by Estee

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They were finished eating for the most part, with the exception of JD, who was still picking things off of his plate and probably wearing as much food as he’d eaten. Buck was being Buck, flirting with some young lovely he’d found . . . somewhere.

Vin was sitting by Chris, who was talking quietly with Ella. Josiah was ogling all the antiques, while Nathan sat at large oak desk in the corner of the parlor browsing through several very thick medical reference books.

The sudden report of a gunshot, coming from very near the house, disrupted the seemingly peaceful afternoon. Chris instinctively pulled Vin to the ground then shouted for everyone to get down.

Ella crawled toward the window to peer outside, then she let out a long breath and slumped against the wall. “I was hoping this wouldn’t happen while you boys were here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That’s my dear stepson . . . Jake.”

“I didn’t know you had a stepson.”

“Well,” she smiled, looking a little embarrassed at the same time, “now you do.”

“Ella!” Came a shout from outside the house. Ella stood up, brushed off her skirt, and headed for the door.

Chris jumped up, startled that she was going to face this person, stepson or not. “What are you doing?”

Ella laughed a little. “I’m going to see what he wants this time.”

“Probably to shoot you,” Chris retorted.

“I doubt it.” She opened the door with Chris at her side. Buck scrambled up from the floor to back them up.

“Hello, Jake.”

Whatever they’d been expecting it wasn’t this boy. He looked no older than fifteen or sixteen, but he was holding a shotgun in one hand and a pistol, aimed right at them, in the other hand.

The boy smiled menacingly then nodded toward Chris. “Found a new one, huh?” he said to Ella.

“This is an old friend of mine, Chris Larabee.” She lifted her chin and glared defiantly back at him. “He’s come to look at some horses.”

“Sure,” the kid chuckled, shaking his head. Behind him there were at least a dozen other youths ranging anywhere from early to late teens.

“What do you want, Jake?”

“Well for starters, I want you off my property.”

Ella actually rolled her eyes. “Not this again.”

Chris had pulled his Glock at some point, undid the safety and was holding it behind him.

“Jake, I showed you the will,” Ella said, sounding disgusted. “You could have stayed here, too. You’re the one who chose to leave.”

“Stay there with you?” the kid shot back incredulously. “I don’t think so.”

“That was your choice, not mine.”

The kid laughed. “If I’d stayed here with you I’d probably be dead by now, just like my parents.”

“You know that isn’t true.”

Jake rolled his eyes. “I’m not getting into this with you again. I want you outta my house . . . “ he raised the gun, “off my land. I mean it this time.”

”Sorry, that’s not going to happen.” She said calmly. “I guess you’ll have to shoot me because I’m not leaving.”

“You heard the lady,” Chris finally spoke up, bringing his own weapon into view. “Now, I suggest you leave.”

Several of the other boys drew weapons, but Jake waved a hand. “This ain’t your business, mister.”

“It is now.”

“This was my parents’ ranch. It ain’t right that she gets to live here after what she’s done.”

Ella suddenly clenched her fists, took a step toward the boy and snarled, “I did not kill anyone, Jake!”

Jake smiled, seeming to be amused by her outburst. “Maybe you didn’t actually do the killin’ . . . but it was still your doing.”

Chris finally stepped off of the porch with Buck beside him. “All I know is you’re the one standing there aimin’ a gun at her. Why don’t you boys just leave before someone really does get killed?”

Josiah and Nathan stood behind them on the porch. They were all armed, and even though they were outnumbered, they seemed to be enough of a force to intimidate the youths, at least for the moment.

Jake turned and mumbled something to the rest of his group then turned back to the men. “Okay, we’ll go for now. But, we’ll be back . . . soon, and if you’re all still here . . . well, it won’t be my fault if someone gets killed.”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Ella had assured them she wasn’t too worried about her stepson’s threat, but the men agreed to stay on for a couple of days just incase he did show up again. Neither Vin nor Ezra took the news with too much enthusiasm, but JD seemed happy enough. Of course, that might have had something to do with the hot fudge sundaes that were served for dessert.

Chris thought Vin’s cheeks were looking a little rosier than usual, so during dinner, when Vin barely touched his meal, Chris had laid a palm on the boy’s forehead then tried not to laugh when his face went from pink to scarlet. As he’d suspected, Vin had a slight temperature again. Nathan seemed a little worried, but all he said was the boy needed to rest more and they ought to keep a close eye on his temp for the next few hours. The doctor had been skimming through medical books like a mad man and Chris had the feeling it had something to do with whatever was ailing Vin. The illness didn’t seem too serious, but it also seemed like it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon.

