"Yeah," JD said slowly.
"Do you still miss her?"
"Why, JD? It's been a long time since she disappeared."
The boy looked shocked. "She's my mama. I think about her everyday. I miss her all the time. Buck said that's okay. That he still misses his mama."
"That's true. Now Buck is trying to find someone he lost."
"Who?" JD asked trying to think of whom Buck could have lost.
"Himself. Buck tried to hide from the Guild when they had him but he couldn't run away or hide under the bed. He had to hide inside his head. Now he's trying to find his way out of all the dark places he hid inside there and come out. Does that make sense to you, JD?"
"Yeah, I guess. Vin was doing that when we found him."
"Yes, probably. But grownups aren't as tough as kids and it's going to take more time for Buck. Just like you're still trying to learn how to shield, Buck is trying to learn how to be himself again."
"You know, you're pretty good at explaining stuff."
"I try, JD" the old man smiled. He wished he could explain it all to the others as well.
Buck stood in a gray place. There was no up or down there was nothing to see all around him. It was as if he were surrounded by thick, soundless gray fog.
"I'm so tired of being alone," Buck said finally.
"Then don't be" came a Voice.
Looking all around in surprise, Buck saw no one. "There's no one here. Just me."
"Then change it" came the soft Voice again.
"Who do you want to see?"
"JD, Chris everybody. I'm tired of being alone."
"Then call for JD. Call his name and walk away from this."
"Call his name and walk."
Shrugging, Buck thought anything was better than staying here. He started walking one shaky step at a time. Every few steps he called, "JD."
JD Dunne sat watching his surrogate father sleep. He'd been asleep a long time. So still and so pale, he was beginning to wonder if Buck would ever wake. Nathan kept saying he was healing but in the little boy's mind it was taking forever. "Wake up, Buck. Wake up and be you again" he whispered over and over trying to will it true.
Wilmington's head tossed and his legs moved in a restless motion. The brunet's mouth opened and closed as if struggling to say something.
JD leaned down trying to hear what the man was saying.
"JD," came the barely audible call.
Little Dunne took the still, cool hand and held it in his own. "I'm here, Buck. Just open your eyes - you'll see. I'm here."
The rogue became more agitated as if he were fighting through something. "JD." With this last loud call, the cobalt eyes snapped open. They immediately settled on the small face above him. "JD?" he said with question and finality in his voice.
"Yeah, Buck. It's me, it's JD."
A large rough hand slowly rose and touched the boy's face. "You're real, you're here? I'm not alone anymore?"
Not really understanding what Buck meant. JD answered the best he could. "No, not alone. We are all safe and all together. I'm real."
Buck searched the face above him. Then he looked around. "Where's everyone else?"
"Upstairs, eating some Surprise Stew. I'm watching you."
"Surprise Stew? We're at Jax place?"
Buck frowned trying to fit the pieces of his memory together. "I a dream?"
"No, not a dream. We 'scued you and Chris and brought you back to Jax's house."
Wilmington took a deep breath and struggled to sit up. "Up! See other's" he grunted out the command. Standing on wobbly legs he looked around, "Out?"
"Okay," JD took a large hand and led the tall man to the stairs. Struggling, Buck took one step at a time, panting from exertion.
//Vin! Help! Buck's awake and trying to go upstairs.//
Almost before JD finished his call, Chris was there reaching out. "Buck, you fool! You're gonna fall flat on your face." The blond grabbed an arm and let his strength help Buck to finish the climb.
Once in the kitchen Buck sat down with a huff. He looked around. They were all here. Everyone was alive and safe. Nathan hovered off to the side. "Stop fussing, Nathan. You're all here all real?"
"Yeah, Big Dog."
Buck's eyes stopped at Jax. "I don't remember a basement."
Jax smiled. "You were a kid - I didn't tell you all my secrets."
Wilmington nodded. He reached out and laid his hand on the table. "Real?" He saw the half empty bowl and smiled, "Surprise stew? I'm hungry."
Buck sat on the porch enjoying the warm sunshine. The night had been cold and there had been frost on things earlier. It was only mid morning and he was tired. He hated being tired all the time. He hated being scared all the time. He hated not being in control.
Sighing Buck held up his hand in a cupping shape. Frowning he concentrated hard but no flame appeared. Not even a tiny flicker. That scared him more then anything. What if his special gift were gone forever?
