by Estee

Warnings: PG-15? There's a little language, a little hanky panky, but nothing too bad.

Author's notes: This is a sequel of sorts to another story I wrote called The World As We Know It. It's set in the not too distant future. The story contains some references, quotes, and characters from the episode Obsession, which I stake NO claim to.

My thanks to Marnie and Lynn for all their help and advice. Any mistakes or unnecessary commas that remain are entirely my fault. :)

Size: Approx 220K

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Chris Larabee gazed out at the amber tinted sky. There had been a thick, dingy haze veiling the sun all week, but it seemed to be breaking up now that the wind was blowing in from the northwest. There had been much speculation as to the origin of the smoky haze. The theory that made the most sense to him was that there were oil wells burning in Texas.

Whatever the cause, thankfully the smog seemed to be dissipating. The only thing they could do now is hope that whatever they’d been breathing wouldn’t turn out to be harmful or deadly. Even if it did, there was little they could do but worry, and like his old friend Jack Tanner used to say, “Worry is like a rockin’ horse. It’s somethin’ to do but it don’t get you anywhere.”

He turned his attention back to the book he’d been reading, but before he was able to get too far the camper door swung open and three familiar figures appeared before him. Looking up from his page, he lifted an eyebrow in question.

The man he’d always considered his partner and best friend stood with his head tilted, a smirk on his handsome face. On either side of him were Vin and JD, both wearing light jackets and the damn coonskin hats Buck had gotten them – God knows where. The boys looked adorable in the fuzzy hats, the only problem was that they refused to take the damned things off. Most nights they even tried to sleep with them on.

“Sorry to disturb you, pard, but me and my posse are gonna go take a little walk,” Buck informed him, scooping the youngest boy up into his arms.

“Your posse?” Chris asked with a grin and then reached for Vin, pulling the boy closer to him. “Hey, pard,” he said quietly, zipping the boy’s coat up to his chin. “You need to keep this zipped up. Don’t want you getting sick on me again.”

Vin’s cheeks flushed and he smiled shyly.

“So, where are you three headed?” Chris asked.

“We’s fixin’ to go ‘tract some women,” Vin informed him, his expression serious even as Buck let out a burst of laughter.

“Is that right?” Chris asked, a corner of his mouth quirking up. It still amazed him to hear Vin speak. Over the months the boy had been living with them, Chris had become used to his silence – resigned to the possibility that he may never speak. Now, each time he heard the soft, soothing drawl it was like a wonderful gift. He wasn’t sure what had finally triggered the release of the boy’s vocal ability, and from what he’d been able to gather Vin didn’t really know, either. Chris could only assume that some sort of emotional healing was taking place and for that he was grateful. “Aren’t you a little young to be out ‘tracting women?” he said to Vin, while raising a questioning eyebrow at his old friend.

Buck simply shrugged in reply, but JD leaned forward, a bright smile on his cherubic little face. “Buck says we’s chick maggots.”

Vin agreed with a solemn nod. “That means the womens pay lots more ‘tention to him when he takes us along.”

“I’ll just bet they do,” Chris shook his head, not at all surprised by his friend’s clever new tactic to ‘tract women’. “You oughtta be ashamed of yourself, Buck.” The scolding was given wryly and the words didn’t appear to faze the grinning man in the least. Buck might be considered a scoundrel with the ladies, but Chris knew that he’d never let anything or anyone distract him from looking after the boys. Still, he couldn’t resist adding, “You boys keep an eye on him and make sure he behaves himself.”

“Buck says he’s gonna get us some candy!” JD licked his lips at the very thought and Chris couldn’t help but smile. The little imp smiled back at him, dark eyes sparkling, cheeks dimpling -- front tooth dangling by a thread of flesh. Chris forced his hands to remain in his lap and not reach up and pluck out the dangly tooth, not yet anyway. Besides, it was too much fun watching big, bad Buck Wilmington – former homicide detective, a man who’d been shot and stabbed, faced horrific crime scenes and deranged criminals – squirm and squeal like a little girl at the sight of JD’s tongue flicking the wobbly tooth back and forth.

“Buck’s gonna get you some candy, huh?” He probably ought to mention something about candy not being a good idea before supper, but he’d never known either of the boys to have any problem finishing off a meal. The boys might look scrawny, but it wasn’t from lack of appetite.

“That’s right,” Buck said with a wink. “A man’s got to be paid for his work.”

Vin nodded with enthusiasm. “Buck says we get a sweet for every sweet thing we ‘tract.”

Chris rolled his eyes and stood, setting his book aside. “Buck says, Buck says . . ..” He grinned at his charge, reaching out to ruffle the boy’s hair. “Well, if you’re going then you’d best get on out of here before I decide to put you to work myself.”

“We won’t be gone too long,” Buck said as he headed down the trail toward the women’s tents. They had routinely checked on the women while they’d been in quarantine, and even though that period was over, they still checked daily to see if they needed anything. The women and few children from Wickes’ camp had set up a cluster of tents a few hundred yards away from the Mission’s main building. Chris couldn’t blame them for wanting to have a little privacy after the way they’d been treated by Wickes and the men who’d frequented the camp.

There was already the beginning of a path leading from the main section of camp down to the women’s section -- mostly due to Buck and his frequent checks, although the boys had probably been back and forth just as often. They’d taken a shine to the newcomer Nettie Wells and her young niece Casey.

After rescuing the women and children from Wickes’ camp and bringing them back to the safety of the Mission, Chris and Josiah and a couple others had returned to the camp to scavenge whatever supplies they could use. Nettie Wells had demanded to go with them to retrieve her belongings.

