Chris slowed the truck, getting ready to turn at the junction when Buck leaned forward. “Shit! There it is, Chris!” he said, pointing to the ditch on his side of the road. From the way it looked, the car hadn’t been able to make the turn and had gone off the road and right into an old telephone pole.

“Guess this answers one question,” Nathan mumbled, not really intending to be heard.

“What do you mean?” Chris asked, as he pulled over to the shoulder and turned off the engine. He tried not to imagine the worst, when he looked at the mangled passenger’s side, the way it was crushed inward by the pole.

“Whether or not the kid can drive,” Nathan replied, then reached for the first aid kit, hoping he was prepared enough for whatever they were about to find.

The airbag on the driver’s side had kept Ezra from being tossed around too much. He was a little dazed when they opened the door and deflated the bag. His nose had bled down the front of his shirt, but it looked like the bleeding had tapered off. On closer inspection, it also looked like he would be sporting a couple of black eyes.

“You okay?” Chris asked, placing a gentle hand on the boy’s cheek.

“My nose.” Ezra reached up, and gingerly touched his nose.

“You hurting anywhere else?” Chris unhitched the seatbelt and waited for an answer. “Your neck?”

Ezra shook his head. “Just . . . my face hurts.”

“The airbag must have smacked him in the nose,” Chris informed Nathan as he carefully eased the boy out of the car and into Nathan’s capable hands.

“No way can we get this door open,” Buck said from the other side of the car. The pole was right up against the door handle.

Vin’s eyes were closed, but he had a frown on his face. Chris was thankful that the airbag on the passenger’s side had either been disabled or had malfunctioned. He couldn’t see any injuries, no blood. Still, he had yet to move. “Vin?” Chris called out to the boy, as he took Ezra’s place in the driver’s seat. He didn’t open his eyes, but his head turned slightly toward Chris, the frown deepened.

Chris reached over and gently tapped his cheek. “Hey cowboy, time to wake up.”

Vin’s lower lip quivered and a tear slid down his cheek.

Chris brushed the tear away. “Vin, can you open your eyes for me?”

Slowly, he opened his eyes, blinking several times before looking at Chris.

Chris smiled, too thankful to be upset at the moment. “You hurtin’ anywhere?”

Vin thought for a moment, before nodding slowly and reaching for the side of his head.

Chris leaned around to get a better look, not wanting him to move too much yet. “Got a good-sized goose egg there, pard. But, you’ll live.” There was also a good-sized gash that was still bleeding, but he didn’t want to scare the kid. “Doc, how’s Ezra?”

“He’s okay,” Nathan answered from the ground a few feet away. “Mostly just shaken up. Might have a broken nose, but there ain’t much I can do for that, right now. ”

“Vin seems okay, could use a little bandaging. I’m gonna let you take over before we move him.”

Chris unfastened the seatbelt and was about to instruct Vin to stay still until Nathan took a look at him. Before he got a word out Vin was out of the seat and had both arms wrapped around Chris’ neck. “Okay, okay. I got ya.”

Chris held on and carefully backed his way out of the car. Once they were clear and standing in the ditch, Nathan laid a hand on the boy’s back. “How you doin’ Vin?” he asked in a gentle voice.

Vin didn’t answer; he just buried his face against Chris’ neck, holding on tightly.

Chris glanced at Ezra. Buck was kneeling in front of him, holding an icepack in one hand and cleaning the blood off his face with the other. “Vin,” he said to the boy trembling in his arms. “Nathan needs to take a look at that bump on your head, okay?”

Vin nodded, but didn’t let go.

Chris held up a finger, gesturing for the doctor to give them a moment, then he turned and walked a few steps away. “Hey pard, you scared me half to death,” he whispered, his voice shaky. “Thank God you’re okay.” He took another couple steps, then turned back, thankful that he was able to hold the boy, thankful he’d been given another chance and vowing not to take moments like these for granted. He rubbed Vin’s back, calming and reassuring himself as much as the boy.

“’m sorry.” Chris heard the barely audible words carried on a half sob, and suddenly felt light-headed. He turned to the others, his eyes wide, not entirely sure it hadn’t been his imagination. A look at Nathan’s encouraging smile, then Buck’s open-mouthed expression of shock assured him that it had been real.

