As Chris coaxed the horse to the top of a steep embankment, he looked out over the landscape ahead. From that point, he was barely able to make out the Mission, and that was only because he knew it was there. The road they were traveling on was miles off the highway. Ahead there was another winding road more like a wide path that cut across the rugged terrain and led to the old monastery that was the Mission. They were deep in the canyon-lands, but the Mission was located in a semi-fertile valley, with the river running through. It had been built into a high bluff that curved inward at that point, sheltering the building. It blended in with the stone, and was veiled by trees and brush. The climate at their elevation was fairly steady year round. Most days were warm, occasionally too warm and at night the temperature would often drop to freezing, even in the summer. The winter months brought cooler weather, but even then the temperature usually stayed above 60 degrees in the daytime.
There were a few dozen people who had set up campsites around the Mission. Newcomers went through a sort of interview process, just to make sure that they shared the same goals and expectations as the other residents did. Almost everyone was invited to stay, as long as they agreed to allow the doc to run his standard tests, and abide by their quarantine rule. In fact, the only people Chris could think of that had ever been turned away were the five shitheads who had tried to jump him. Nathan had bandaged their wounds and theyd been sent on their way.
For the most part, they were just a bunch of normal, everyday people who were determined to survive and to remain as self-sufficient as they could. They were extra cautious to avoid following the patterns of the other camps, which had probably started out much like them. Chris imagined that in the beginning, most camps were just groups of regular people looking for a sense of security and community. He doubted that it had ever occurred to them that the fences they raised for protection would someday become their own prison walls.
Sadly, the average survivor was only too willing to hand over their possessions along with their freedom and independence.
In the rare event that an occupant wanted to leave the camp, usually the overseer would hand the person a tally of what they owed for room and board, and any other charges that could be included along with interest. When they were unable to pay, which almost all of them were, the overseer would give an estimation of the time it would take to pay off their debt. Sometimes theyd be offered other, less than honorable options for paying the debt off quicker. Of course, the debt increased with each passing day, so most of the time the occupants found themselves in a no-win situation, but they tended not to fight it. They chose instead to merely accept that their lives would now consist of twelve-hour workdays in exchange for rations and a roof over their heads at night.
Ironically, almost all of them focused their anger, and blamed their conditions on a nameless, faceless specter of an enemy. Chris couldnt help but wonder whether or not a hundred years down the road history would repeat itself?
The Mission had no fences, no watchtower, or overseer, nobody doling out rations and forcing labor. The people respected each other -- each others property and privacy. They bought and sold, or traded each other for services and other necessities. Everyone contributed in some way, but nobody was forced to participate, nobody was forced to stay. They were everything the enemy had tried to wipe out.
Chris, Buck, Josiah and Nathan kept the peace among the settlers. They didnt give orders, or bully anyone. They simply stepped in if a situation got out of hand, or if someone asked for their help.
It was late afternoon when they made it back to the small RV they shared with Buck. Chris waited for Vin to climb down from the saddle before dismounting himself.
He couldnt help noticing the unfamiliar late model sports car parked close to the Mission; it was bright red and stood out like a sore thumb. Several of the other residents had vehicles, but they were seldom used because fuel was in such short supply, and he knew for a fact that none of them were that flashy. Before he could lead the horse around back to the lean-to they used as a stable, he saw Josiah walking toward him, a pretty blonde-haired woman on his arm. He caught sight of a boy trailing behind the two, who looked to be a few years older than Vin. Chris felt a little relieved, assuming that the car must belong to the woman and the boy. Looks like we got company, he said, nudging Vin.
Vin smiled up at him and turned to see what Chris was talking about. When he saw the newcomers he moved closer to Chris.
The youth walked around from behind the woman, and smiled at Vin. Why Mr. Tanner, the boy said with a nod. What a pleasure to see you again.
Chris, Id like you to meet the lovely Ms. Maude Standish, pausing, Josiah gestured to the boy, and this is her son Ezra. Theyre going to be staying with us for a while.
Nice to meet you, Chris greeted, politely shaking the womans dainty hand. He put an arm across Vins shoulders, and asked, You know these two, cowboy?
Vin didnt answer; he just looked up at Chris, his expression troubled.
The other boy stepped closer. Vin and I are old friends. We both had the misfortune to be placed in the same deplorable facility.
Vin? Chris questioned, raising an eyebrow at the boy beside him.
Vin gazed at the boy, then beyond him. His eyebrows were drawn together, like he was trying to think, trying to remember.
Whats wrong, Vin? the other boy teased. Cat got your tongue?
Vin didnt acknowledge the boy; instead he looked down at his shoes. Chris recognized the all-too familiar response. It was the same thing that happened anytime one of them mentioned Vins past, or his father or mother. The kid just sort of zoned-out -- went somewhere else. Josiah had said it was a defense mechanism. Whatever it was, it pained Chris to see it.
Vin doesnt speak, Josiah explained to the boy. But, Im guessing that he did at one time?
Ezra looked puzzled, but he nodded.
With a gentle hand, Josiah tipped Vins chin up then gave him a smile. Perhaps hell be able to find his voice again, for us.