Apparently before the war, she’d lived on a small farm not far away from Wickes’ place. For almost two years, she and her niece had been relatively safe and self-sufficient, living on her secluded property. Then, one day both her barn and house mysteriously burned to the ground and her livestock disappeared. She and her young niece had packed what little they had left and set out on foot to find some sort of shelter. They’d happened upon the camp and been encouraged to join those already staying there. It hadn’t taken Nettie long to spot some of her animals and figure out who had destroyed her property and stolen her livestock, and it hadn’t taken long for her to figure out that accusing Wickes would get her nothing but trouble.

Wickes had put her to work, laundering, cooking and cleaning, but he hadn’t harmed her or her niece, or she’d likely have killed him with her bare hands. She’d seen what he’d done to some of the younger women and children in the camp. Nettie had bided her time, hoping for a chance to escape with her niece and her belongings. Finally, the good Lord, with the aid of the men from the Mission, had provided her just that opportunity.

With Josiah’s help, Nettie had built a wire-meshed chicken coop and Chris and Buck had made another lean-to for the two milk cows they’d been able to fit in the small trailer and bring back. Both Vin and JD loved to feed the chickens and gather eggs, but they had yet to gather enough courage to attempt milking the cows.

The boys had made a point of dropping in on the Wells at least once a day, until last week, when Vin had come down with a nasty virus and been confined to the camper. At first, Nathan had thought it was a cold or the flu, nothing to worry about. After a few days Vin seemed better, only to have a relapse the first day he was allowed out again. Now, the doctor was saying little about Vin’s state of health, only that they should be cautious to avoid another relapse. Still, he had the feeling Nathan was at least mildly concerned over something, although he was confident that he’d be taking more precautions if he suspected the illness was serious or infectious.

Once Buck and the boys disappeared from sight, Chris sat back down, picked up his book and resumed reading. He wouldn’t have minded going along, but he figured the three of them needed to spend some time together. In the past few weeks since JD had come into their lives, Vin had been feeling a little left out. He was used to having Buck all to himself, and although he hadn’t verbally complained, Chris had noticed more than a few glares directed Buck’s way. Most recently he seemed to be trying to avoid the other two altogether.

Josiah had assured Chris that the behavior was perfectly normal, comparing it to any child who had suddenly been ‘blessed’ with a new sibling. He just needed a little time to get accustomed to sharing Buck, and Chris.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Buck and his boys moseyed amongst the tents, saying hello and checking to see if any of the women needed anything. After letting the kids spend a few minutes with Nettie and Casey, which got them a small basket of eggs, Buck had urged them on to their final, and Buck’s personal favorite, stop – the tent that housed the fiery, dark-haired beauty, Inez.

No matter how boldly he flirted with the woman, she seemed oblivious to his charm. When he asked if there was anything he could do for her, she responded with a curt, “No, thank you, senor,” and tried to escape back into her tent.

“Hey, wait,” he called, trying to keep her there. With a grin, he continued with the first thing he could come up with, “How ‘bout tonight, you and me take a little stroll in the moonlight?”

She turned back to him, her dark eyes narrowed. “I do not think so, senor.”

“One of these days you’re gonna realize that you and me are destined to be together,” Buck told her, using his most seductive voice. “So you might as well just give in and stop tryin’ to fight it.”

“Is that right, senor?”


“Well,” Inez huffed, placed her hands on her hips then smiled tightly. “Just so you know, I will never stop fighting it.”

“A little romance, a little moonlight . . . c’mon, how about one little stroll with ole Buck?” he asked, his voice soft and his smile devilish.

Inez pretended to think about it for a second then smiled mischievously and answered, “I would rather stroll with a goat.”

JD snorted, then burst into a fit of giggles, while Vin pursed his lips, trying hard not to laugh. Buck’s reaction was a mixture of surprise and obvious delight, although he tried to cover it by acting hurt. “Aw, now darlin’, ya don’t mean that.”

“Oh, but I do,” she said, looking smug.

“How about tomorrow night?” he tried once more. “The two of us could make beautiful music together.”

She rolled her eyes and moved back toward her tent.

“Does that mean yes?” He looked at her hopefully.

“Nunca!” she snapped and began muttering in Spanish.

“Okay . . . I’ll take that as a maybe.” He gave her a lecherous grin.

“Get lost!” She sighed exasperatedly, pointing a finger in the direction of the Mission.

“Alright, alright,” Buck said, holding up his hands in surrender. “You know where to find me when you come to your senses.”

Vin took Buck’s hand and followed him away from the tent, wondering about Miss Inez. It seemed like she didn’t care too much for Buck and he found that hard to believe because everyone he knew liked Buck. He couldn’t figure out why she would be so mean to Buck when he was just trying to be nice to her? Glancing over his shoulder, he caught the woman still watching them with a smile on her face. When Vin smiled back, she winked at him and then disappeared into her tent. Vin decided that tryin’ to figure out women made his head hurt too much.

As they walked up the hill, Buck looked down at the boys and said, “I can tell she likes me.”

Vin furrowed his brows, even more confused now. “She told ya to get lost, Buck.”

”Yeah,” Buck admitted with a grin. “That’s called ‘playin’ hard to get’.”

JD giggled at that, but Vin looked worriedly at his big friend. “She said she’d rather go strollin’ with a goat.”

”I know.” Buck reached up and smoothed a finger over his moustache. “She didn’t mean it, though. I could tell by the look in her eyes.”

Vin snorted. “If you say so.”

“Yeah,” Buck said dreamily. “She sure is something else.”

Vin scrubbed a hand over his face and decided that Buck was just plain crazy.

The trio headed up the path toward Mrs. Potter’s store.