Vin’s head hurt, but he also felt very guilty for what they’d done, for worrying the others -- for worrying Chris. He knew they could have been hurt much worse, even been killed. And he knew how hard that would have been for Chris, because he knew how hard it would be for him if something ever happened to Chris. Just the thought of that made it hard to breathe, made him feel as if he were drowning. If it were ever to happen, he knew he wouldn’t have the will or the strength to keep holding on anymore. So he held on now, as tight as he could.

“Vin?” Chris tried to pull him back, wanted to see his face, but Vin wasn’t ready to let go.

He listened to the boy’s sniffles, hearing Nathan mildly scolding Ezra from a few feet away. “I can’t believe you drove off in your momma’s car, without a driver’s license. If I was her I’d take you over my knee.”

Buck had moved up beside Chris and Vin, and put his arms loosely around them both. The three of them just stood there not saying anything for a long time. “Don’t ever scare me like that again, kiddo,” Buck finally said, his eyes were solemn, moist from tears, but the next moment he smiled. “How ‘bout you let Nate take a look at you so we can go spring your buddy JD?”

Vin did release his death grip on Chris then, leaning back to gauge their sincerity. He nodded, instead of answering verbally as they’d hoped. Chris wondered if Vin even realized he’d spoken, then figured it was probably best not to push anything, to let the process continue naturally and give Vin a little more time to work it out himself.

Chris knew he should reprimand the boys. What they’d done had been wrong, dangerous, foolish, and a number of other things, but he was having trouble wiping the stupid grin off his face. When he noticed Buck wore a matching one, he figured they’d have to wait ‘til later to let the boys have it.

Or maybe not.

“I got a mind to take you over my knee, personally,” Nathan muttered to Vin as he tenderly cleaned and bandaged the boy’s head wound. “And don’t think I won’t. You too,” he said, turning his glare on Ezra, who had the sense to look contrite. “You boys know better than to pull something like that . . . scaring the life out of me . . . worryin’ everyone like ya did . . . Ya ought to be ashamed of yo’selves . . . what am I gonna do with ya . . ..

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Once they’d gotten the boys cleaned up, they’d driven a ways further before pulling off the road. They’d had to leave the sports car in the ditch; unfortunately it was past fixing. It was early afternoon, so they had a lot of time to spare before they would even attempt to go near the camp. They spent the afternoon looking over the map they had, going over details of the camp, and generally bouncing ideas off of each other to try and come up with the best plan they could. At dusk they got back on the road, and continued on their way, parking the truck in a secluded area, a safe distance from the camp.

Nearby El Paso hadn’t been entirely destroyed, although significant parts of it had. Supposedly there was no radiation lingering there, but it was still a very dangerous place, ruled by violent gangs. The camp was several miles outside of the city, and mostly women and children resided there, but Ezra had warned them about the gang members that were often present, for ‘entertainment purposes’. Wickes not only ran the camp like a brothel, he also had a still, and apparently a generous supply of other drugs, making it a popular place for the gangs. Chris couldn’t help but wonder what the man got in exchange for the things he offered.

They would have liked to been given a little more time to work out a better plan. Chris thought it might have been possible for them to pose as gang members, to get in and out of the camp a bit easier, but that was not to be. The more they’d thought about it and discussed it, the more each of the men believed that they needed to get that poor little kid out of there, as soon as possible.

It was after dark when they approached the camp itself, on foot. Chris, Buck and Nathan stood outside the fence, studying the layout, and the large house near the center of the camp. They’d decided to wait a few hours after the camp had settled down for the night before they would venture inside.

There were several small tents inside the fence. A small wooden building stood about fifty yards away, between the fence and the big house. It was apparently set up for laundry, with lines of clothing strung from the side of the building to another larger building, more toward the middle of the grounds, that they figured was a mess hall of sorts. There had been women and children in and out of the smaller building all evening. A handful of rough-looking guards were seated at a picnic table outside of the mess hall, drinking and playing cards. The men had seemed disinterested in the other activities going on, but would pause in their game to give the women a hard time whenever one would have to pass by their table.