After supper they’d all sat in the parlor sipping bottled beer – something they hadn’t had in a long time – and discussing everything from the weather, to horse breeding, to the difference between defiant and dangerous teenagers. JD had fallen asleep early, sprawled across Buck’s lap. Not too much later, Vin had dozed off, too, sitting on the floor, leaning against Chris’ leg.

Ella offered to let the boys share the guest room Ezra was using, so Buck and Chris just picked them up and carried them upstairs with Ezra following behind.

Buck settled the sleeping JD on a cot they set up between the two beds. Then he quietly said goodnight to the other two boys and headed back downstairs.

Vin woke long enough for Chris to explain where they were just incase he woke up in the middle of the night. Then he tucked him in and – much to the boy’s dismay -- kissed him on the forehead, finding the skin still a little feverish, but not any worse than it had been. Chris had smiled apologetically. How could he have forgotten that ten was way too old to be given a goodnight kiss in front of peers.

Chris stayed for a few minutes, seated on the side of Vin’s bed, making sure the boy was comfortable and feeling all right, and listening to Ezra complain about his ‘sudden appalling lack of privacy’. As he stood completely naked, rummaging through the dresser drawer for appropriate pajamas, he swore on his unknown father’s grave that one of man’s basic human rights was to be allowed to dress without an audience. That had made Vin smile and Chris laugh. Chris promised that neither of them were looking and kept his face turned toward Vin. After a few minutes Vin’s eyelids started to droop then they closed, and he drifted to sleep.

Chris offered to read Ezra a bedtime story, just to irritate the kid. Once he’d been assured, in no uncertain terms, that Ezra did not require any bedtime story and hadn’t for years, Chris returned to the parlor where the others were talking, and sipping brandy. He sat down beside Ella and she poured him a glass.

“Why does he think you had something to do with his parents’ deaths?” Josiah asked.

The question had been on Chris’ mind, too. He knew teenagers could be pretty melodramatic to begin with, more so when dealing with a stepparent, but still he’d been curious to hear the story behind the accusation.

“I have no idea.” Ella shook her head, her expression blank. “His mother was killed in an automobile accident. His father and I . . . “ she lowered her voice, looking a bit guilty, “well, they were already going to get a divorce when the accident happened. After her death . . . I knew it would be tough for Jake to accept me. He’s always been a bit hostile to me, and I don’t blame him for that, but I had no idea that all the while he was blaming me for his mother’s death.”

“What about his father’s . . . your husband’s death?” Buck asked.

“You said something happened to him when he was at the prison?” Chris added.

“Yes, after the attacks, the electricity went out, and the phones. The facility had a backup generator of course, so they still had power there, but the prisoners started getting antsy, hard to control. Joseph ordered me to go home, but he refused to leave. I learned later that the backup generator went out sometime during the night and they ended up losing all power. That’s when the rioting started. Several of the guards and other employees managed to escape, but Joseph was not one of the lucky ones.”

“I’m sorry about that, Ella,” Chris told her, looking her in the eye solemnly. “Still, I can’t help but wonder why your stepson blames you for what happened to either of his parents.”

“You’ve got me,” she replied with a shrug. “I guess he just needs someone to blame and I’m convenient. Honestly, I had no idea he’d felt this way until I told him the news about his father. He just blew up at me and started making all these accusations. I thought it was just the initial shock and grief talking, so I tried to be patient and reason with him, but . . . well, you see how far that got me. He stayed for a week or so, then one day I woke up and he was gone.”

“But he’s been back since then?”

“Yes, he comes and goes. Never stays too long. Every time he has to make a big scene, accuse me of those terrible things.”

”Who are those other kids he was with?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never seen them before, actually.”

“There are a lot of kids with no families, no homes,” Buck said morosely, “just runnin’ around out there, trying to survive.”

“Too many,” agreed Josiah. “They tend to stick together in groups; safety in numbers.” Ella gave him a dubious look. Josiah shrugged and continued. “Nathan and I were stopped by a few on the way up to Raton Pass a few months back. One of ‘em had gotten himself shot in the arm somehow and they were lookin’ for someone to help. I think they’d been on their own for a long time.”

“Yeah,” Nathan agreed, taking up where Josiah left off. “The kid was lucky that the bullet had just grazed him. It took out a good-sized hunk of flesh, but it could have been a lot worse. All I could do was clean it up and bandage his arm for him.” Nathan shook his head. “There were probably twenty or more other kids . . . all of ‘em scared to death of us, kept their distance like they thought we were gonna grab ‘em or something.”