The Potters had just finished setting up the little variety store, had yet to officially open it, when Mr. Potter was wounded in an explosion. The man subsequently died from his injuries, but Mrs. Potter had resolved to open and run the store herself, knowing how much effort her husband had put into it already. Now, the little store offered fresh vegetables and baked goods, as well as used books, some second-hand clothing and toys and other used items for trade, or for borrowing. At the front counter Mrs. Potter almost always had a jar filled with some type of old-fashioned, homemade candy.

Once inside the store, they set the basket of eggs on the counter and Buck allowed each boy to pick out a cluster of rock candy from the jar. As the boys browsed through the books and toys, Buck heard an engine running outside and glanced out the window. There was a black SUV parked in front of the Mission, and a moment later he saw a dark haired woman get out and look around the camp. He was about to go out and see what she needed when Josiah and Nathan appeared. From the window he watched the two men speak with the woman. When he noticed Chris making his way up to the old building, he thought about joining him. He was curious and wanted to know who she was and what was going on, but at the same time wouldn’t risk any harm coming to the boys. These days it was best to be cautious of strangers, no matter how pretty they were.

“You boys find something good there?” he asked, spotting the two hunched together on the floor.

“Look, Buck!” JD shouted, holding up a tiny object.

Buck moved closer to get a better look. “Hey, ya know what these are?” When both boys shook their heads, he told them, “They’re marbles. I ain’t seen marbles since . . . well, probably since I was a kid.”

“What d’ya do with ‘em?” JD asked, leaning against Buck and studying the swirled glass ball.

“Ya play with ‘em, of course,” Buck said, winking at the boy. “I can’t remember right off hand, but if you want ‘em, I’m sure we could figure the rules out.”

“Really?” JD hurried to scoop all the marbles off the floor and back into the little cigar box, while Vin sat there watching in silence.

“We’ll just let Mrs. Potter put them on our account,” he said loud enough for the woman to hear.

JD hurried to the counter, thrusting the box up for Mrs. Potter to see, while Vin slowly rose up from the floor.

“C’mon, son, let’s go play marbles,” Buck said, holding a hand out for Vin, but the boy frowned ducking away from the hand.

Buck sighed, wondering what he’d done now? And here he’d been thinking that things were going so well.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris watched curiously as the black truck pulled up to the mission building. They didn’t get a lot of visitors and usually when they did it wasn’t somebody stopping by for a friendly chat. He stood up and cautiously made his way up to the old building. As he got closer he thought he recognized the woman who’d just gotten out of the truck. His eyes were telling him one thing but his common sense was telling him that it was highly unlikely the woman could be the person he had in mind. But then again, this particular woman did seem to have a knack for popping up unexpectedly.

He watched as the large door to the mission opened slowly and the big preacher and the doc emerged to greet the newcomer. A moment later they all turned toward him and he could tell for sure that it really was her.

She smiled and waved to him, and he couldn’t help but smile back, amazed that they always seemed to run into each other – even out here in the middle of nowhere.

He remembered the first time they’d met. He’d still been in the Navy, just sent back to the states because of injuries he’d received on a mission. She had been one of the nurses in the military hospital where he’d ended up spending long weeks recuperating. They’d gotten to know each other pretty well, and he’d thought maybe they could have gotten to know each other even better, but before that had happened he’d gotten his discharge papers and been sent home to Indiana.

“Chris!” she called out, hurrying toward him with open arms and a big smile. “It’s so good to see you!” She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly.

“Good to see you, too, Ella,” he told her.

“When I heard you were here,” she released him, reached up and wiped the spot where she’d kissed his cheek, “I just had to come.”

“You heard I was here?” Chris gave her a puzzled look.

“Yes, a mutual friend told me I’d find you here.” She nodded, looking thoroughly pleased.

“And who might that be?” he questioned, unable for some reason to stop smiling.

“Chris,” Josiah interrupted, “Maybe our guest would like to sit down?” He gestured toward the garden. “Have a cup of coffee or tea?”

“That would be wonderful,” she replied. “Thank you.”

Chris held out his arm and she curled hers around it and allowed him to escort her to the garden. “It feels so good to run into someone I know!” she said, as Chris was taken back several years.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

“Captain Larabee? Chris?”

Chris had just sat down to grab a quick bite to eat. He always ate lunch here when he was on duty. Junie’s had the best greasy food in town and he usually met a familiar face or two, usually someone he’d grown up with, but he’d never expected to run into this woman.


“It’s so wonderful to see you!” she exclaimed, her face fairly beaming with joy. “It feels so good to run into someone I know!”

He looked at her a little puzzled then said, “It’s good to see you, too.” He couldn’t imagine what she was doing in Indiana. The last time he’d seen her, nearly six months ago, had been in the hospital in Maryland. “What brings you to these parts?” He gestured for her to join him at the small table.

“Well, I decided I needed a change. Sent my resume out to a few places and ended up here.”

“Wow . . ..” He wasn’t sure what to say to that. This was a great place to live – if you grew up here and wanted a nice, safe place to raise a family, but most folks his age were more than eager to get out and find someplace more exciting. Which was what he was planning to do in the next few weeks. “Well, I’m sure you’ll like it here. It’s a little quiet but the people are friendly.”

“I’m hoping to find out just how friendly at least one of them is.” She gave him a seductive smile.

“Is that right?” Chris said in a low voice and couldn’t help but smile back. He was starting to feel warm just looking at her.

“Are you busy this evening?” she asked, looking up through her lashes.

“Well . . ..” he pretended to think about it then shrugged. “Thursday’s the night I usually uh . . . wash my car.”