Around midnight the occupants had settled down, the guards had disappeared and everything became quiet. Other than the moon’s illumination, there wasn’t much light inside the camp. There was a faint glow on the first level of the house, as well as a faint glow coming from the upstairs bedroom that they were presuming was occupied by the boy, JD.

Still they waited, until finally, around 3 am, they decided the time was right. Chris began to snip the wire, starting at the bottom of the fence and working up until he had made a suitable entryway. He would have liked to make the slit more obvious, giving the occupants at least a temporary means of escape, but he didn’t want to raise any suspicions, or draw attention before they could get away. He told himself that he’d make sure the hole was obvious before they left, though.

“Ezra said there’s a back stairway, off the kitchen,” Nathan whispered. “But remember, you’ll have to go right by Wickes’ room.”

They’d parked the truck less than a mile away and left the two boys there – hoping they’d be safer there than if they would have accompanied them to the camp. Chris had left the keys to the truck and given Ezra some basic driving instructions, although Ezra’s toes only touched the peddles when he sat on the edge of the seat. He’d also left Vin his rifle, just incase anything went wrong.

“I’ll go in,” Buck said, giving Chris a hearty pat on the shoulder. Up until then they hadn’t made any decisions on which one would go in, and Buck was fully expecting Chris to argue. “You and the doc stay here, incase I need backup.”

“Beauty before age?” Chris asked wryly, sounding a little put out.

“Well, that goes without saying, stud,” Buck grinned, tapping his firm abdomen. “Can’t help that I got the body and stamina of a twenty-year-old.”

Chris couldn’t help but chuckle softly. “Right, you keep telling yourself that, stud.”

Buck gave them a wink and started to go through the fence.

“Watch your back,” Chris cautioned, sincerely.

Buck nodded and climbed through the fence, then stealthily moved across the yard, to the house. He was a little amazed at how easily the lock opened. He was expecting to have at least a little trouble getting inside, or to find some sort of an alarm system in place. Most places weren’t able to have any sort of high tech alarm system, so they used dogs or set up handmade contraptions that would warn them of an intruder. The kitchen was dark, except for a very faint glow from a lamp out in the foyer. The only sound he heard was the hum of the refrigerator motor. Hopefully things would stay that way. He looked around carefully but found no traps, nothing rigged up to go off as an alarm.

Quietly he ascended the stairs, pausing to check the hallway before he reached the top. It seemed that everyone was asleep, and he could see no ‘booby-traps’ set up there either. There were four doors, two on each side. Buck looked down at the second door on the left, which was supposed to be JD’s and said a little prayer that it actually was. Silently he walked toward the door, thinking that it seemed an awful long way – or maybe it just felt like that. He checked the door, finding it locked, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out his tool, again thankful to whomever it was that had invented such a nifty thing. He’d kept a few items from his days on the force, mostly the things he’d had on him that last day. After the riots they’d attempted to retrieve some of his things from his condo, only to find that the building had been burned to the ground.

He picked the lock, easily. Still amazed that things were going so well, he stepped into the room, dimly lit with the soft glow of a nightlight. Right there on the bed was the boy. He took several breaths, listening for any sounds before starting across the room toward the boy. The wooden floor creaked beneath his feet, halting him in the middle of the room. He felt sweat drip down the side of his face as he stood there frozen, and realized his heart was thudding in his chest, in his ears; he wondered if that sound alone would wake up everyone in the house.

After several minutes that felt like an hour, he took another deep breath and continued toward the bed, stopping at its side. He looked down at the small figure, and was instantly reminded of Chris’ son. The boy might have been a year or two older than Adam, but he seemed so small. For a brief moment he worried about Chris; Would Chris see the similarities? Would being able to save this boy help Chris, or cause him more pain?

First things first, he told himself. He needed to actually get the kid out of there, and then he’d worry about the rest. Looking down as he carefully pulled the blankets away, he couldn’t help smiling at the way the boy’s arms sprawled up, over his head. He was so damned small, and so damned cute. Shiny black hair, round rosy cheeks, long dark eyelashes – hell, the kid looked like one of those little cherubs from a Hallmark card.

He was just about to lift him from the bed, wondering on the chances of getting the kid out without waking him up, when two dark eyes popped open. “Who’re you?” the kid asked, a little too loud for Buck’s comfort. Suddenly, the eyes were filled with fear, and his chin began to quiver.