“All of ‘em were scrawny, raggedy lookin’, all different ages, but most of ‘em no older than Ezra. Hate to think of what happened to cause ‘em to be that scared. We left them a box of supplies, bandages, alcohol, a little food . . . not much. We had more to offer on the way back, but when we came back through they were no where around.” Josiah looked a little frustrated. “Wish we could have done more.”

Nathan patted him on the shoulder. “Like you said, we can only do what we can do.”

Chris, knowing how upset both men had been after the incident, decided to steer the conversation back to where it had been.

“Your stepson said he’d be back,” he asked Ella. “What do think he might do?”

“To be honest, I don’t really know.”

“Do you think he’d actually use that gun he was wavin’ around?”

“Maybe . . . I don’t know. He never liked me, but he was a good kid. An honor student, into sports . . . his father’s pride and joy. I don’t want to think he’d do anything bad, but . . .” she took a deep breath and frowned, “I can’t really say for sure.”

Chris nodded. “Do you have any idea where they might be staying?”

“I’m not sure about that either.” She took a sip of her brandy then stared thoughtfully into the nearly empty glass. “There are a few old line shacks west of here. I don’t know what kind of shape they’re in, but I suppose they could be staying in one of those. I wish I could be more helpful but I’m just really not sure.”

“Well, it can’t hurt for us to hang around for a couple days,” Chris told her. “After that, you know where to find us, if you need us.”

“Thank you, all of you,” Ella said, smiling gratefully at each of the men. Then she yawned, and glanced down at her watch. “Oh my, it’s getting late. The boys are already sleeping in my spare room, but the bunkhouse is clean and warm. There are enough beds for the rest of you, if you don’t mind.”

Josiah and Nathan stood up, both murmuring that they didn’t mind. Ella told Nathan to feel free to take some of the books along with him if he wanted. He thanked her and took two books that looked as if they weighed 100 pounds each, then they thanked her for the hospitality, said their good nights and headed for the door. Chris and Buck waved them on, both men reluctant to leave the boys upstairs alone.

Apparently, Ella already had that worked out. “Chris,” she gave him a sly, seductive smile, “I might have a place upstairs for you.”

Buck laughed, stood up and stretched his back until it made a crackling sound. Then he leaned over and patted Chris on the shoulder, giving him a knowing wink. “I’ll be out in the bunkhouse if ya need me, pard.”

Chris lifted a hand in a half-hearted wave before turning to Ella. “And just where might this place be?”


“A spare bedroom?” he asked with feigned innocence.

“Well, not exactly spare, but it’s a room, and there’s a bed.”

“Oh really?” He lifted an eyebrow.

She stepped up close to him, pressing her body to his and running her hands over his shoulders and down his arms. “Really.” She took a hold of both his hands and pulled him toward the staircase.

“I don’t know, Ella.” Chris hesitated, an image of Sarah suddenly forming in his mind. His body was saying yes, but he hadn’t been with another woman since . . ..

Ella stepped close to him again, looked up at him with glittering eyes. “Come on, Chris.” Then she reached up to run her fingers through his hair before pulling his face toward hers. “It’ll be okay.” She brushed her lips across his and Chris gave in to her kiss. When she pulled back, she licked her lips and arched an eyebrow. “See, I don’t bite.”

Chris had to clear his throat in order to find his voice. “That ain’t what I remember.”

Her smile turned wide and almost predatory. “And, if I remember correctly, you always liked it when I did.” With that she turned and started up the stairs, Chris following without needing any further coaxing.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris was used to waking up early, so he was more surprised to find a working alarm clock than he was to find it read 6:15 am. Beside him, Ella stirred, pulling blankets away from him and clutching them under her cheek. She looked so beautiful lying there, so peaceful and innocent. Looking at her now, you’d never guess what a hellion she really was. That thought caused him to grin. She’d been pretty wild last night, not that he’d expected otherwise. Even during their worst moments, she’d always been able to easily seduce him in the bedroom and into seeing things her way. That had been one of the reasons he’d left without saying goodbye. If he had told her he was leaving, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t have made it any further than the bedroom.

The relationship had started out being fun, the two of them being friends and lovers. Neither one of them had been ready to settle down. Chris had been fine with that and he’d thought Ella was, too. Looking back on it all, it was easier to see the signs, the subtle changes in her behavior, but at the time he’d been clueless. It had come as a complete shock when one day, seemingly out of the blue, she started talking about love and settling down, like they’d already made a commitment. Until then, he hadn’t even given a thought a future with Ella. When he tried to imagine it – if only for her sake -- he just couldn’t see himself settling down yet. There were too many things he wanted to do and see, but mostly, he just couldn’t imagine himself spending the rest of his life with her. He simply wasn’t in love with her. He didn’t even know what it felt like to be in love . . . until he met Sarah.