”Wash your car?”

“Yep.” He took a drink of his soda and grinned at her. “But I might be able to wait until tomorrow. “

“What do you think it would take to persuade you?”

Chris shrugged. Just as he opened his mouth to make some sort of remark, he felt her toes, the ball of her foot rubbing, pressing against the inside of his thigh. He looked across the table and his eyes were drawn to her mouth, to the pink tongue sliding between her dark, glossy lips and he shook his head then cleared his throat.

“Have you thought about me at all since you’ve been home?”

Chris grinned at her. “I’m thinkin’ about you now.”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris pulled out a chair, then waited for Ella to be seated before he sat down himself. Josiah poured each of them a cup of coffee. Nathan had joined them as well, pulling up a small wooden bench to sit on.

“You mentioned a mutual friend?” Chris asked her after taking a sip of coffee.

“Yes,” Ella replied, her eyes twinkling. “Maude Standish.”

“Maude?” Both Chris and Nathan repeated with astonishment.

“Yes, she stopped by the ranch a couple weeks ago with her son.”

“What was she driving?” Josiah asked with narrowed eyes.

“Was it an ugly, beat up, old pick-up truck?” Nathan said, winking at Chris.

“I’ll have you know that is a classic pick-up,” Josiah interjected.

“Classic.” Nathan snorted. “You keep on tellin’ yourself that.”

“Actually, yes, she was driving an old, uh . . . classic pick-up.” Ella smiled at Josiah. “And she told me she’d borrowed it from you.”

“Borrowed?” Josiah said with a laugh.

“It’s out at my ranch if you’d like to retrieve it.”

“Is she out at your ranch?” Chris wondered.

“Yes she is, along with her son Ezra. I’m not sure why, but he doesn’t seem very happy with his mother.”

“That makes two of us.” Josiah said.

“Three,” Chris added then looked at Ella. “You came all the way down here to tell us you have Josiah’s truck?”

“Well, no, not exactly.” She took another sip of coffee then leaned forward, “The main reason I came was because she mentioned that you might be interested in looking at some horses. I have quite a large ranch with plenty of breeding stock.”

“You’re into horse breeding?” Chris asked dubiously.

“Well, my husband was into it, more as a hobby, although he had planned to take it up full time when he retired, but . . ..” She shrugged, looking a little wistful. “He was killed in a prison uprising, right after the attacks.”

Chris had met Joe Petrie on several occasions. They hadn’t been friends or anything, but Chris had thought he seemed like a decent enough person. He had supposedly run the prison with an iron fist and Chris had to admit that the man had reminded him of a drill sergeant.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Chris said. He remembered being happy for Ella when he’d found out that she’d finally settled down with someone. Especially since the two of them hadn’t exactly ended their relationship on the best note.

By the time Ella had shown up in Indiana, Chris had already accepted a job in Phoenix. When he informed her he was moving, she had offered to go with him and split the expenses. Chris hadn’t felt ready to settle down with anyone at that point in time, so he’d tried to gently dissuade her, but she was intent on accompanying him. She’d assured him that she wasn’t trying to tie him down – that she didn’t want to be tied down. He remembered her saying, “Can’t we just be friends?” Then she’d given him a sultry smile and added, “With fringe benefits, of course.”

For the first few months, they’d been just that – friends, with benefits -- and had a great time. Ella made everything seem like some wild adventure. But after a while, he’d started to feel penned in. They each had their own apartment, but Ella was at his apartment night and day, so much so, that he began to wonder if she even had an apartment.

He started trying to drop hints about the two of them needing space, but she didn’t seem to catch on. If possible, she became even more clingy. He started coming home late, then very late and sometimes not at all, but that only made her angry, more possessive – it didn’t make her leave. Finally, he came right out and told her he didn’t want to see her anymore, feeling awful about it, but not knowing any other way to make her understand. She’d had a meltdown right there in his tiny living room. She’d threatened to kill him, kill herself – all loud enough for the entire neighborhood to overhear. The police were called in, which should have embarrassed him, but it was hard to feel anything but grateful to the officers for prompting her to leave -- if only for a few hours. To his dismay, she was back the next evening, cooking dinner in a satin teddy when he got home from work, like nothing had ever happened.

A few days later, with a little assistance from the chief, he was offered and accepted a job in another state. A few days after that, while Ella was at work, he packed up his things, gave a brief explanation to the landlord, and then he was gone. He didn’t see Ella again until several years later when he and Sarah ran into Ella and her husband at a charity event. She seemed to have calmed down some, or maybe she was just content -- definitely more mature. Chris had to admit he’d been a little relieved, but mostly just happy for her.

”Well, I always said he’d work himself to death,” she said, a frown creasing her brow. “When the prisoners started getting rambunctious he made me go home. I tried to get him to come with me, but he wouldn’t listen.”

The three men nodded, not sure what to say and not wanting to offer empty platitudes. Practically everyone had lost someone -- some from disease, some during the attacks, some in the aftermath.

“What about you, Chris?” she asked, suddenly. “You had a wife, didn’t you?”

Chris nodded then looked away. “And a son,” he said quietly.

“Chris lost his wife and son a couple weeks after the attacks,” Nathan supplied. A moment later the doctor stood up and gave Chris a supportive pat on the shoulder. “I best get some work done. It was nice meeting you, ma’am. Chris,” he gave Chris an authoritative look, “you make sure Vin keeps his coat zipped up no matter how warm out he thinks it is. I don’t want that boy getting sick again.”

Chris smiled at him. “I know. Don’t worry, Buck’ll make sure he keeps it zipped.”