Vin looked at the preacher, but he didnt smile as he usually did at the mans gentle encouragement.
Maude Standish cleared her throat then smiled sweetly when everyone looked at her. Father Sanchez, is there someplace where perhaps I could freshen up?
Of course, Josiah gestured towards the mission, offering his arm for her to take. Theres an outhouse right out back.
Outhouse? she repeated, looking somewhat appalled.
Well, the monks who built this place decided that indoor plumbing was a bit too extravagant. You know how monks can be.
Maude huffed. Barbarians.
Yes, Josiah grinned. Indeed.
Ezra watched them go then turned back to Vin. Is this your father, Vin? he asked, glancing at Chris.
Vin took a step back, alarmed. His father? He took another step back and shook his head. No, Chris wasnt his father. His father was . . . somewhere else.
Wickes told us youd been sold, Ezra said hesitantly. But, Ms. Dunne told us that your father had come to get you.
Vin kept his eyes fixed on the ground. He tried to block out the words. He filled his mind with the song humming it inside his head because he could no longer remember the words. He only remembered it was about sunshine, and that she used to sing it to him and it made him feel happy and safe.
Vin? You okay, partner?
No, he wasnt okay. There were images swirling around in his head, and they wouldnt go away. Flashes of him riding on the gray horse, only it wasnt Chris in front of him, it was somebody else. Men following them, somebody making him hide up in a hollow tree trunk . . ..
After a long pause, Ezra continued. JD and his mother disappeared soon after you left.
Vin suddenly lifted his head. JD?
The rumor was that Ms. Dunne was punished for failing to divulge the information she knew concerning your escape. Nobody saw her again, but Im certain that I saw young JD, several times, looking out the second story window of Wickes house.
Vins mind kept repeating the name JD, over and over . . ..
Whos JD? Chris asked Ezra. He kneeled in front of Vin, studying him with concern.
When I arrived at the camp, Vin was already there, along with JD and his mother. I believe Vins mother, his voice became hushed, had passed away some time before that.
Vin felt dizzy. His mother? He remembered when all the lights went out, she had put him in the car and told him they were going to see his daddy. He remembered being happy because he hadnt seen his daddy for a long time because he was always working, putting bad men in jail. Like the bad men who had stopped their car. In his mind he could hear them shouting, see them jumping on the car, their faces pressed against the windows, the windshield shattering and then . . . hed woke up in a bed and JDs momma was smiling at him.
Anyway, Ezra continued, Ms. Dunne, JDs mother, looked after Vin . . . as she did for me, as well.
Vin closed his eyes, trying to push the bad images and memories away. He felt a hand on his back that he knew belonged to Chris.
Why dont we all go inside and have some orange juice? Chris asked, nodding toward his camper. Vin was looking like he was getting ready to fall over or take off, and Chris wanted to try and avoid either of those from happening.
Orange juice? Ezra questioned skeptically.
Chris grinned and shrugged. Well, its orange.
The last thing Vin wanted to do was go inside that camper. He suddenly felt as if there wasnt enough air to breathe and being inside the trailer would only make it worse. The trailer would be too small, too stuffy and confining. He grabbed Chris sleeve and was about to point to the horse that still needed to be put up when Buck pulled alongside them in the big black truck.
Howdy, boys, Buck greeted, touching the brim of his Stetson as he steppd out of the truck.
Hey, Buck, Chris paused at the bottom of the metal steps. Wheres Nate?
Dropped him up the hill, he nodded toward the Mission then turned his attention to the boy standing at Chris side. Hey there, half-pint.
Suddenly, Vin felt he could breathe again, and he beamed at the dark haired man. Buck always made the bad thoughts go away. Vin remembered the spyglass, snatched it out of his belt and waved it in Bucks face.
Whatchya got there, lil pard? he asked, kneeling down to look at the spyglass. He turned it around, inspecting it properly, then let out a long whistle in admiration. Whoo-whee, a spyglass, he said, seriously impressed. Looks like an antique, maybe even older than Chris.
Buck winked at his old friend. Its alright Chris, we still love ya, dont we, pal? Vin nodded seriously, and Chris gave Buck a dirty look. Buck dismissed it, choosing instead to put the spyglass to his eye backwards just to make Vin smile. Then he turned it around the proper way, making a big show of peering up then down, all around the yard, until finally coming to rest an inch from Vins face. Holy buckets! He whipped the glass away with an expression of horror that immediately turned into a grin. Oh, its you.
Vin rolled his eyes then reached out and patted the front pocket of Bucks flannel shirt.
I guess youre wanting this? He pulled out a pack of sugarless bubble gum. Vin snatched it out of his hand with a grin. Hey now, Buck playfully scolded. That stuff dont come free, ya know? It didnt either. Any kind of gum or candy was hard to come by, but somehow Buck always managed to bring a little something back for the kid. Vin tilted his head like he was thinking of a suitable payment, then wrapped his arms around Bucks neck and held on tight. Yeah, thats better.
Ezra coughed. How touching.
Vin pulled back to glare at the boy, and Buck lifted his eyebrows to Chris.