“It’s too early to have such deep thoughts.”

“Hey, sleepyhead,” he said, smiling at her.

“Is that anyway to say good morning?” Then she rolled on top of him and pressed her lips to his. They stayed that way for long moments, lips, tongues and bare flesh moving together then she pulled back and studied him. “What were you thinking about?”

He grinned up at her then slid his fingers down the satiny skin of her back causing her to shiver. “You. Me. Other things.”

”Hmm . . ..” She raised an eyebrow thoughtfully then rolled her hips, grinding her pelvis against his. “Funny, I’ve been thinking about the same things.”


More wet kisses, then she pulled back again. “Seriously, Chris. I’d like you to think about something . . ..” She trailed off, twisting her mouth as if maybe a little nervous.

Chris couldn’t resist; he kissed her again. “Tell me.”

“Well . . . I was wondering how you felt about maybe staying on here for a while. You could help out with the horses, and I could teach you a thing or two about breeding.”

“I’m sure you could,” he said, unable to hold back his laughter.

She slapped his bare shoulder. “I’m serious. I’ve learned quite a bit about horse breeding over the past few years and I have everything you could ever need here.”

He studied her for a long minute. “It sounds nice, Ella, but I wouldn’t feel right just leaving the Mission, and I couldn’t leave Vin.”

“Well,” she licked her lips, giving him a hungry look. “Maybe you could work something out?” she whispered, tracing the tip of her tongue along the shell of his ear. “It’s not that far away. You could stay here with me for a while and still commute back and forth.” Each warm puff of breath against his ear made it more difficult for him to think clearly. “Then you’d be able to keep up with whatever obligations you have there. I have plenty of fuel. As for the boy, well, if it would make you happy he’s welcome to stay here, too.” She moved on from his ear, began working her way down his neck.

Chris’ eyebrows drew together and he chewed his lip, trying to force his brain to work properly. It sounded nice, very nice. He wouldn’t be making a commitment, just staying on for a while. It also reminded him a lot of the way they’d started out all those years ago, just fun. No commitments.

“You don’t have to answer now,” she said, tracing a wet finger over his chest, “but promise me that you’ll think about it?”

He looked into her eyes, trying to read her thoughts and intentions. She seemed so different from the Ella he remembered; yet she was the same in all the ways that mattered. Still, was he crazy to even consider her offer? “All right,” he agreed, thinking what could it hurt to think about it? Ella squealed with delight, then swooped down and took his mouth passionately, her body moving over his, her skin pressing against his in all the right places making it impossible for him to think about anything else.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Buck sat in the dining room, JD on his lap and JD’s coon hat occupying the chair to his left. On his right, Vin had his chair pulled up as close to Buck’s as he could get it. For some reason Vin had left his hat at home, but as long as the boy wasn’t angry with him he wasn’t going to question it. He couldn’t believe Chris was still sleeping. Chris always woke up before him, but then just because Chris was still in bed didn’t necessarily mean he was sleeping.

Vin kept looking anxiously toward the staircase, but he hadn’t asked about Chris yet. Buck wasn’t about to offer any information either. He knew that Vin probably had a vague notion of what was going on in Ella Gaines’ bedroom. Unfortunately, he realized, any knowledge Vin might have on that topic was likely to be inaccurate, tainted by things his tender eyes had witnessed during his time in Wickes’ camp. Buck wondered if Chris had ever given that much thought and doubted that he probably had. It wasn’t something Buck had even thought about before today. But he figured it was Chris’ place, not his, to explain or justify anything of that nature to Vin.

“You’re looking lovely this morning, darlin’,” he said to the tall, slender beauty that sat across the table from him.

She gave him a bored look, flipped a light brown lock of hair over her shoulder and continued sipping her cappuccino, watching with half-interested disdain as JD picked marshmallow bits out of his cereal and slurped them noisily into his mouth. The woman beside her perked up and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin then beamed a smile at him. “Did you sleep well, Mr. Wilmington?”

“I sure did, ma’am,” he replied with a wink. “And it’s Buck . . . Mr. Wilmington makes me sound old.”

She giggled at that, then she said, “I’m Hilda, and this is my sister Jeanie. We’re Ella’s nieces, well . . . actually, her late husband’s nieces.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Your two boys are just adorable!” she gushed. “Absolute dolls!”