Gritting his teeth he thought, Buck Wilmington is no quitter!. And he tried again a tiny blue flame flickered briefly and died. "WHOWHO!!!" Buck shouted.
Everyone came running outside. "What?" Chris asked.
"I did it! Just for a second, but I did it" Buck said looking into the eyes of the one man that understood.
Chris grinned. "Knew you would, Big Dog."
JD leaned on Bucks knee. "Show me, Buck," he demanded.
"Alright." Buck cupped his hand and concentrated. This time the flame was larger and lasted longer.
"That's so cool, Buck."
Closing his hand where the flame had been, Buck smiled. "Yep, it is cool. I guess that kitten isn't the only fireball around here anymore."
The sun was just setting and most of the household was gathered in the living room. Ezra was playing chess with Chris while Vin watched JD and Buck were sitting slightly apart reading a book together. The rest, with the exception of Jax, were relaxing with the radio playing softly in the background.
//That's cheating!// Vin suddenly broadcast. //Ezra, you can't do that.//
"Do what, Vin?" The teen asked in all innocence.
"He means you can't 'palm' a rook and then put it somewhere else" Chris said as he mentally moved the rook to his side of the board.
"I did no such thing. How did you see that?" Standish asked turning to the boy.
//Didn't see you. Saw the mmm trail it left. Jax has been teaching me. He said everything leaves an energy trail.//
Before Ezra could comment Silver stood, and pushing her head behind the curtain looked outside. She whined and her tail began to wag.
JD jumped down and ran to the door. "Jax is home," he announced as he opened the door.
The old pickup rattled to a stop and Freeman called, "Some of you fellers wanna help me carry all this in?"
With a groan Josiah stood "I'm guessing he means us. Shall we?"
Everyone trouped out to grab bags and the huge ice chest. They carried it inside and Buck looked inside the chest. "Damn Jax, did you buy out the town?"
"Nope but we were gettin' low on supplies. Just stack stuff in the pantry for now. I got something to show ya."
Back in the living room Jax handed each man a different newspaper. "Go on, read the headlines."
"Congress investigates Job Baines on charges of fraud. An indictment is expected on money laundering."
"Auschwitz here in the US exposed."
"The PCCA repealed under the weight of indictment."
"Senator Bullwinkle enraged over treatment of 'detainees'. We treat our dogs better then these people were treated."
They all stared at the papers and at each other.
"Don't you get it? Because of you the PCCA have been exposed for what they are. Sentients are no longer criminals. They can go about their lives as they please without fear of being condemned because they have special talents."
Jax smiled as he looked around at the stunned faces. "I know it's a lot to take in, boys but no more hiding. I got something to propose. I know Chris has been on the phone with 'someone' a lot about new jobs. Fact is I want you, all of you, to stay here. Let this be your home base. The boys can stay and go to school here. I got books to home school them too, if that's the choice. You can go on jobs knowing you have a safe place to come back to. And if the boys need to stay, it'll be a safe place for them while you're gone."
Jax looked around the room waiting for someone to say something.
"Jax we can't impose on your ." Chris started.
"Won't be imposing. I ain't got no family anymore. Yet the short time you all have been here - short for the older ones, not so short for the boys - anyway, in the time you've been here I've come to think of you all as family. I want you to stay here."
"I don't know "Chris started again, but he stopped and looked around the room. "Vote! Josiah?"
The empath looked at each of the seven. "Yes, with conditions we earn our keep."
"Yeah, we could do with someplace permanent."
"Well, I would prefer someplace a little less rural, but it seems very healthy for the boys."
Chris smiled, "For the boys, huh? Vin?"
//I like it here, Chris.//
"Yes! I got kittens to take care of."
"Buck?" Chris asked softly still not used to having his old friend back.
"It's a good place, Chris. A safe place to heal in."
"Seems you got a consensus, Chris. What do you say?"
"I say yes, too. It's been a long time since any of us have had a home. That's what this house is to us. Home!"
//Home// Vin broadcast to everyone.
Buck looked at Jax and asked, "Just what is that town called anyway? I can't seem to remember."
"Well, the original settlers called it Cuatro Esqinas al Viento. But now it's just called Cuatro or Cuatro Esquinas."
JD looked up at his protector "What's that mean, Buck?"
"Four Corners, Little Bit. Our new home is called Four Corners."
Next - Angel Ride by Nancy