Ella smiled as Nathan excused himself, then she reached over and took Chris’ hand. “I’m so sorry about your family, Chris.” For a moment her expression was purely one of sympathy, then she suddenly looked puzzled. “Who’s Vin?”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Buck had tried to teach JD what he could remember of marbles, but JD seemed more interested in marveling over the colors and designs of the tiny spheres than in actually playing a game. Vin had been sullen since they’d left the store, deciding it was more interesting to sit in Chris’ lawn chair, swinging his legs back and forth and gazing out at the landscape through his spyglass. He’d even taken off the coonskin hat that he’d been wearing constantly for the past few weeks.

Chris was still up at the old Mission and Buck had been growing more and more curious about what the mysterious woman was doing there. He was about ready to tell the boys to stay put and go find out for himself when he saw Chris, Josiah and the woman coming toward their camper.

“Looks like we got company,” he said to the boys, noticing that JD looked up at him and Vin turned his spyglass toward the approaching group. Chris was smiling, walking with his arm around the woman, and Buck thought they looked like they knew each other. That made him feel a little less apprehensive about the visitor, but apparently it didn’t have the same effect on Vin.

Vin watched through his glass as Chris and the lady came closer. They were talking and laughing and the lady kept looking at Chris funny. Vin didn’t like it at all.

Closing up his spyglass, he tucked it into his belt and kept an eye on the woman. She was dressed in a long red duster with black, high-heeled boots. Vin had never seen anyone dressed like that before. She wore lots of make-up like the ladies at Wickes’ camp and had red lips too. Vin thought she looked a little scary, but Chris didn’t seem to be afraid.

When they came up to the camper, Chris pulled the woman closer. “Buck, boys,” he said, looking happy, “I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine, Ella Gaines.”

Vin stood, subconsciously moving closer to Buck, who put an arm around him before removing his Stetson and nodding, “Ma’am.”

From his spot on the ground, JD grinned up at them. “Hi! I’m JD!”

Buck nudged Vin, but Vin was trying his best to suddenly turn invisible. When Vin refused to speak, Buck automatically spoke for him. “This little guy here is Vin.” Vin shot a glare at Buck, letting him know how he felt about being called a little guy. Buck winked back at him, already knowing.

The woman smiled at them. “It’s nice to meet you all.”

Buck thought the name Ella Gaines sounded familiar and, after a bit of pondering, he figured out where he’d heard it before. Then he wondered what in the world Chris was doing cozying up to the woman.

From what Chris had told him, Ella Gaines was a ‘fatal attraction’ sort of gal. Buck had always imagined her with nest of snakes set on top of her head like Medusa. Even though she looked fairly harmless – pretty hot, even -- something about her presence seemed to stir up a sense of unease inside him. He watched as she lowered her gaze to rest upon Vin. For a moment, Buck wondered if it was his imagination or if her smile had suddenly changed, become less than friendly, almost cold. He realized by the way Vin was now practically hiding behind him that Vin must feel uncomfortable, too.

“Vin,” Chris said, reaching out for the boy. “C’mere.”

Reluctantly, Vin walked over to Chris, clutching his coonskin hat tightly to his chest and giving the woman as wide a berth as he could. Chris didn’t seem to notice Vin’s discomfort. Smiling, Chris pulled the boy close then tilted his head to look down at him. “Vin, can you say hello to Ms. Gaines?”

“Hello, Vin, it’s nice to meet you,” the woman said, her voice kind.

Buck watched as Ella bent down and held a hand out to the boy. He could see Vin’s apprehension as he said hello and slowly extended his hand to Ella. Vin was always courteous, though. The boy’d shake hands with the devil himself if called to do so.

“Ms. Gaines has a horse ranch a little north of here,” Chris explained. “She’s invited us to go up and take a look, see if we’re interested in any of them.”

“Trade?” Buck asked, running his fingers through his hair before putting his hat back on.

“I can’t imagine what we’d have that she’d be interested in swapping for,” Josiah spoke up. “But, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take a look.”

“You’d actually be doing me a favor by taking a couple off of my hands,” she told them. “I have more than I know what to do with.”

“Well, we’ll see,” Chris said hesitantly. “I wouldn’t feel right not paying something.”

Ella put her hands on her hips, looking exasperated, but laughing. “You can be so stubborn, Chris Larabee.”

“Well boys, seems like she knows Chris pretty well,” Buck teased, winking at the boys. Vin didn’t look too happy; but JD giggled, then he reached for Buck to pick him up. “You best pick those marbles up first, mister.”

“Marbles?” Chris asked.

“Yeah! Look Chris!” JD kneeled back down on the ground and began scooping his marbles into the box. “Buck gotted me marbles!”

Ella grinned and moved to kneel beside JD. “I used to know how to play marbles,” she said, picking up a cobalt blue marble. “Oooh, this is a pretty one.”

JD got a big smile on his face. “That’s my favorite one!”

“This one’s pretty, too,” Ella said, inspecting one with purple swirls through it.

“That’s my other favorite one.”

Chris leaned closer to Buck. “I better not be stepping on stray marbles in the middle of the night,” he murmured so only Buck could hear.

“Anyone ever tell you that you’re no fun at all?” Buck replied.

“Mostly just you.”

“Come on, Chris, let’s play marbles,” Ella said, looking pleased.

“Okay, sure,” Chris answered. “Vin?”

Vin stepped closer to Buck, slipping his hand into Buck’s hand and looking up at him.

“You guys go ahead and play. Me and Vin are gonna go see to Mary and Billy,” Buck told them. When Vin smiled up at him and put the furry coon hat back on his head, he figured he’d said the right thing.