JD grinned at the woman across the table, always happy to be fussed over. Vin scowled, looking down at his lap like he’d just been insulted – which in his mind, he probably had been. Buck couldn’t help but chuckle and nudge the kid, which only made the scowl deepen.

“I’m so sorry . . .” the woman – Hilda – said, her expression turning solemn as she reached across the table to Vin. “What I meant to say was you two boys are very handsome.” Apparently she knew a little something about a young boy’s ego, because Vin’s scowl changed into a bashful smile and his cheeks flushed pink. Then she looked up at Buck with a twinkle in her eye and said, “And you’re very handsome, too.”

Buck almost choked on his coffee, but the statement brought an impish grin to Vin’s face, so he figured it was worth it. “Why thank you, darlin’.” He nudged Vin again, feigning a stern look, but happy to see him feeling better this morning. “What are you laughin’ at?”

Jeanie let out a long sigh and sat back in her chair and began picking at her long fingernails, huffing and buffing them, then holding them out for scrutiny like they were the most interesting things ever.

The rest of breakfast was eaten in relative silence with the exception of JD’s slurpage. They’d just about finished up when Chris and Ella came down the stairs hand in hand. Buck had expected Vin to be a little bit happy to see Chris, but instead he looked away, sidling up even closer to Buck.

Buck wondered what was going through Vin’s mind, but decided that now wasn’t the time to address any issues the kid might be having. Instead, he put a big hand on his back and gave him a reassuring pat. Vin looked up at him, his expression grateful.

Chris and Ella sat down beside each other at the table, still holding hands, gazing at each other with smoldering eyes. Buck cleared his throat loudly, lifting an eyebrow and nodding surreptitiously toward the boys when he got Chris’ attention. Something was definitely wrong in the universe, he thought, if Buck Wilmington was having to remind Chris Larabee to behave in front of the children. He was sure it was supposed to be the other way around.

Chris looked somewhat apologetic and gave Buck and then Vin a smile. “How you feeling, cowboy?” he asked, pressing the back of his fingers to Vin’s cheek. “No fever.”

Vin gave him a baleful look that rivaled any of Chris’ then turned his attention on stirring what was left of his cereal. Chris raised a questioning eyebrow and Buck just shrugged.

“What are you boys eating there?” he tried again, looking interestedly into their bowls.

“Cereal!” JD happily told him. “Look! It’s got candy in it!” He scooped a sticky, green marshmallow bit out of the bowl and held it out for Chris to inspect.

Chris looked impressed. “So it does. What do you think, Vin?”

Vin let out long suffering sigh, but was saved from having to answer the lame question by a disgruntled voice from behind them. “How is a man supposed to get any sleep around here?”

“Well, good morning Ezra,” Chris greeted, too cheerily. “Or should I say good afternoon?”

“It is hardly afternoon, Mr. Larabee,” he replied drolly. He glanced around the table, his eyes brightening when he noticed what the other two boys were eating. “Oohh, are those Lucky Charms?”

Buck gestured to the chair beside him. “Have a seat, pard. Man should always start the day with a bowl of Lucky Charms.” JD nodded enthusiastically.

“I haven’t had these since I was a kid.” Ezra sat down and emptied two miniature boxes of cereal into his bowl, ignoring the quiet chuckles around the table.

“Ella’s been telling me that the ranch is almost totally run on solar energy,” Chris said to Buck. “That’s why we were so late to breakfast.

Buck gave him a look that said, ‘Riiiiight’, and when he glanced at Vin, he saw the same look mirrored there.

“We’re hoping to be running entirely on solar power in the near future,” she informed, “but right now we still use gas generators, also.”

“Josiah has a couple of solar panels stored away, but we haven’t been able to figure out how to set them up. I don’t think we have all the parts we need.”

“My foreman Rafe could probably take a look for you,” Ella offered. “He set ours up. I’m sure he could get yours set up, too.”

“That’d be great. We’d really appreciate it.” Chris nodded to Buck. “Where are Josiah and Nathan?”

“Just so happens they’re helping the foreman fix one of the panels over the barn. They already had breakfast.” Buck noticed that JD had eaten all of the marshmallow bits and most of his cereal, too. Vin didn’t look too interested in finishing his bowl so he clapped his hands together. “What d’ya say we go outside and take a look at them horses?”

Vin smiled and JD squealed, “Yay!”

“You comin’, Ez?” he asked, ruffling the boy’s hair just to tick him off.