Buck, this is Ezra Standish, Chris explained. Ezra and his mom are going to be staying here, at least for a while.
Well, its nice to meet ya, Ez.
Buck nodded, appearing slightly chagrined. Nice to meet ya, Ez-RA.
Vin let out a soft giggle.
What are you laughin at, Tanner? Buck growled, narrowing his eyes at Vin, ready to scuffle with the boy. Vin only grinned, raising his hands and trying to back away.
Chris watched Buck lunge forward and grab the boy, prompting another giggle. He was actually glad that Buck had showed up, and apparently Vin was too. Thats okay, he thought. Well get this all figured out in good time. It was probably better that Chris speak with Ezra alone, and get all the information he needed and have time to sort through it before any confrontations.
Buck stood up, holding Vin around the waist, as the boy half-heartedly tried to break free.
Is there anyway I could get you two to put this horse up for me? asked Chris. I promised Ezra a cold glass of juice.
Cold? Ezra asked, seeming a little more enthusiastic about the juice.
When were done, well help unload the truck, Chris promised, getting a dubious look from Ezra that made him grin. Wont we, Ezra?
Surely youre joking, Ezra drawled, as he inspected the bed of the pick-up, which was neatly stacked with wooden crates and bags of supplies from Buck and Nates trip to Colorado.
Chris just chuckled.
Okay, lets put this big boy away, squirt, Buck said, lifting Vin into the saddle and taking the horse by the reins. Did I tell ya that I come up with a name for that new colt?
Vin shook his head, grinning broadly.
Hows this sound? Billy the kid.
Chris groaned, but of course, Vin nodded. Buck, Chris warned. Youre not naming it Billy.
Whatever you say, ol pard, Buck said agreeably, but Chris didnt miss the mischievous wink he gave Vin.
Come on, Ezra, lets get that cold drink.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
There was one image that refused to be pushed out of Vins mind, a little boys face big dark eyes and round cheeks. He could imagine the face looking down from the second story window of Wickes house. He wondered why Wickes would keep JD in the house, then figured he didnt want to think about that just then. JDs momma had always looked out for him, made sure he had enough to eat and drink, and even tucked him in at night and now Vin was feeling an overwhelming responsibility to do the same for JD, especially if what Ezra said was true, and JDs momma was no longer there for him.
Once they were inside the stable, Buck lifted Vin from the horse and set him on a crate, giving him a pat on the leg. Ill get the saddle, he said, and Vin nodded, waiting for Buck to undo the cinch and remove the saddle before he went to work on the headstall.
Vin tried not to look, but his eyes kept darting over to the mare and her gangly-legged colt, who watched them curiously through the stall.
Vin was pretty sure that he knew who that mare had belonged to. Chris had probably even told him outright at one time, but hed stopped saying things that upset Vin some time ago. Now, if he let himself, he could remember the man -- his dad -- taking the leather bags from the saddle then giving the big gray horse a slap on the behind. He could remember watching the horse gallop away as his dad hid him in the old tree . . . before the men had come.
Hed waited until the men left, and then like his dad had told him to, he followed the river . . . not thinking about what the men had done -- what hed seen them do. Now, the images were blurring together with other images, similar yet different. His momma. Men had hurt her too. He could see her face, and blood, and her eyes . . . and when hed cried out for her, the men had laughed, and hurt him.
Vin swiped at his eyes, then turned to Buck, trying to hold back his tears. He wanted to shout that he was sorry that he hadnt made the men stop. He wanted to beg for his mom and his dad to forgive him, but all that came out was a broken sob. And then Buck was there; his strong arms enveloping Vin, tucking him close, protecting him from whatever demons were calling him out.
Vin hardly made a noise when he cried, nothing more than a hiccup or a hitch of breath, but those along with the tremors running through the small body were nearly enough to break the mans soft heart.
After several long minutes, he finally felt the body in his arms relax and thought maybe the kid had fallen asleep. He pulled back a little to get a look at Vin who wiped his eyes, and managed to look up at him with a tremulous smile. You gonna be okay, kiddo? he asked quietly.
How bout we go see what Chris is up to?
The boy gave Buck one last hug, then slipped his hand into Bucks and the two of them made their way slowly back to the camper.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Josiah Sanchez escorted his guest down the stone path of his small but well-cared-for garden, to a patio area in the center. It was a tiny oasis, sheltered on one side by the tall sandstone bluff, and on the other by the walls of the Mission. Sitting there, surrounded by the flora -- sparse as it was that time of year -- it was easy to forget the rest of the world existed.
This would be the so-called interview process; it was an important step they took before allowing anyone into the camp. Ms. Standish had already been informed of the quarantine, and agreed to the blood tests. The interview was usually done so informally that the interviewee never realized they were being sized-up. Josiah liked to think of it as a get-to-know-you session, rather than an interview.
This place is lovely, Reverend Sanchez, Maude said appreciatively.
Reverend, Father, Preacher -- Josiah didnt think it mattered, and he couldnt see the Lord being too nit-picky about the earthly titles given to His servants. If Maude Standish couldnt make up her mind whether to call him reverend or father, well, the Lord was understanding, and he guessed hed have to be understanding too. Thank you, maam.