“Buck,” Chris said in a warning voice, “stop calling that colt Billy.”

“But that’s his name, ole pard. He comes to it and everything.”

“He comes to anything you call him,” Chris replied.

“Maybe so, but I’d hate to confuse him,” Buck said, trying to appear concerned, “‘sides, he’s Vin’s horse. You said so yourself.”

“Well, then, let’s let Vin pick the name.”

Vin looked up at Buck with a big grin, and together they mouthed the name ‘Billy’.

“I saw that.”

Buck and Vin laughed and headed for the stable, as Chris and Ella began arguing the rules of marbles. “Aren’t we supposed to have our own marbles?” Chris asked. “We can split these up three ways,” Ella answered. “But you’re supposed to play for the other guy’s marbles,” Chris replied. Buck could imagine JD grabbing his marbles away possessively, even before he heard Chris add, “Don’t worry, JD, we’re not playing for keeps.”

Hearing Chris’ laughter, Buck turned to look over his shoulder. The scene was eerily reminiscent of his best friend in another time – another life. Buck shook the memories away, turning his attention back to Vin and giving the boy’s tiny hand a squeeze. When Vin look up at him with adoration, Buck realized it had been a while since he’d seen that look directed at him and he realized how very much he’d missed it.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Ezra Standish let out a long-suffering sigh as he rolled over on his side; he could not believe his mother had left him and gone to Virginia City on her own. He could not believe she’d left him here of all Godforsaken places. If she’d been planning to ditch him again, why couldn’t she have just left him with his friends at the Mission? Ezra had no problem doing a little work, he’d been happy at the Mission. But the moment they’d mentioned “work” to his mother, she’d taken off like a shot. Maude’s definition of ‘work’ was spending a few days at the casinos in Virginia City and apparently this mentally deranged woman qualified as her definition of ‘friend’.

A small, bitter part of him actually hoped her stolen truck broke down on the way, but he didn’t want anything worse than that to happen to her. Virginia City was a dangerous place, especially for a woman – even if that woman was his mother, who could take care of herself better than most. He knew he shouldn’t wish anything bad on her, but it wasn’t beneath him to hope she had a less than pleasant time.

Ms. Gaines had left for the Mission earlier in the day, promising to return with Chris Larabee, and promising Maude that she’d make things right between them all. Not too long after Ms. Gaines had left, his mother had also taken off, assuring Ezra she’d be back in a few days. She’d taken Josiah’s truck – again. Ezra had his doubts that anything could be made right now, since his mother had twice now, stolen the preacher’s beloved ‘classic’.

Apparently his mother had stayed at the Gaines’ ranch during the time she was out looking for him. There were others staying here as well – a couple of guests in the main house and some of her ranch hands were living out in the bunkhouse. As far as he could tell, nobody was being forced to live there against their will. In fact, they seemed to be quite content there. Who wouldn’t be? Ms. Gaines had somehow managed to retain all of the luxuries no longer available to the average citizen: electricity, indoor plumbing, all the food and drink you could want. She had cookies, and little boxes of cereal, soda pop and more. He had no idea where she managed to get the stuff, but he did know that he’d give it all up to be at the Mission. Something he’d never admit to another living soul.

At the mention of Chris Larabee’s name, Ms. Gaines had made it fairly obvious that she didn’t have quite everything she desired. And when Maude had complained about her son being forced to labor as a ‘stable boy’, Ms. Gaines had been most interested in what exactly Chris kept in his stable.

When she’d found out that Chris and the others were trying to breed horses, she proposed a way of making things right for Maude, as if Maude cared about making things right. His mother usually waited until an actual confrontation before owning up to her past misdeeds. But Ms. Gaines had generously offered to travel to the Mission and bring back Chris Larabee, so he could inspect her stock and take whatever he felt would be suitable reparations. Ezra hadn’t had to look very hard to see that the woman had ulterior motives.

As Ezra closed his eyes, images of Vin and Chris, Josiah and Nathan, and all the others played through his mind, giving him a familiar sense of warmth and security as he drifted into sleep.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

“Vin . . ..” He could hear the beloved voice calling to him from somewhere in the distance, the sound echoing in his ears.

“Momma?” he called back, looking in every direction, but unable to see her through the hazy mist that surrounded him.

“Here I am! Over here!” The mist suddenly cleared and he caught a glimpse of her peeking out from behind a lone tree. Knowing that he’d finally found her, he smiled and hurried towards her hiding place, feeling the crunch of tall grass beneath his bare feet as he crossed the now bright meadow. As he got closer, he was able to catch the sweet, flowery scent of her perfume on the breeze, and he thought to himself this was the best day ever. A few steps more and the scent grew stronger, suddenly more pungent. By the time he approached the tree, the cloying sweetness was making him feel sick to his stomach. He faltered, his eyes watering as he peered around the tree. The figure standing there appeared blurry and he wiped his eyes trying desperately to see his mother. He missed her so much.

When his vision finally came into focus, he gasped, taking a step back. The woman didn’t look anything at all like his mother. She had pale skin, long, black hair and red lips; she was dressed in red and in her hand was a big red pitchfork. Behind her he could see a pile of lifeless bodies, their arms and legs tangled and bloody. He couldn’t make out their faces, but somehow he knew who they were. No! He tried to shout in denial, but nothing came out. The woman laughed at him, her red lips drawing back to reveal gleaming, sharply pointed teeth. She took a step closer and he tried to run, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. He was completely helpless, could only watch as she raised the red fork and thrust it directly at him.

With a gasp, Vin sat up in his bed and looked around the dark room. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but then he realized that he was safe in Chris’ camper.