Ezra shot him a glare. “I’d be happy to join you, after I’ve finished my breakfast.”

“Vin,” Chris spoke up, “don’t forget to put your coat on, buddy.”

Vin glanced briefly at Chris then nodded.

“And zip it up or Nathan will get you.”


“Anyone else comin’?” Buck asked specifically to the beauty across the table. He was determined to somehow get her to smile.

“I’ll join you,” Hilda said, pushing away from the table. “Let me just clear some of these dishes away first.”

“How ‘bout you, angel?”

Chris coughed and Jeanie looked up at him like he was from another planet. “Ah, no thanks.”

“Okay,” Buck resigned. He’d have to work a little harder on this one; he refused to believe that anyone could be totally immune to his charm. “Let’s help Miss Hilda clear the table.”

Vin cast a quick glance at Chris then looked away, climbed out of his chair, picked up his bowl and followed the others out of the room.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

As Josiah and Nathan waited for the foreman to return from the tool shed, both leaning against the corral fence. Josiah turned his head to look at the doctor, a serious yet calm expression on his weathered face. “So, brother Nate, you finding anything helpful in those books you’ve been lookin’ at?”

With a look of disgust Nathan shook his head. “I wish I was.”

Josiah nodded, letting out a long sigh. “Just goes to show you, you can’t always find the answers you’re looking for in a book, sometimes you have to search elsewhere.”

“Yeah?” The doctor rolled his eyes, used to hearing the preacher philosophize. “Like where-elsewhere?”

“Your heart, your head . . .” he replied, touching the side of Nathan’s head. “How do you think the authors of those books found their answers?”

Nathan nodded, resigned. He knew where the big preacher was going, but it was all just so frustrating to him.

“It wasn’t all that long ago when doctors thought patients got sick from demons or bad air.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You’ve got a lot more going for you than they did.”

“It’s just that whatever he has could be something as simple as a cold . . .or it could be something serious. I just can’t tell without the proper diagnostic equipment.”

Josiah nodded consolingly, then put a hand on his shoulder, and looked him in the eye. “And if it is something serious?”

“Well, if I knew,” he began indignantly, only to halt his reply and turn away from the preacher. If he knew – what? What could he do? It wasn’t like there was a hospital nearby. There weren’t any hospitals . . . anywhere. If Vin or any of them got too sick, came down with some disease that was beyond his ability to treat -- well, there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.

“Sometimes we don’t have any say in these matters.” Josiah shrugged and looked out at the horses. “No matter how much technology, or how many resources we have at our fingertips, sometimes it just isn’t up to us.”

Nathan let out a huff of laughter, knowing his friend was right, but still feeling frustrated. “Tell me about it.”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Buck and the boys headed out to the corral at the same time Josiah, Nathan and a dark-haired, Hispanic looking man, dressed from hat to boots in black, were climbing down a tall ladder that led to the roof of the barn.

”Hi, J’siah,” JD screeched loud enough to make Buck wince. “Hi, Doc Nate!”

The three men brushed their hands off and headed over to the corral. “Buck, boys, this is Rafe Cordova,” Josiah introduced. “He’s the foreman around here.”

“Raphael Carlos Antonio Cordova de Martinez,” the man said with a grin and a slight bow, then he gripped Buck’s hand in a firm handshake -- something Buck always admired. His mouth curved in amusement when the two small boys held their hands out, but he shook each of them as sincerely as he had Buck’s.

“Rafe offered to pay us a visit sometime and help us set up some solar panels,” Nathan told him, then he paused to study Vin for a moment before reaching out to tug the zipper of the boy’s coat up another half inch. He put his hands on his hips. “You best keep that zipped up all the way, Vin.”

“He will, Doc,” Buck grinned.

“Vin!” Ezra called from the porch of the house. “Come here!”

Vin looked up at Buck who gave him a nod, then he headed across the yard toward his friend.

“Vin oughtta be inside, anyway,” Nathan said, his eyes narrowing a little. “I just hope they don’t get up to anything in there.”

“Ah, they’re good kids, Nate.” Buck waved off the concern. “They’ll behave.”

JD was standing at the corral, more interested in watching the horses than he was in being abandoned by Vin and Ezra. “Buck! Buck!” JD shouted, pulling on the man’s belt loop, tugging him closer to the corral. “I wanna ride that one!” he pointed to a big black feisty looking beast with a white blaze down its nose.

Rafe laughed. “Ah, he is impressive, but I do not think he is the one for you, chiquito.”

“But, I like that one.”

“I know of another one that is more your size,” he gestured toward the barn.

