by Estee

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Chris stepped out onto the porch, trying to keep Ella safely behind him. The teenagers were armed to the teeth and whether they intended to shoot anyone or not, it was a dangerous situation that could turn deadly in the blink of an eye.

Across the yard, Buck, Nate and Josiah stood just outside the barn door; a dark-haired man, dressed in black was standing beside them.

“We don’t want anyone to get hurt. We just want you off this property!” The boy, Jake, ordered, a sawed off shotgun at his side. “One way or another!”

Chris couldn’t help but wonder where the kid had managed to get his hands on a sawed-off shotgun, or where any of them were getting the weapons they had, for that matter. He had his own revolver out and he could see the men at the barn were armed as well. “We’re not leaving, son,” he told the kid. “This ranch belongs to Ella as much or more than it does you. If you can’t live here peacefully, then that’s your problem. Not hers.”

One of the teenagers, a tall, gangly, red-headed boy with freckles, raised a high-powered weapon and aimed it at Chris, but Jake waved him back, muttering something that Chris couldn’t hear.

“We’re not here for a showdown,” the kid said.

“Looks like a showdown to me,” Chris replied, coolly.

“I’d rather nobody gets hurt, but that’s up to you.”

Chris watched as Jake nodded to the red-haired boy who raised his assault rifle and fired into second story of the house. Chris raised his own weapon, ready to fire, but Buck beat him to it. From his position at the barn, Buck shot the kid’s right hand causing him to drop the weapon.

Jake and the others turned and aimed their weapons toward Buck. Buck was ready to fire again when the man in black stepped up behind him. Chris’ blood ran cold when he noticed the man had a weapon pointed at Buck and another pointed in the general direction of the boys. “Put down your weapons,” the man ordered, his voice and eyes steely. “All of you. Now!”

Ella cursed the man – ‘Raphael’ -- under her breath, as Buck, and everyone in the yard lowered their weapons.

The kid Buck had shot was looking like he was in shock, cradling his bloody hand to his chest, his face twisted in pain.

Jake handed his weapon to another of the boys, took off his flannel shirt, and wrapped it around the boy’s hand. He turned back to Chris, still unarmed but looking angry and maybe a little uncertain. “We said we didn’t want anyone to get hurt!”

“Yeah, well there’s people in that house,” Chris said, angrily. “Maybe you shoulda thought about that before you went blowin’ holes in it.”

The fool kid actually looked startled, like he hadn’t thought about that.

Jake and a few of the others gathered in a huddle. Chris couldn’t make out what they were saying, but after a couple of minutes one of the boys broke away and began waving the others toward their vehicles. Jake turned back to Chris again and walked a few steps closer to the porch. “No matter what you think, this is my ranch . . . my great grandpa built it himself. I lived here my whole life, just like my dad did, and his dad,” the boy paused, obviously fighting his emotions. “But, I don’t want nobody getting killed. Cause I ain’t like you, Ella.” Then he turned away, pausing to look at Raphael. The foreman nodded at the boy, his expression grim, yet at the same time he lifted his chin, looking proud. Jake nodded in return, then allowed himself to be guided back to the trucks.

Chris was feeling a little numb and uncertain over the whole situation. He certainly hadn’t expected the boy to retreat the way he had. He wished he could think of some way to fix things for both parties, but, he reminded himself, the boy’s hostility toward Ella made that all but impossible.

As soon as the trucks had peeled out, kicking up grass and dirt and dust, Ella was stomping down the stairs toward the barn. “Raphael! What the hell was that all about?” she demanded, getting right in the man’s face.

Raphael had his weapon put away, but he held his head high, prepared to face the consequences of his action. “Joe Petrie was a good, honorable man . . . I owe him my life. His son, Jake, is my godson,” he said frowning, like he couldn’t believe that he had to explain this fact. “He’s just a boy. I could not let anyone kill him.”

Chris was somewhat surprised at Ella’s anger toward the foreman. There was anguish in the man’s eyes as well as his voice. Whoever he was, apparently he’d been here long enough to remember the family that used to be. And he had succeeded in stopping the gunplay. Chris didn’t like thinking about the different ways things could have turned out, but he did understand the man’s need to step in.

“Well, I want you to pack up your things and be out of here by morning,” Ella demanded, apparently unforgiving and unable to understand the man’s sense of duty. “You can take a week’s worth of supplies, and Chavez and Bonita with you, consider yourself paid in full for your services.” With that she turned and stalked back toward the house, leaving them all staring with open mouths.