It reminds me of home.
Home? Josiah inquired, offering her a chair at one of the small tables he had set up. They were all welcome to seek the peace and tranquility the garden had to offer. The monks who had lived there so long ago, had obviously made the garden as a place of meditation and reflection. Further out from the patio, they had built a stone labyrinth that Josiah walked often enough that it might be more out of habit, or routine. In his mind, he was sure that his thoughts and emotions had become more calm and orderly since he had started walking the labyrinth.
Yes, were originally from Atlanta, Georgia, she told him. But, weve always traveled quite a bit. I havent been home in years. She sighed, a troubled look on her face. Of course it isnt possible for us to return now.
Josiah nodded, understanding. Atlanta was one of several major cities where bombs had destroyed most of the inner city structures -- the airport and news headquarters, among other buildings. The bombs contained radiation and in some instances other chemical or biological elements designed to kill the remaining population in the aftermath. They destroyed on a much smaller scale than a nuclear warhead, but still left the environment uninhabitable for years.
So, how did you manage to get your son away from the camp he was in? he asked out of curiosity.
Well, its a long story, but when the initial mayhem ensued, I was on my way home from New York. She leaned closer and touched his hand. If Id have stayed just a few more hours . . .. Her voice trailed off and she shook her head sadly. Anyway, Id left Ezra with my cousin Bridget in Taos while I went to New York on business. Our plane was over Denver when the bombs hit. We ended up landing in a small airfield in New Mexico. The phones were out . . . I had no idea where my boy was, or if he was all right.
That must have been very frightening.
By the time we made it to Taos, there were hoodlums running the streets, stealing and vandalizing, she shook her head, my cousin was gone . . . the whole neighborhood was abandoned. We searched James, my pilot, helped me, but we couldnt find them anywhere. It took a few weeks, but we finally got information on several camps where citizens were supposedly gathering. James found his wife in one of those camps, up near Albuquerque. That one wasnt so bad, but the one I found my Ezra in was positively wretched.
Almost two years? Josiah said with a frown. It took you that long to find your son?
Yes, I stayed at the camp near Albuquerque for several months because I had no idea where to begin searching for Ezra. I had some money, and I managed to make a little more during my stay at the camp enough that I was able to persuade the person in charge to help me out. He managed to obtain the information I was seeking, and a vehicle, but when I got to the next camp . . . well, lets just say it wasnt at all what Id been expecting.
Josiah was just about ready to offer something sympathetic when the woman grinned.
I made a fortune off of those poor pathetic creatures.
Oh, was all he could say.
Thats how I got the car Im presently driving. I know it took a little longer than was comfortable to find my son. I had to keep reminding myself that we needed the money. She shrugged then let out a sigh. Anyway, it all worked out for the best. I made enough money to purchase the car, and Ezras release, and I have a little extra left over for you, of course.
Josiahs eyebrows shot up then he smiled, looking both amused and a little uncomfortable. Well, we dont have much use for money out here.
We dont require any fees.
May I ask what sort of business you were in? Just to give us an idea of your interests, he explained. We all try to pitch in, help out where we can to keep things running around here.
Well, I was involved with . . . she cleared her throat, investments.
Yes. She smiled sweetly at him. Investments.
I see. Well, Im sure well figure out something that interests you. Although he had no idea what.
Money interests me. Im good with money. Maude pouted for a moment, then her face lit up. Ill bet you ten dollars that you cant guess how much I paid for that car.
Youre probably right. Josiah replied warily.
Oh, come on now. Arent you even going to try?
Josiah studied the car, thinking that even a fine car like that probably cost no more than an old rusted out beater, in fact the flashiness probably made it less valuable on this odd market. It stood out too much. Five hundred? he guessed off the top of his head, doubting he was anywhere close, but the disappointed look on the womans face told him different. He grinned and shrugged. Lucky guess?
Youre no fun at all, Father Sanchez, she said, her pout returning as she dug in her purse and handed over a ten-dollar bill. Do you play cards, by chance?
Josiah grinned toothily -- like a shark.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Chris sipped his coffee, as he listened to Ezra talk. Hed thought it might be difficult to get the kid to open up, but he seemed more than willing to answer his questions and tell him everything he wanted to know, and some things hed rather not.
Hed already described the camp and its occupants -- mostly single women, some orphans, and widows with small children. Hed told Chris about the miscreant who operated the camp, a man named Wickes who liked to bully the women and force the children to do menial labor, and the ruffians who patronized the place for its liquor and offer of female companionship. It sounded suspiciously like a brothel, to Chris.
Sometimes he beat them, sometimes he did worse.
Did he beat you?
Not really, he hit me . . . back handed me once or twice, but nothing like he did to some of the others, mostly the women.
What about Vin?
He didnt like Vin for some reason. Perhaps it was because Vin never cowered from him? He chuckled a little, shaking his head. He always had this defiant look in his eyes, even when Wickes would threaten him. One time he made Wickes so mad that he locked him in the crawl space under the house for two days without food or water.