“Shh . . .” Buck tried to smile, tried to look kind, but he was starting to get nervous and jumpy. “I come to get you out of here, JD,” he whispered. “I’m gonna take you to see Vin.”

“Vin!” Just like that the kid sat up, looking ecstatic and then Buck heard a noise from somewhere down the hall.

“Shi . . . shoot.” He looked around the room then quickly and quietly closed the door. There was no lock on the inside, but there was an old wooden desk with a plastic chair in the corner of the room. He grabbed the chair and wedged it under the doorknob, knowing it wouldn’t hold anyone off for long, then he went to the window. “We’re gonna have to climb out this way.” Chris, I hope you’re payin’ attention, out there.

The boy was sitting up, his bare feet dangling over the side of the bed, looking at him with wide eyes. “Where’s your shoes, lil’ bit?” he asked, searching the floor.

The boy practically bounced down from the bed, got on his hands and knees and stuck his head under the frame. A moment later he reappeared with a pair of dirty tattered canvas sneakers that were tiny, yet looked a few sizes too big for him. “These was Vin’s!” he said, holding them up proudly.

Buck heard footsteps coming nearer, but smiled at the boy anyway as he kneeled to help him slip the shoes on. “There ya go.” Quickly he stood, pulling the top sheet off of the bed. It wouldn’t be long enough to reach the ground, but at least it would be a little better than dropping the kid from the window.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Outside, Chris was getting antsy. He couldn’t take his eyes off the bedroom window. When he saw a shadow cross the curtains, he felt some sense of relief, cautious as it was. Buck must have made it to the room, but he wasn’t out yet.

Then another light turned on, and Chris sucked in a deep breath. “ Somebody’s awake.”

“Damn,” Nathan muttered, glancing nervously from one bedroom window to the other. He saw the curtains part, and a tall figure at the boy’s window and he was sure that his heart skipped a beat, or two.

“I’m going in,” Chris said, already climbing through the fence. “If anything happens you get the boys home safe then come back with reinforcements.”

Nathan nodded, knowing it was the most sensible plan, but not liking the thought of possibly having to leave Chris and Buck behind.

Chris was already half way across the yard, so there wasn’t much he could do except keep watch . . . and send up a prayer that Josiah’s God was keeping watch over them, too.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

“See the man coming through the fence?” Buck pointed toward the section of fence where he saw Chris slide through. “I want you to hold onto this sheet, real tight. I’m gonna lower you out the window and as soon as you can you need to be real brave and drop to the ground and run for the man. His name’s Chris and he’s gonna take you to Vin.”

“What’s your name?” The little boy asked, looking up at Buck with solemn eyes.

“My name’s Buck.”

“You’re coming too, ain’t ya Buck?” JD tilted his head, now looking worried.

“I sure am, but you gotta go first, okay?”

JD looked out the window, then back up at Buck. “It’s kinda far.”

“You can do it,” Buck assured him. “C’mon now.” He helped JD climb up to the ledge, and was thankful to see Chris was already right below them. “Now, hold on tight,” he reminded, then he lowered him over the side. Buck leaned out, watching, keeping a grip on the other end of the sheet. The kid hung on tenaciously until he was about half way and then he let go, dropping right on top of Chris and knocking him on his rear.

Chris got to his feet right away, and set the boy on his feet as well. “C’mon Buck,” he whispered loudly, looking up at the window.

Buck hesitated a moment, turning back when the doorknob jiggled. “Shit,” he cursed and began climbing out the window.

“JD!” A man’s voice yelled and suddenly someone was pounding on the door.

Buck cursed again, realizing that he was going to have to jump for it. He didn’t waste any time thinking about it further; he twisted around, grabbing onto the frame, then swinging his lanky body outside. He felt the aluminum ridges digging painfully into his fingers and let go sooner than he’d intended. The big man landed hard on the ground and before he could take inventory of his body, Chris had his bicep in a death grip and was pulling him to his feet. The two men ran, with Buck limping, hoping his ankle wouldn’t give out. Each of them held tightly to JD’s hands as they pulled him along between them.

Before they were past the laundry building, they heard men shouting, followed by gunfire. “In there,” Chris shouted, pushing them toward the small building.