JD held onto the corral, stubbornly raising his chin. “But, I like that one!”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Vin trotted up the stairs to the porch where Ezra was waiting. He’d really missed having Ezra around. JD was fun and he was glad that they’d found him and brought him to the Mission, but JD was just a kid.

“Whatchya doin’?” he asked the older boy.

“Well,” he replied, conspiratorially, “I was thinking of doing a little explorin’. Would you care to join me?”

Vin nodded enthusiastically. He didn’t know what Ezra wanted to explore, but exploring anything was always fun, and Ezra could make almost anything an adventure.

“Remember the door at the end of the hall upstairs?” Ezra asked him quietly, ushering him toward the door.

“Yeah.” They’d looked around yesterday afternoon, poking their noses into each of the rooms on the second floor. The room at the end of the hall had been locked though, so they hadn’t been able to peak inside that door.

“Well, I figured out how to pick the lock,” he waggled his eyebrows, a big smile on his face.

Vin’s eyes went wide. “Ya picked the lock?” Oh boy. Ezra always had good ideas, but some of them were a little bit dangerous and some of them led to trouble. The pumping of adrenaline made the decision for him, as it usually did in these cases. “Okay, but we gotta be careful! If we get caught . . ..”

“I assure you I have no intention of being caught.”

Vin rolled his eyes. Ezra usually said that right up to the moment they were caught. “What about Chris and Ms. Gaines?”

“What about them? They’ve retired to the master suite, again.” Ezra shuddered. He couldn’t understand what Mr. Larabee saw in the woman. In Ezra’s opinion she was just plain scary.

“The master suite?”

“The bedroom.” He gave Vin what he hoped was a meaningful look, but children could be so . . ..

Vin scrunched his nose up. He knew what Ezra meant. When he’d been in Wickes’ camp, he’d seen lots of men haul women off to their rooms. Him and Ezra had spied on them sometimes and Vin didn’t want to think that Chris might be doing that with Ms. Gaines, or anyone else. Gross.

“The two of them are quite noisy,” Ezra told him as they slipped into the house. “I doubt they’ll hear a thing.”

Vin didn’t even want to think about that. He took his coat off and hung it next to Chris’ jacket on the coat tree by the door.

They quietly went up the stairs, practically tiptoeing past the ‘master suite’. At the end of the hall, they stopped in front of the locked door. Ezra pulled a fingernail file out of his pocket and held it out for Vin to see, then he slid it into the lock, jiggled it a few times, twisted the knob and the door opened. “Voila!” he whispered with a devilish grin.

Vin just shook his head; amazed again that Ezra seemed to know how to do everything.

Inside the door, there was another set of steps, and another door at the top. Carefully, they closed the door behind them and locked it again. Then they quietly ascended the steps, both feeling a jittery rush of anticipation. The next door was locked as well, but no more difficult to open than the last one had been. Vin felt like his skin was tingling, he could hear his heart thumping loudly in his ears. He loved adventures.

It was mostly dark up there, and they could find no light switch on the wall, but after his eyes adjusted Vin spotted a long string hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room. Cautiously he tiptoed over to it, gave it a yank and suddenly the room was dimly illuminated in an eerie, yellowish glow.

The room they were standing in was fairly big, but not as big as they’d expected it to be. There were tall panels on each side of the walls that probably led to other storage rooms. Along the back wall there was a long table that looked sort of like a workbench. On closer inspection Ezra thought perhaps it was an altar. There was a carpeted aisle down the middle of the room with benches on each side. There was also a small, dark stained glass window over the altar near the peak of the wall.

Vin shivered. He didn’t believe in ghosts, but this place definitely felt haunted and the stale air he was breathing made it even smell haunted, in his opinion. There was an altar, just like in Josiah’s mission, but this one was cluttered with all sorts of stuff. Vin wanted to leave, he didn’t like the feeling he was getting just being there, but Ezra was already walking toward the altar. “Ez,” he whispered. “I don’t think we should be up here.”

Ezra paused half way down the aisle and glanced over his shoulder, lifting an eyebrow. “Of course we shouldn’t be here, that’s the fun part. You’re not gonna chicken out, are you, Vin?”

Vin scowled at him. “No. I just don’t like it up here.” He wasn’t no chicken.

“Well, just hold on a minute. I want to look around,” Ezra told him. “You can stay there if you wish.”

No way was he stayin’ there. He hurried as fast, and as quietly, as he could to the older boy’s side and gave him a tremulous smile.

Ezra smirked at him. “There are no such things as ghosts, Vin.”