Ezra nodded agreement.
So, did Vin ever tell you anything about his family?
Well, he spoke of his father, Ezra told him. He kept hoping that his father would come to get him, but I didnt really pay much attention. He looked a little remorseful, then shrugged. Almost all the orphans hoped that a relative would come and rescue them. Then one morning we woke up and Vin was gone. Wickes and his men told us he was sold, or given away, for misbehavior, but Ms. Dunne told us that Wickes was lying and that Vin was with his father. Thats who I assumed you were.
No, Chris frowned trying to piece the information together. When I found him he was alone. You said his mother was . . . passed away?
As far as I know. Vin never really spoke of her. I asked him once, and he only said that she was gone. Later, Ms. Dunne asked me not to mention it to him anymore. She told me that she had found Vin lying in the street, near a woman who she assumed was his mother. She was dead. Apparently Ms. Dunne was unable to do anything more than pick him up and take him with her.
Chris took another swallow of coffee, feeling his own grief mingling with the grief he felt in Vins behalf, unable to think of anything else to say.
After a few moments of silence, Ezra cleared his throat and folded his hands. May I ask you a question?
Sure, Chris said easily. Go ahead.
Is it true, what Ive heard about you?
Chris raised an eyebrow. That depends on what youve heard about me.
Well, not about you specifically, but Ive heard about the Mission, the men who can get in and out of the camps they rescue people.
Chris nodded vaguely, feeling a little uncomfortable.
Is it true that you set an entire camp of prisoners free?
That wasnt actually part of the plan, he said, grimacing. They hadnt intended to set the entire camp free, just a handful of innocent men. But theyd run into a bit of trouble with the guards and the entire operation had turned sour. Before they even realized what was happening, a riot had broken out and theyd been lucky to get out alive.
But, Ezra persisted, you help people? You get them out or help them to escape?
Again, Chris nodded, wondering where this was going.
You have to get JD, Ezra said, surprising Chris by sounding a little desperate.
JD? You mean the kid at the camp?
Yes, hes just a little kid, and hes all alone. I cant believe Vin never mentioned him, Ezra said with a puzzled expression. They were like brothers. JDs mother treated Vin like he was her own child.
Ezra, Vin hasnt mentioned anyone, Chris said, his tone a little defensive. He hasnt spoken a single word the entire time Ive known him.
Ezra nodded, like hed just remembered that detail. Thats just odd. I dont understand. He was always quiet, but he did talk. He always annoyed me by calling me Ez, just like your friend did.
Chris couldnt help but smile at that. They all had a theory of why Vin didnt talk, but Buck had never seemed too worried about it. Hell talk when hes ready, Buck always said. Something must have happened between the time he left the camp, and the time he showed up here.
Ezra gave him a wry look. No kidding?
Chris blew out a long breath. As for JD, I cant really give you an answer on that right now, not until I talk to the others.
Ezra narrowed his eyes, but nodded, seeming to accept the answer for now. All right.
They heard Bucks voice outside in a boisterous, one-sided conversation. Ezra finished his drink in one gulp then wiped the back of his hand across his mouth in very unmannerly fashion. Chris had to smile. Apparently Ezra was a kid after all.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
It had taken a few hours to unload the truck and distribute the supplies to the proper places, so theyd eaten supper later than usual. Ezra had put up a fuss about being forced to do manual labor, citing various child labor laws -- most of them completely fabricated -- but in truth, he hadnt really minded helping out. Hed gladly do a little work in return for everything he felt was being offered to them. Besides, he actually found that he genuinely liked the people there. His mother would be so disappointed.
It had gotten dark early, as it usually did that time of year, and several of the men were seated around a blazing campfire, drinking coffee and talking.
Ezra sat in a folding lawn chair beside Father Sanchez. Theyd taken a vote and decided to forgo the usual quarantine in this case. They had still been made to undergo the other tests, but Maude and Ezra were given a room inside the Mission, instead of being forced to stay in the usual tent on the outskirts of the campsite. Up until then, all of the newcomers had been men, or at least had a man in the family. Not so long ago, some might have considered the decision to be sexist, but in the world they lived in now, a person knew better than to turn down a kind gesture.
Chris Larabee sat on the preachers left, with Vin Tanner sprawled across his lap, half asleep and Buck Wilmington to the left of Larabee.
Ezra looked up as the doctor approached, taking the empty lawn chair to Ezras right. Your mom is fine, just a bad headache, he said, with a gentle smile. I gave her something for it thatll probably help her sleep too.
Thank you, Ezra nodded, amazed again that these men seemed to truly care about them and about each other. He glanced down at Vin who was gazing trancelike at the flames, eyelids drooping, seeming completely boneless as Mr. Larabee absently stroked his hair. Vin seemed so much younger, or perhaps more vulnerable than Ezra remembered him being at the camp. His refusal, or inability to speak was frustrating. Ezra kept expecting to hear his friends soft drawl, but so far all hed gotten were nods, shrugs, or a shake of his head.
Chris took a sip of his coffee then glanced around at the others before looking down at Vin. Since everyones here, I have something I need to talk to you all about.