JD darted out of the barn at the same time Vin and Ezra passed Ella in the yard. JD shouted for Buck, then squealed as Buck lifted and tossed him in the air before bringing him down into a hug,

Vin gave Ella a wide berth, but once he was past her he took off in a dash, flinging himself at Chris and wrapping his arms tightly around him.

Chris knelt down and hugged the boy, patting his back and murmuring reassurances. “You both okay?” he asked Ezra, since Vin’s face was buried in his shoulder.

“Yes, we’re unharmed,” Ezra answered. “We heard a gunshot at the same time the wall exploded. It . . .” he arched an eyebrow, “scared the shit out of us.”

Vin giggled a little hysterically, the sound muffled into his shoulder. Chris hugged him more tightly and stood up with Vin clinging tenaciously to him.

“Well, amigos,” Raphael said a little wistfully. “It was nice meeting you, but I must be packing my belongings now. I apologize, Senor Buck,” looking somewhat uncomfortable, he extended his hand to Buck in apology, “for holding a gun on you.”

“I understand, Rafe; you did what you felt you had to,” Buck said solemnly, then a spark of mischief lit his eyes. “Just don’t do it again.”

“Where will you go?” Josiah asked him.

“I do not know for sure.” He pulled off his hat and ran a hand through his hair then shrugged. “Perhaps I will just ride out and let Chavez and Bonita choose which way to go.”

“You’re more than welcome to join us at the Mission,” Josiah offered sincerely. “We could always use a good man like you around there.”

“Gracias,” he replied with a grateful smile. “Who knows? Perhaps they will decide to wander that way.”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris couldn’t figure out why Ella had felt it necessary to dismiss Raphael. She didn’t seem angry over the incident, instead she seemed to have totally put it out of her mind. When he had tried to question her over it she’d evaded answering him, and instead playfully coaxed him up to the bedroom for some ‘afternoon delight’.

At dinner that evening, Josiah raised the subject of heading back to the Mission. Chris told him he’d like them to wait a day or so longer, just incase Ella’s stepson was trying to pull one over on them or happened to change his mind. “It seemed a little too easy.” It was also a lot easier to be suspicious of the kid’s motives than it was to accept that they’d just battled against a good, decent kid who’d already been through hell.

“I doubt they’ll come back again,” Ella told them. “Now that they know you have real bullets in your guns, they’re probably going to be a little more reluctant to come looking for trouble.”

He wasn’t sure if there was any good way to broach the next topic, so he decided to just come right out with what he wanted to say. “Well, I thought you all should know that I’m planning to stay on here for a while,” Chris announced looking a little sheepish. In the chair beside him, Ella looked like she just might burst with joy.

The others around the table stared at him for a few moments, looking stunned, then Buck shook his head and said, “Okay then . . ..” like he didn’t know what else to say.

Vin kept his eyes focused on his plate of food, which he’d eaten very little of. “What d’ya say, cowboy? You wanna hang around here with me for a while, maybe help me work with the horses?”

“I do! I do!” shouted JD, clapping his hands excitedly.

Vin’s head shot up; he looked from Chris to JD, then back again, his eyes wide. Chris wasn’t prepared for the answer Vin gave.

“No, JD, we ain’t stayin’.” JD looked confused, then sad, but Vin just shook his head firmly, then he looked Chris in the eye. “I wanna go home.”

Chris opened his mouth to reply, but found his voice refused to work. His eyebrows drew together in a pained expression, his gaze coming to rest on Vin. He couldn’t believe Vin didn’t want to stay with him. It wasn’t too hard to figure out he felt uncomfortable around Ella, but Chris thought maybe he just needed to get to know her a little more. He hadn’t really even spoken with her, because every time she spoke to him, he clammed up, or took off. Chris had thought it was just his shy nature, but he hadn’t thought it was anything more. “You sure, buddy?” he tried again.

But Vin nodded, looking a little like a deer caught in headlights. “I wanna go home,” he repeated in what was barely a whisper.

Chris looked away, cleared his throat and finally managed to say, “Okay,” as casually as he could. He glanced over to Buck who was watching the scene and looking a lot less surprised than Chris felt.

Chris couldn’t imagine not having Vin around. He thought back over the past couple days and realized he hadn’t spent much time at all with Vin. He hadn’t exactly neglected the boy, but now that he thought about it, he’d spent more time in the bedroom with Ella and less time with Vin than he was comfortable admitting to. Thankfully Buck had been around to keep an eye on him, although he hadn’t even bothered to ask. He’d just taken it for granted that Buck would look out for Vin, something he’d have never done if Vin were Adam.