Buck pushed the little boy between two stacks of wash bins then took one from the top and placed it in front of him, pretty much covering the small figure. “You stay put, little one,” he said firmly, waiting for a nod before he got up and went to the window. Chris was still at the door, firing at whomever was firing at them. Buck wasn’t even sure how many they were up against; he just pulled his Sig from its holster and took aim.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Vin and Ezra had sat as patiently as they could until they heard the sound of gunfire erupting in the distance. The two boys looked at each other and Vin reached for his rifle on the floor of the truck. Ezra, with his two black eyes and a swollen nose, gave Vin a determined nod then each boy simultaneously reached for a door handle and climbed out of the truck.

Vin remembered Chris’ words, telling him to stay put, telling the boys to drive back to the Mission if anything happened to them. Then he’d left, along with Buck and Nathan and ever since Vin had been remembering a set of similar instructions, given by his father. As he’d sat in the truck waiting for Chris, the images played through his mind, over and over, scene after terrifying scene.

He remembered his father hiding him, handing him the rifle and telling him to stay put; telling him to follow the river to the Mission if anything were to happen to him. He could almost hear the men’s voices, their taunting and ugly laughter as they hurt his father. He remembered not knowing whether to come out or not, wanting to help, but afraid, waiting and waiting for what seemed like an eternity. Then, he pictured his father lying on the ground, bloody and battered, eyes open and staring, face swollen, almost unrecognizable. Something inside him had broken then – or that’s what it had felt like -- and he’d blocked those images out of his mind, had kept them locked away – until tonight when they had all come rushing back to him.

When he heard the shooting, he knew that there was no way he could follow Chris’ instructions. There wasn’t anything he could do to help his dad, but he could still help Chris and Buck and Nathan. He couldn’t sit by and do nothing . . . again.

They approached the camp silently, easily hiding among the rocks and scarce trees that made up the landscape surrounding the camp. Vin could see several guards, trying to stay low on one side of the root cellar and a couple of others taking cover behind an outhouse. He almost laughed at the scene before him, watching as the guards fired occasionally at the laundry room, then ducked to avoid the return fire. Wickes and his men might have some protection from Chris, Buck and Nathan, but they were completely exposed to him and Ezra.

Then they realized someone else was firing from the rocks outside the fence, several yards away from them. Vin pulled Ezra down, and kept watching as the men inside the camp returned fire.

Obviously whoever was shooting from the rocks was no friend of Wickes, but he had no idea which one of the men it was.

Ezra pulled a small derringer from his jacket and held it for Vin to see. Vin nodded, resting the barrel of his rifle carefully across the rock as he lined up his site. He felt the rifle’s kick, once . . . twice . . . three times . . .. He knew Ezra had fired off a shot or two, as well. His ears were ringing, there was an acrid smell in the air and in what seemed like no time at all they’d taken out at least four of the men, and possibly hit others. The remaining men were running for better cover, trying to dodge the new assault on their exposed rear.

“Vin!” They heard a familiar voice, and Vin recognized the other person shooting from the rocks was Nathan, which meant Chris and Buck were inside the laundry room. He felt a familiar panicky surge inside his chest and tried to push it back, knowing it wouldn’t do any good. He looked back toward the house, and wondered where JD was and if they’d gotten him out.

He saw Nathan’s shoulders and his baseball cap covered head, approaching, ducking behind the rocks then making a dash across a small clearing to join them behind the cluster of smooth rocks they were hiding behind. “What do you two think you’re doin’?” he asked harshly, pulling the boys down beside him.

Before either of them could answer, a huge explosion rocked the entire camp. All three of them rose to peer over the rocks, just as Chris pulled his automatic rifle back, and slid back inside the doorway. There were huge flames shooting from a point just beyond the mess hall, black and gray smoke billowing upwards, standing out against the already dark sky.

Then they saw three figures moving away from the laundry building, running across the yard in their direction. Chris and Buck – who was limping badly -- and a little figure that had to be JD. More shots were fired and Chris pushed Buck and JD toward an outhouse, then dove for cover along with them. Chris peered around a corner, raised his rifle and blew a hole clean through the corner of the main house. A handful of men immediately jumped back, away from the protection of the house and Vin took the opportunity to steady his own rifle, aim and then fire three consecutive shots.