The other men sat up a little, giving him their attention.
Ezra has given me some information that we need to consider.
Ezra took a deep breath and let it out slowly, relieved that Mr. Larabee hadnt been putting him off earlier.
Vin suddenly appeared more alert, even though Chris kept combing his fingers through the boys hair.
Seems that theres a boy . . . six years old? He glanced at Ezra who gave him a nod. His mother watched out for Ezra and Vin when they were in the camp, but now Ezra thinks something has happened and the boys mother isnt around anymore.
Vin looked intensely, hopefully at Chris.
Ezra thinks that Wickes, the overseer, has the boy stashed in his house . . . for God only knows what reason. He thinks we ought to go get the boy, he said, laying it out short and simple. And, he smiled down at Vin, Im betting Vin would like that too.
Okay, but what are we gonna do with him once we get him out? Buck asked.
Well, we can worry about that later. Anythings got to be better than leaving him there, Chris answered a little sharply. From what Ezra has told me this Wickes guy is a real bastard.
Vin sat up at that, nodding vigorously.
Are you sure his mother is gone? Nathan asked Ezra.
Ezra glanced at Vin, feeling a little apprehensive. I just know what people were saying. I never saw her again. I saw JD, but not his mother. Even if she is still alive . . .couldnt you get them both?
Yes, Josiah answered, his voice calm. But, we need to know how many people were going in for.
Maybe we could take a little trip down there next week and check things out, Chris said.
Next week? Ezra sat forward, looking at them all with disbelief. Vin looked at Chris, his expression mirroring Ezras.
We cant just go storm the place without knowing the layout and having some idea of what to expect, Chris said, reasonably. We need to go up there, take a look at the place, see if we can talk to anyone and then figure out a plan. A few days isnt going to make that much of a difference.
Ezra and Vin exchanged frustrated glances. Perhaps it will to JD, Ezra grumbled, and Vin nodded his agreement.
Well get him out, but we need to be prepared before we go in, Buck said, trying to conciliate. Why dont you boys go on now, get ready for bed?
Bed? Ezra questioned.
Come on, squirt, Buck said, pushing himself out of the squeaky lawn chair and winking at Vin. Ole Buckll tell ya a story.
Vin slid from Chris lap and took Bucks hand with a smile.
None of those stories like I heard ya tellin the other day, I hope, Nathan scolded, raising an eyebrow at Buck.
I only tell classics, Buck grinned. Right buddy?
Vin nodded, and Chris rolled his eyes. If Buck claimed hed seen cows jumping over the moon, Vin would back him up.
Once the door of the camper was closed, the remaining men each turned to Ezra who was still sitting there, trying to blend in.
You want me to tell ya a bedtime story, Ezra? Josiah asked, with a teasing smile.
No thank you. Im not a child, you know. But when he looked at the men, they were all smiling as if his statement was supposed to be humorous. Fine, he huffed and stood, raising his chin haughtily. Im sure the company of my unconscious mother will be much more appealing, anyway.
Chris gave him a two-fingered salute.
Nighty-night, Ezra, Josiah said with a big grin.
Good night . . . sirs.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Vin had been up for hours, trying to keep himself occupied as he waited for Ezra to wake up. He knew his friend liked to sleep late, but he could never understand why. He was at the stable cleaning up and mostly fussing over the new foal when he noticed Ezra standing at the door, watching him. Glancing over his shoulder he smiled.
Mr. Tanner, Ezra said, making Vin roll his eyes and turn his attention back to the little foal.
Vin, he tried again, we need to discuss the predicament concerning young Mr. Dunne.
Vin liked the way Ezra talked, the fancy words he used -- all except for the way he called everyone Mr. or Miss. He thought it sounded real dumb to call a little kid like JD Mr. Dunne. He nodded though, agreeing that they needed to figure out what to do about JD.
Your, uh, Mr. Larabee said they would go to the camp in a few days, but I believe we could have him out by then if the two of us ventured there ourselves.
Vin turned to frown at him. How in the heck were they supposed to get there? He knew the general direction, but the camp was pretty far away, and if they walked, or even took the horse it would take a whole lot longer than it would for Chris and the guys to get there.
You agree we need to get him out of there, as soon as possible? Ezra prompted.
Vin nodded. Of course he wanted to get JD; he just wasnt sure if they could or even should try to do it on their own. Chris and the guys did this kind of stuff all the time; they were experts at it.
Ezra cleared his throat and looked around, then leaned closer to Vin. We could take my mothers car, he whispered conspiratorially.
Vins eyes went wide. Was Ezra crazy?
I assure you that I am an excellent driver.
Vin lifted an eyebrow.
Do you have a better plan?
Vin thought for a moment, running possibilities through his mind; then he shrugged and shook his head. He was sure there had to be a better plan, he just couldnt think of one right then.
Well leave early tomorrow, Ezra said quietly. Right before the sun comes up.
Vin snorted, doubting that Ezra had ever been up before the sun. This, he had to see.