“I know that,” Vin snapped at him, reminding himself that wiping the smirk off Ezra’s face right here and now, might end up making too much noise.

As they got closer to the altar, the air seemed to grow heavy with a foul smell that Vin found oddly familiar. He’d smelled it before, somewhere . . . and then he remembered that his momma used to have a box stored in their attic. The box had contained a few old keepsakes – things she’d been able to save after her childhood home had burned down. Even though the objects were whole, they were ruined nonetheless by the stubborn awful odor of soot and ashes.

With a gasp, Ezra picked up a burnished frame, handling it carefully. “Oh my . . ..”

Vin moved closer to get a look. Ezra handed him the frame which held a picture of a younger Chris, looking very happy, sitting in a porch swing with a woman next to him and a child in between. Chris’ face was perfectly intact, but the images of the woman and child had been burned, so they were almost completely unrecognizable. Vin had seen other pictures of Chris’ family though, and he knew that’s who this was. As he set the frame back on the altar, he couldn’t figure out why Ms. Gaines would have such an awful picture.

Ezra now held a locket, but Vin had spotted Chris’ bandanna, the one he’d had in his pocket just yesterday. “This is Chris,” he said as he inspected it. It was mostly black with white and gray swirly designs -- Vin had never seen another one like it. He shoved it into the pocket of his jeans, sure that Chris would want it back.

There were other things placed there, some of them obviously salvaged from a fire, while some looked practically new. He found a watch in perfect condition, on the back was an inscription ‘To Chris - With all my love—‘ the name was scratched over. An old, soot covered harmonica also with an inscription – Adam Larabee - March 13,1945. Vin stuck that in his pocket, too, then looked around to see what else she had hidden away up here for whatever reason.

“She’s crazy,” Ezra whispered, setting down another framed photograph that looked like it had been a wedding picture. “She must have dug through the ashes of his house to get some of this stuff. What kind of a person does that?”

Vin felt confused. He didn’t know whether to be frightened, or angry, or what. In all the pictures of Chris’ family, his wife and little boy had been scratched or burned away; and all of the objects that had once had names on them, like the watch, and the locket, only one name remained legible.

His first instinct was to run downstairs and tell Chris, to bring him up here and show him, but he was also afraid that seeing all of this would only hurt him and Chris was the last person Vin would ever want to hurt.


Ezra already knew what Vin was going to say. “Yeah, let’s get out of here.”

They hurried out of the room, making sure the light was turned off and the door was locked. When they got to the bottom of the stairs, Ezra quietly opened the door to peer out into the hallway. The coast was clear, and both boys hurried to the guest room they’d slept in the night before.

Vin was stunned by what he had seen, and by the way Ezra looked, he was feeling the same way. “What should we do?” he asked, hoping the older boy would have a solution.

“I don’t know.” He sat on his bed, staring at the wall for a long time before speaking again. “Perhaps we should keep this to ourselves?“

Vin had taken the harmonica out and was trying to polish away the soot. “But, don’t you think Chris should know about that stuff? It’s his stuff.”

“Maybe, but not right now, Vin. Hopefully in a day or two we’ll be out of here, away from this place and then we can decide whether or not to tell him.”

“Maybe we could tell Josiah first or maybe Buck?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea.” Ezra nodded, then held up a finger. “But not yet. Let’s wait until tomorrow.”

Vin let out a long breath, but nodded in agreement. Then another thought struck him. “Are you comin’ home with us, Ez?”

“Hopefully,” he answered with a grin. “The way I see it, they’ll need to take me along, for security. Unless of course my mother shows up beforehand.”


“Yeah, security on the good reverend’s classic pick-up truck.”

“Ohhh . . ..” He still didn’t get it.

“If they take me back with them, Maude is sure to show up looking for me . . . someday.” Ezra lay back, folding his arms behind his head as a pillow.

Vin sprawled on his stomach across the other bed. “I hope she don’t show up for a long time.”

Ezra could only smile at that, hoping he didn’t convey the bittersweet emotion he felt.

Just as they’d both relaxed enough to almost doze off they heard the loud roaring sound of engines revving up outside. A few moments later, the sound quieted down and Ezra and Vin scrambled off their beds, hurrying to the window to see what was going on.

From what Vin could see, there were two truckloads of teenagers. Apparently Ella’s stepson was back.

Ezra and Vin looked at each other, wondering what, if anything, they should do. They heard footsteps outside their door, rushing down the hall and continuing down the stairs. Vin knew it was Chris. Without giving it much thought, he hurried from the room, with Ezra following close behind him.