Everything grew quiet then. It took several minutes for the smoke to clear, although what they now knew was a gas tank still burned brightly, lighting up most of the camp. The sun was coming up too and finally, they were able to take a good look around. From what they could tell, none of Wickes’ men were left standing.

A few of the residents began hesitantly coming out of their tents. Mostly women, looking bewildered, not bold enough to walk out in the open but they were looking around, trying to figure out what was happening -- possibly hoping whatever it was meant their liberation.

Buck set JD on the ground, and he and Chris walked around the bullet-riddled outhouse, weapons still at the ready. When Vin saw them lower their weapons and start talking to each other, he figured that had to be a sign that everything was under control.

Almost before he even realized what he was doing, he was standing in front of the rock, waving his hands. “JD!” he yelled, then froze, both shocked and amazed to have heard the sound of his voice. His head whipped back to look at Nathan and Ezra, wanting to see if they’d heard it too. Nathan smiled at him, and slung both of their rifles over his shoulder, then held out his hand, glaring at Ezra and his gun.

“It’s my mother’s,” Ezra protested.

“Then I’ll give it back to her when we get back to the Mission,” Nathan insisted. “You take anything else that belongs to your mother?”

“No,” he said, handing over the derringer. “Not that it would matter, she’s going to kill me, regardless.”

Vin turned back to see JD running toward him, followed more slowly by Chris and Buck. “Vin! Vin! Ez! Ez!”

“Ez-RA,” Ezra grumbled automatically, not loud enough for anyone but them to hear.

He watched as JD slowed, pausing to look at one of the bodies then making a wide berth around it. Vin could tell it was Wickes, even from where he was.

Vin gazed at the body, wondering why he didn’t feel particularly glad the man was dead. He thought he’d feel happy, or relieved that the man had got what was coming to him, but Vin found that he didn’t really feel anything at all. Then JD was climbing through the fence, wearing a too-big t-shirt, dingy, gray long johns, and his old shoes – but he looked good to Vin, and by the way Ezra was grinning, Vin reckoned that he must think so too.

Vin was so happy to see JD, so elated that Chris and Buck were alive, and nothing bad had happened to any of them that he almost missed the movement from Wickes’ body as Chris and Buck walked past it -- almost.

Time stood still as he watched Wickes’ body twist on the ground, his eyes open, one arm stretch out slowly, a gun held in his hand.

Horrified, Vin looked at Nathan, at his gun that was strapped over Nathan’s shoulder. Nathan was smiling at JD; Ezra was too, neither one paying any attention to the renewed threat, the man trying to aim his gun at Chris and Buck. His voice failed him again, as he tried to cry out and warn the two men who meant everything to him. This can’t be happening, he thought helplessly even as it played out before his eyes. But then, in the blink of an eye, Buck spun around, gun raised at his hip and fired off one deadly shot that landed right between Wickes’ eyes.

Vin suddenly felt a little dizzy, his ears were ringing and there were tiny specks of light floating before his eyes. He could hear voices, people talking, but it all sounded muffled and far away.

“Breathe, pard.” This voice was closer, and he took a deep breath, and then another, as he felt himself lifted in the air, a pair of strong arms holding onto him. “You okay, cowboy?” murmured in his ear. And then time resumed.


Nathan yawned then shook his head to keep himself awake. “Is there any of that coffee left?” He looked into the rearview mirror, but Buck was sound asleep with Ezra tucked under one arm, and JD under the other.

Beside him, Vin twisted around in his seat, reached back and grasped the thermos, handing it over to Nathan.

It was cold, but he drank it anyway. “Somebody talk to me or pop a tape in, or something.”

Leaning forward, Vin opened the glove compartment and began rooting around for a tape.

From the back seat, Buck yawned then sat up straighter. “Make sure it ain’t one of them awful jazz tapes of Larabee’s, though. Play something good.”

“Shut up, Buck,” Chris said without heat.

“There should be a couple of Elvis tapes up there.”

“No there’s not,” Chris replied, just as Vin pulled out an Elvis tape. Chris winked at him. “I used them to get a campfire going, a couple weeks ago.”

‘That ain’t even funny, Larabee.”