After lunch, he and Chris went for a ride on the stallion, half-heartedly looking for and not finding the little herd of wild horses theyd been after. He kept thinking about JD being all alone at the camp, and how much he wished he could go and get him right then. He also wished he could tell Chris about the plan Ezra had come up with . . . maybe get his advice, but he also knew that was pretty dumb because even if his voice would work, telling Chris about the plan would put an end to it right away. He knew it was risky, going on their own, but the more he thought about it, the more he couldnt stand JD being with Wickes.
He was also a little nervous about taking Ezras moms car, and even more nervous about Ezra driving. Ezra knew a lot of things, he was real smart probably the smartest kid Vin knew, but he wasnt all that much taller than Vin, and he sure wasnt old enough to drive a car. But, then again, Ezra always seemed to surprise him. Maybe he did know how to drive? Or, maybe he was just talking out of his behind?
They had an early supper that night and sat around the fire as they always did when it wasnt too cold. He thought about not sitting with Chris sitting in his own chair, because he didnt want Ezra to think he was a baby, but he just couldnt do it. He looked forward to sitting with Chris in the evenings; even if he looked like a baby, he wasnt going to care.
He didnt remember Chris or Buck carrying him in and putting him to bed, but he woke up on his cot inside the dark camper. There wasnt a clock, and Vin didnt know how to tell time that way, anyway. Instead he pulled back the plain, blue curtain to look outside. Sure enough, he could see the dawns pink glow, barely beginning to brighten the eastern horizon -- but he didnt see Ezra. Maybe they wouldnt be going to get JD after all. Vin couldnt seem to make up his mind whether that would be good or bad.
As quietly as he could, he slipped out of the cot, thankful that whoever had put him to bed had left him in his clothes. His eyes were adjusting to the darkness, and he was able to find his shoes without tripping over anything and then open the door, hardly making a sound.
To Vins surprise, Ezra was already waiting outside, at the stable where theyd decided to meet. After getting his shoes on, he grabbed his fathers rifle and some ammunition, then followed Ezra to his mothers car. As he opened the door he found that he was still none too sure he trusted Ezras driving skills. In fact, it was making his stomach feel fluttery.
We need to push it down the hill, Ezra said, glancing at Vin as he sat on the edge of the drivers seat. When we get going, well jump in and the car will start when I shift into gear.
Vin nodded, still apprehensive.
Ezra shifted into neutral then got out of the car, grinning, with a spark of mischief in his eyes that made Vin smile. Okay, he said, then both began pushing the little sports car toward the path. Once they were rolling at a good clip, they jumped inside and closed the doors. When they were closer to the road and farther from the Mission, Ezra pushed in the clutch, and shifted into first gear. The car jerked a couple times and the engine sputtered before it began to hum.
Finding second gear was not quite as easy, and Vin wondered if that horrible grinding noise was a bad thing -- or more importantly if anyone had heard it back at the Mission. Finally Ezra got it into second, and then third without the jerking and grinding. Then he looked over at Vin with a big smile. Piece of cake. Right.
Theyd driven for over an hour, straight down the empty highway without a problem if you didnt count the turn onto the highway. Just ahead was the junction where they were supposed to turn again and Vin wondered how many grinds it would take this time. As Ezra fought to downshift, brake and turn all at the same time, Vin suddenly knew why twelve year olds werent given their drivers licenses. All he could do was reach for the dashboard and try to brace himself for the impact that was about to come.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Chris woke shortly after dawn, to the sound of birds chirping noisily outside the camper. He sat up slowly, yawning as he tried to motivate his body to get going and begin the day. The air was cool and a little damp, making him reluctant to let go of his blankets, making him have second thoughts about getting up at all. He could hear Buck snoring above him, and one bare arm dangled over the side of the bunk. He knew that even if he wanted to stay in bed, between Bucks snoring and the damn birds, hed never get back to sleep.
Another yawn and he got out of the bed, deciding that he needed some coffee. He glanced over to check on Vin . . . and found his cot empty. Chris puzzled at that. He hadnt heard Vin get up and didnt know where he would have gone this early well, maybe to the outhouse. He started the slow process of heating water, getting dressed while he waited.
Buck rolled over and yawned loudly. Damn birds, he muttered, starting to climb slowly out from under his blankets. Once his bare skin hit the crisp air, he quickly drew the blanket back up to his chin. Damn! Its cold!
Chris chuckled. Well, if youd wear pajamas or sweats, instead of those boxers.
You know I cant sleep in pajamas or sweats, he complained. I can hardly stand to wear these boxers. It aint natural.
Chris just shook his head, smiling. Whatever.
When Vin hadnt returned by the time his cup of coffee was ready, and Buck had forced himself out of the warm bed, Chris took a few quick swallows and headed outside. He needed to hit the outhouse anyway, and hoped hed run into the kid on his way.
The camp was relatively quiet except for the damn birds. Chris made his pit stop then looked around a little, checking the stable, but not finding Vin anywhere. He looked up toward the mission, wondering if Vin would have gone in to see Ezra, or Josiah, although he figured it was a little early for that. Then he noticed the red car that for the last few days had been parked next to Josiahs beat-up, old pick-up was gone.