“I’m tired,” Vin spoke up, distracting Chris from his introspection for a moment. “Can I go to bed?” Chris felt a stab in his heart when he saw that Vin was asking Buck, not him.

Buck frowned and reached over to place his big palm on Vin’s forehead. “You feelin’ all right, partner? It’s still pretty early and you didn’t eat much dinner.”

Vin nodded. “I ain’t hungry. Reckon I’m just kinda tired,” he replied, in the soft, lazy drawl that Chris had come to love hearing over the past weeks.

“All right, then,” Buck answered. “You go on, I’ll be up to check on ya in a little bit.”

Vin scooted out of his chair and hurried out of the room without a backwards glance. Chris watched him go, then folded his napkin and set it on his plate, his appetite gone now, too. “I’m gonna go up and talk to him,” he said to nobody in particular.

Buck held up a hand, making Chris wonder ridiculously if Buck thought he was asking permission. He’d meant it as a statement, not a request, but he wasn’t about to clarify that to anyone. Somehow he managed to hold his temper, knowing that the sting of Vin’s declaration was making him feel defensive -- clouding his judgment.

“Chris, why don’t you let him get a good nights sleep and the two of you can talk about it in the morning?” Buck said.

“Yeah, you gave him sort of a shock, Chris,” Josiah added. “Maybe you should let him think things over for a while.”

Chris wanted to go to Vin, but he took a moment to contemplate his friends’ advice. Yeah, he had popped that out of nowhere, not to mention that he’d put Vin on the spot. He should have talked to him in private first, but for some reason it never entered his mind that Vin might be opposed to staying. With a reluctant nod, he sat back down at the table feeling a little foolish. He glanced at Ella noticing she looked a little uncomfortable, too. He doubted she was upset for the same reason he was, however. More than likely she was worried that Vin’s refusal to stay might cause Chris to change his mind.

“Would you like another slice of cheesecake?” Hilda asked Buck, trying to break the tension that had settled around the table. “I made it myself.”

“Well, thank you, darlin’,” Buck replied with a wink.

“Me, too!” said JD waving his fork in the air.

“Well, of course, sugarplum.” Hilda slid a piece of cheesecake onto both of their plates and glanced questioningly to Ezra.

“No, thank you,” he said, holding up a hand and looking a bit sickly. “If I eat one more bite, I’m going to explode.”

“So, Mr. Wilmington,” Hilda’s sister Jeanie leaned forward, seeming to notice him for the first time. “Is it true that you used to be a detective?”

“Why, yes I did,” Buck answered with a big grin on his face. “Matter of fact, I was captain of the Homicide Division.”

“Really?” Jeanie’s eyes grew wide with interest. “I’ll bet you could tell us some stories.”

Buck beamed at her, his dessert forgotten. “I sure could, I remember one time . . .”

Chris and Ella exchanged glance and as one, they stood up. “We’re going to turn in,” Chris told them. “See you all in the morning.” The others around the table acknowledged their departure with the exception of Buck.

“. . . we got a call to the most gruesome scene . . . “

“Look, Buck!” JD suddenly shouted.

Chris glanced over his shoulder. The boy was holding something between bloody fingers -- waving it in Buck’s face. It took a moment for Chris to realize it had to be the loose tooth.

“Good God, JD!” Buck scooted back in his chair, holding a hand up to ward the boy off. “Get that thing outta my face!”

JD only laughed and leaned even closer to the big man.

So much for Buck’s story, Chris thought, grinning as they went up the stairs.

Once they were up in the bedroom, Ella looked at him a little uncertainly then stepped up close and asked in a low voice, “So, if Vin goes back with the others, will that change your mind about staying here?”

Chris smiled as she started undoing the buttons of his shirt. “I’m hoping to change his mind.”

“He doesn’t like me very much,” she said, her expression pouty.

“He’s just a little shy.”

”What about JD?” she asked, suddenly brightening as she slid his shirt off of his shoulders. “He likes me and he wants to stay.”

“Yeah,” Chris chuckled, suddenly having problems staying focused on the conversation. “That would probably last right up until he saw Buck get into the truck to head home.”

She gave him another pouty look. “Really?” Then leaned forward and put her lips to better use.