Vin tossed the Elvis tape back into the glove box, and put in a Journey tape, and Chris turned around to look at Buck. “How you feelin’ pard?”

“Ankle hurts, but I’m doing okay.”

“You get to hurtin’ too bad, you just let me know,” Nathan told him, glancing back in the rearview mirror.

“I will. It sure will be nice to have a few more women around to pretty up things,” Buck commented distractedly, a silly grin on his face.

All together there had been about 20 women and dozen or more children in Wickes’ camp. Chris had made the offer for any that wanted to come back to the Mission, thinking that staying at the camp, so close to El Paso, would be too dangerous. Several were now riding comfortably on a mattress in the back of the pickup truck. The rest had chosen to strike out on their own, or go in search of lost relatives. There’d been two old Astro vans, thankfully each with full tanks of gas, parked in a garage at the camp. The women and children had loaded them with supplies and headed out at the same time Chris had.

In the barn, they’d found a crapload of generators, some never before used, along with some water purifiers, livestock and a few other things they could use at the Mission. There’d also been a root cellar full of canned foods, bottled wine and other liquor. Unfortunately, they hadn’t been able to fit much else into the back of his truck. Chris was still debating on whether or not they should return to the camp later – after dropping off their passengers -- to stock up on some of the things they could use, before any others helped themselves to the supplies.

Nathan yawned again and Chris looked over at him. “If you need me to drive, just say the word.”

“I should be okay.”

“I could drive,” Ezra said helpfully, from the backseat. Chris’ truck was an automatic, and Chris had given him instructions on how to operate it.

“Over my dead body,” Nathan muttered.

Buck burst out laughing. “That’d be a sure thing if we let ol’ Ez here behind the wheel.”

“I can drive! I just got confused before!”

Chris heard a giggle from Vin and gave the boy a squeeze. “What d’ya think, cowboy?” Vin shook his head adamantly then snuggled closer. He knew for sure that he wouldn’t be driving anywhere with Ezra for a long, long time.

“How about the next time we plan on sneakin’ into one of those camps,” Buck proposed, “we let Ez take the guards out for a little joyride beforehand.”

“I do not find that the least bit humorous, Mr. Wilmington.”

“I bet your momma ain’t gonna find any humor in what you did to her car, either,” said Nathan.

“Buck!” A new voice suddenly rang out. “I gotta go -- bad!”

Nathan didn’t waste a moment pulling over to the side of the road.

“I can take him,” Chris offered, craning his neck to look around the headrest.

“Nah,” Buck replied. “I’m okay.”

As Nathan waited for Buck and little JD to return from their ‘pit stop’, he thought about his beautiful wife and daughter, and how much he longed for them. Were they alive? Were they stuck in some hellhole of a camp like the one they’d just left? The thought that anyone would treat his sweet, compassionate Raine and innocent little Natalie the way Wickes had treated those women made his heart break.

A moment later, Buck opened the door and boosted JD into the back seat then climbed in after him. “I made a river!” the kid declared proudly, causing them all to snicker.

Chris waited until they were on the road again, before quietly asking, “You okay, Doc?”

Nathan wiped a tear from his cheek; he hadn’t even realized it had fallen. “Yeah.”

“We’ll find ‘em, Nate,” Chris assured, knowing what his friend was thinking – wanting to offer some sort of comfort, wishing he could do more. “Ya gotta keep believing that.”

Nathan’s family was on his mind always, but sometimes their absence just seemed to hurt more. They’d managed to rescue so many people from the camps, and every time he couldn’t help but hope that this would be the time that he’d find his own wife and child. There were times when it all got to be too much and he just wasn’t sure he could keep on going.

Vin reached over and placed his small hand on Nathan’s and just left it there as they drove. He glanced down at Vin and caught the meaning in the vivid blue eyes that looked back at him. Vin was telling Nathan the same thing Chris had, and Nathan knew in his heart it was true.

A new song came over the speakers, one he vaguely remembered hearing a long time ago. It took a moment for the words to sink in, but oddly, the melodic voice was telling him the same thing. Don’t stop believing. It could have been coincidence – probably was, but he chose to think it was a sign, purposely meant to give him hope.

In the world they lived in, you needed hope and something to believe in just to make it through the day.