“You okay, pard?” He heard Chris’ sleepy voice from the bottom bunk across from him.

“Yeah,” he answered, trying to calm his ragged breathing.

“Bad dream?”

Vin rubbed his eyes and nodded absently. He heard Chris’ bed creak and before he knew it Chris was sitting beside him, his hand on Vin’s shoulder.

“Do you wanna talk about it?” asked Chris.

Vin shook his head then yawned and slid back down on his side, thankful that Chris remained next to him. Chris didn’t say anything more; he just pulled the blanket up and moved his hand to Vin’s back and began rubbing slow circles.

Vin reached his trembling hand out from beneath the blanket, grasping the material of Chris’ sweatpants, wanting to keep him as close as he could.

“Close your eyes, buddy,” Chris whispered, lifting his hand to push the hair away from Vin’s forehead, before resuming the backrub. “We gotta get up early and go take a look at those horses.”

Horses, thought Vin, struggling to replace the images from his nightmare with images of horses -- wild horses running in the sunshine, their long manes whipping in the wind. He didn’t think he’d be able to go back to sleep, but as Chris continued to rub his back, murmuring soft, reassuring words, Vin found it impossible to stay awake.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

They’d set out for Redfork shortly after dawn, hoping to be back home by evening. Nathan had only come along so he could take a look at some of the medical books Ms. Gaines claimed to have. At the Mission, he only had a few textbooks and a little information on chemical and biological agents. Not nearly enough information.

Over the past couple of years, he’d managed to get his hands on some basic laboratory equipment, as well. The little lab set-up was nothing fancy, but it usually got him by and he knew it was more than most folks had. Unfortunately, it wasn’t doing much to help him solve the dilemma he was facing now. If only he had a little more technology available to use. If only . . .. He seemed to be saying that a lot these days.

He knew Vin’s lymph nodes were swollen, his white blood count was unusually high, but those symptoms were common and could occur with any of a hundred different illnesses. He’d thought at first that maybe it was strep throat, but he’d been able to rule that out fairly quickly. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. He knew whatever Vin had, it wasn’t bacterial, but in a way that was almost worse. That meant antibiotics would be useless in treating the illness.

The boy had gotten sick before the smoky smog had drifted in, so he knew that the illness had nothing to do with that. Besides, he could smell burning oil in the air even if nobody else could. He knew that breathing those fumes wasn’t exactly good for a body, but it wasn’t as bad as some of the other things they could be exposed to at any time. Most of the smog had lifted when the wind kicked up yesterday and today the sky was almost clear.

Vin wasn’t running a fever anymore and he wasn’t coughing, so all he could do was assume the boy wasn’t contagious. They’d kept him confined to the camper, partly because he needed to rest, but mostly because Nathan had worried the boy would pass on whatever it was. So far, nobody else had come down with any symptoms, thank the Lord.

Still, he found the whole situation frightening. If only he had better equipment . . .. He wondered, not for the first time, how doctors managed back in the old days, before there were labs and tests and easily accessible information. Well, truly he didn’t have to wonder; he was finding it all out firsthand. He knew he should be thankful that he at least had more skill and knowledge than the doctors of yesteryear, but he was getting so tired of speculating and worrying.

Nathan glanced over his shoulder at the object of his concern. Vin was gazing out the window; his big, blue eyes wide with fascination at the scenery. At least he seemed better the last couple days, except for his lack of energy, but that could just be the toll taken from the illness and recovery. His blood count was still too high, and his glands still enlarged, but not as bad as they were in the beginning. That could mean he was recovering or it could mean nothing at all. He supposed he’d just have to wait and see, but damn, he’d always been terrible at doing that.

Vin had to admit to being a little bit excited -- not only because they were going to see horses, but also because of the trip itself. He loved to go for rides in the truck; he loved going to places he’d never been to before. He even loved watching the scenery they passed by on the way.

Chris was riding with Ms. Gaines, which didn’t make Vin too happy, but hopefully by this evening she’d be at her ranch and they’d be at the Mission and everything would be back to normal again.

“Are we almost there?” JD asked for the hundredth time, his voice growing whinier each time he asked.

Vin just scowled then shrugged. He had no idea how close they were, but he now knew why it irritated the grown ups to be asked that question over and over. Ms. Gaines had asked if JD wanted to ride with them, but JD hadn’t wanted to. He didn’t like being too far away from Buck. Vin had been feeling a little upset with the younger boy lately, but right now he was glad that JD was with them instead of with Chris and that woman. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t seem to make himself like her.

Ms. Gaines hadn’t even asked if Vin wanted to ride with them – something Vin had mixed feelings over. On one hand, he didn’t want to be anywhere near her, but on the other hand, he hated not being with Chris.

“We’ll be there pretty soon,” Nathan told him from the front seat. Vin wished he were in the front seat, but ever since JD came to stay with them, they’d started treating Vin like a little kid, something else he had mixed feelings over. They made him go to bed early every night, made him tell them everywhere he went, made him ride in the backseat, made him drink milk from Nettie’s cows and the worst thing of all was that they were making him learn school stuff. As far as he was concerned, it was a waste of time. He’d gotten by just fine all these years without knowing that stuff.

As they came to the top of another hill, Buck pointed to his right. “That must be it.”

Vin craned his neck to get a look out the window. He saw the vehicle Chris was driving slow down, then turn right down a gravel road that led to what looked to be an enormous ranch. He could see the big, brightly painted house, a huge grassy yard, bordered by corrals and several other buildings.

“Wow!” JD said, looking out his window. “Look at all the horsies, Vin!”