He wasnt usually the type to jump to conclusions, but he felt that the absence of the sports car gave him good enough reason to at least question Josiah on its whereabouts.
Hey, Chris, Buck called as he jogged toward him, from the direction of the outhouse. Wheres Vin?
I dont know, I cant find him. He started walking toward the Mission with Buck at his heels. Maude Standishs car is missing.
Chris pointed to the empty space where the car had been last night.
Maybe somebody just stashed it somewhere else, Buck said, frowning as he tried to think of possibilities. It kinda stands out settin right there.
Maybe, Chris replied quietly. Figure Josiah ought to know.
They found Josiah sitting in one of the pews inside the small chapel area, staring up at the large cross hanging on the wall, above the altar. Is there somethin I can help you boys with? he asked, turning toward them with a smile.
We need to talk to Ms. Standish, or her boy, if theyre here, Chris said curtly. Vins gone . . . least I cant find him anywhere, and that fancy red car of hers seems to be missing. Do you know anything about that?
No, Josiah replied. It was there last night.
Its gone now. He was willing to bet that they would find Maude sleeping, and no sign of Ezra.
Josiah stood, his eyebrows drawing together, instantly concerned. Right this way. He led them back to the sanctuary and down a dark hallway that had two doors on each side -- small dormitories where at one time the monks had resided, along with any who might come seeking sanctuary, out there in the middle of nowhere.
They knocked several times on one of the doors before a groggy, uncharacteristically tousle-haired Maude Standish opened the door, just barely. Good Lord, do you realize what time it is? she complained as if it were the middle of the night, instead of close to 7AM.
Is Ezra in there with you? Chris asked, without apologizing for disturbing her sleep.
Ezra? She looked confused, but turned around, stepping away from the door, and called his name, Ezra!
They waited impatiently for her to come back to the door. Hes not here, but
Maam, I hate to have to tell you this, but Vins missing, and sos your car, Buck explained in his courteous drawl, sounding a lot like Detective Wilmington. Does your son know how to drive, by chance?
My car? What did you say? Apparently, Maude was not a morning person; she definitely wasnt her usual sharp, quick-witted self.
Why dont you get dressed and meet us out in the garden, Josiah said, offering her a little time to get herself together.
Try to hurry, Chris shouted over his shoulder as they were ushered away from the door.
Josiah already had a pot of coffee going real coffee, percolated, not the instant crap. He poured a cup for both men and refilled his own mug before starting a new pot.
Maude joined them in less time than theyd expected her to take. She sat down at the table, all seriousness, looking for once more like a concerned mother than a socialite. Josiah set a mug of coffee in front of her and she smiled appreciatively at him. Thank you, reverend. She took a sip from the steaming mug, then looked at Chris. Now, where is Ezra and what did you say about my car?
I dont know where Ezra is, and I dont know where Vin is either, Chris explained with a lot more patience than he was feeling.
Vin is missing too? Well, perhaps theyre off . . . playing, or whatever it is little boys do, she said, smiling and waving a hand as if that matter was all settled. Now, wheres my car?
Well, maam, thats what were trying to figure out, Buck said.
Josiah reached out to touch her hand. Does Ezra know how to drive?
I have no idea, she said, seeming flustered. I dont think he does.
Vin aint tall enough to reach the peddles, even in that small car Chris said, looking at Buck and then Josiah. Ezra probably could though, barely.
You thinking what Im thinking, Chris? Buck asked.
Chris gave him a quick nod. Wheres the camp that Ezra was in?
Outside of El Paso, Maude told him, frowning. You dont think . . .?
Chris sighed, looking at Buck. I cant think of anything else.
Me neither, Buck agreed. Thats at least an hour and a half drive.
Why ever would they go back there? Maude still didnt want to believe it.
Their friend, JD, Josiah said with a shrug. They wanted us to go get him. Ezra asked Chris about it a couple days ago.
We told them wed go get him. Why would they take off on their own? Chris asked, directing the question to himself, as much as the others.
My guess is they didnt think we were moving quick enough, Buck answered.
Chris drained his cup of coffee then pushed back in his chair. Well take my truck. Buck, get Nathan . . . just in case.
Copy that, partner, Buck replied, then drained his cup too.
Well find them, Chris promised Maude then stood up and glanced at Josiah. Im going to grab a little fire power, and pull the truck around.
Fire power? Maude asked with alarm.
Just a precaution, maam, Josiah said, his calm, baritone always sounded reassuring.
When they were ready to go, they quietly informed Josiah that depending on the circumstances, they may or may not attempt getting the boy out of the camp. Then they headed to what used to be a small ranger station, to gas up the truck. The station always made him think of Jack, who had been the one to inform them of the supply of gas beneath the ancient-looking pump out back. They tried to use it sparingly, but knew that one day it would be gone.
Chris replaced the nozzle and made a silent vow to Jack, wherever he was, that he would find his boy and then he promised to take better care of him from that point on.
I cant believe they stole her car, Buck commented, shaking his head in wonder as they pulled back onto the highway.
Im gonna k-- Chris growled, but stopped short of finishing the sentence. Instead he prayed they hadnt already managed to do that, themselves.