One corral had more than a dozen horses in it, and the other, much bigger one held more cows than Vin could count. As they turned off the main road and got closer, he could see that there were even more horses, along with other pens filled with animals, a huge garden and a long garage with a whole lot of trucks and cars and even a couple tractors.

Josiah was sitting in the back between the two boys and he leaned closer to the window. “I don’t see my truck. Does anyone see my truck?”

Nathan turned back. “I’m sure it’s here somewhere,” then he grinned, “Maybe there’s a bone yard somewhere out of sight, where they park the more . . . classic vehicles?”

“Very funny, brother Nate.”

They followed the black SUV as it turned down a long driveway that circled up to the porch of the house. Chris parked off to the side a little and Buck pulled their truck up beside it. JD was already struggling to get his seatbelt off and Buck turned back to them with a smile. “Now, you boys don’t go wanderin’ off. You stay close to us, ya hear?”

“I wanna go see the animals!” JD exclaimed as the seatbelt clicked then recoiled. He reached for the door handle only to be halted by Josiah.

“Now, JD . . . what did Buck just tell you?”

“Not to go wanderin’. To stay close to you,” he replied dutifully. “But I ain’t gonna go wanderin’! I’m just gonna go see the animals!”

Vin smiled. He wanted to go see the animals, too, but he fully intended to behave and stick close to the grown ups. He looked up at the big house. He’d never seen a house that big before. The way it was painted and all the fancy trimmings made it look like something from a fairytale. He waited patiently as Buck ran through a list of rules: Don’t go into the corrals, don’t stick your hands into the corrals, don’t touch any of the plants, don’t . . .. And then he saw the front door open and a familiar figure step out onto the big front porch. “Ez!” he shouted, and he couldn’t get the car door open fast enough.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris found that he was enjoying Ella’s company. Somehow, being with her made all the troubles in the world seem much less significant. His usual, almost constant worries over the future seemed to all but fade away. Instead, he had a vague sense that he’d been transported back to the days past – the days of his youth, when he hadn’t had a care in the world; he’d lived for the moment, had his whole future in front of him.

Ella was as lively, spirited and tempting as she’d ever been, although he thought she seemed more self-confident and mature. Maybe it was their lack of maturity that had made their relationship so unstable all those years ago.

Chris hadn’t been too surprised to hear that she’d never had children of her own. Not that she wasn’t good with them, when the mood struck her, but he just couldn’t imagine her going through pregnancy, labor and childbirth. She’d always been vain and a little self-centered, although she managed to make it look good on her. The thought of her nine months pregnant or waking in the middle of the night to feed a squalling infant was beyond the scope of his imagination.

Chris turned off the ignition and handed the keys over to Ella who had a big smile on her face. “So . . .what do you think, Chris? A little bit of heaven?” She gestured toward the house then the yard.

“It looks like a whole lotta heaven,” he said honestly, turning to her with a smile. “Its pretty impressive, Ella.” He didn’t think he’d ever seen anything quite like it – even before the attacks. The ranch itself was huge and obviously well cared for; there were trees, bushes and flowerbeds all around the yard. There were several sheds and buildings and in the center of everything stood a grand, ornately trimmed Victorian house complete with tall, beveled windows, and a huge wrap around porch. “Very impressive.”

“Well, well . . . who do we have here?” Chris said, spotting Ezra come out of the house. He might be ticked off at Maude Standish, but that didn’t carry over to her son. Ezra could be a little precocious, a little annoying sometimes, but more often than not he made Chris smile. And Vin thought the world of him. With a grin, Chris stepped out of the truck and called out to the boy. “Hey, Ezra.”

Ezra paused to return the grin then bolted down the stairs toward Vin, who was out of the truck and moving just as fast. The two boys nearly collided but came to a halt just in time. They just stood grinning at each other until Chris approached them and put a hand on both of their shoulders. “Good to see you, Ezra.”

Vin nodded agreement.

“Is your mom around?” he asked, his tone neutral.

Ezra beamed up at him for a moment, then looked suddenly uncomfortable. “My apologies, Mr. Larabee. But my mother left yesterday for Virginia City. She said she had some business to tend to and she’d be back in a couple of days, but . . ..” He shrugged, obviously not able to totally believe that she would be back.

Ella put her hands on her hips and looked around the yard. “What did she drive?”

Ezra looked even more uncomfortable, his eyebrows drawing together as he met Chris’ eyes. “She uh . . . borrowed Reverend Sanchez’s truck. Again.”

Chris shook his head. “Borrowed it, huh?”

“Wait a minute,” Josiah’s booming voice made them all jump, “did I just hear you say that she stole my truck again? Why my truck? Why not someone else’s truck?”

“Most likely because it won’t attract attention,” Ezra offered.

Buck joined them, carrying JD on his hip. “It also ain’t likely to be too big of a temptation for someone else to . . . “ he nudged Ezra with his elbow, “borrow.”

Josiah narrowed his eyes. “Are you inferring that my truck is—“

“A classic, of course, reverend.” Ezra cast a beatific smile on the preacher.

Vin giggled and Josiah growled at him making him giggle harder.

“I gotta go!” declared JD, in a voice loud enough to cause Buck to flinch.

Ella smiled graciously and gestured toward the house. “Right this way, gentlemen.” They followed as she practically waltzed into the house, through the foyer into a large, sunny parlor with floral wallpaper, antique furniture and lamps.

“The facilities are down the hall that way, second door on the left.” She continued into another large room, this one tastefully decorated with a mixture of contemporary and antique. There was a huge crystal chandelier hanging over a long, dark oak dining table that was filled one end to the other with platters of food. “Are any of you boys hungry?”

“Yes, ma’am!” Josiah spoke up for the entire group.