“H-He’s pretty attached to the big guy,” Chris managed to say, and then he pressed her closer and completely forgot that they were talking about anything at all.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Vin woke early in the morning, feeling a lot better than he had the night before. He’d fallen asleep almost the moment his head had hit the pillow, even though when he’d claimed to be tired at dinner, it had just been an excuse to get away; he hadn’t really felt that tired.

Glancing over at Ezra’s bed, he wasn’t surprised to find him still asleep. Ezra would sleep ‘til noon if they let him. JD wasn’t on the cot they’d set up, so Vin figured he must have slept out in the bunkhouse with Buck.

He’d fallen asleep thinking about what Chris had told them at dinner, and still couldn’t believe Chris was fixin’ to stay here. He also couldn’t believe that Chris had asked him if he wanted to stay, right in front of everyone. He knew he’d hurt Chris when he’d said he wanted to go home, and he hated to think about the way Chris had looked afterwards, but the truth was, he hated it here and he wished he’d never come here.

Ms. Gaines had lots of nice things like horses and animals and a TV that played videos and games. She had lots of things they didn’t have at home – things that seemed real important to Chris and Ezra and everyone else, even JD. Maybe he was being dumb, but he didn’t think that having more stuff could make you more happy. Ms. Gaines acted happy, but Vin didn’t think she really was. And he could tell that she didn’t like him much. She seemed to like JD a lot though, and he liked her too. Vin wasn’t too thrilled about that, but as long as she was nice to JD, he reckoned it was okay if JD liked her.

He just wanted to go home and have everything back the way it was before they came here.

Later, he’d have to have a talk with JD to let him know he wasn’t mad, and to try and explain why he didn’t want to stay. There are more important things than videos and ice cream. Besides, Mrs. Potter could make ice cream that tasted lots better than Ms. Gaines’ ice cream. When they got back, he’d have to ask her if maybe she’d make them some and then maybe JD wouldn’t be so sad about having to leave.

He wished he could think of some way to get Chris to come home, too, but he wasn’t sure how to go about that. Should he tell him about what they found upstairs? Vin wanted to tell him, but he was starting to think more and more that it wouldn’t be such a good idea. Chris wasn’t acting like his normal self, but he seemed real happy here. He seemed happier here with Ms. Gaines than Vin had ever seen him, which is why Vin couldn’t figure out why Chris had even asked him to stay here. He’d sure made it clear enough that he had better things to do now than hang around with Vin.

Vin was still pondering these things when he was suddenly hit in the face with a thick, fluffy pillow.

“You’re gonna regret that, Ez.”

“Oohh, I’m so frightened,” Ezra replied in a warbling voice, right before the pillow was returned, followed immediately by another. Ezra rubbed his nose, grabbed both pillows and glared at the younger boy. “Surely you know, sir,“ he said in a deeper than usual southern accent, “this means war!”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Ella had left the ranch sometime before lunch, telling Chris she needed to speak with a neighbor. Chris had offered to go with her but she’d encouraged him to stay and talk to Vin, then grabbed an automatic weapon and assured him she’d be just fine.

Chris had spent a good portion of the morning working out an entire speech in his head, not that it had done him any good. So far, Vin had made sure to stay just out of his reach all day.

By the time Ella returned he still hadn’t spoken with the boy. Feeling more than a little frustrated, he decided to spend some time working with the horses; at least he could manage to catch them. He’d just have to wait until bedtime to try and talk to Vin and if he still wasn’t able to get his attention, well, maybe he’d have to try using a lasso.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Vin sat for a long time on the steps of the big porch, both watching Chris and avoiding Ella at the same time. He was really impressed with the easy way Chris handled the horses, especially the big, ornery black one. After a while, he made his way slowly down to the corral and climbed up on the fence so he could get a better view.

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Buck, JD riding on his shoulders, and the two sisters following at Buck’s heels. At breakfast, he’d thought for sure he was gonna barf. Both sisters sat close to Buck as they could, both making a big fuss over him. Buck had loved every minute of it – JD, too, since the bigger one was making just as much of a fuss over him.

Vin didn’t think much of the skinny sister, but he liked Hilda. She was really nice. The other sister was pretty on the outside, but he thought Hilda was pretty outside and inside where it mattered, too.

“You wanna ride, cowboy?” Chris asked, reining the horse up alongside the fence.

Vin smiled, eagerly climbing to the top of the fence and allowing Chris to hoist him into the saddle. “He’s comin’ along real good, huh?” Vin said, glancing at Chris over his shoulder.

“He sure is,” Chris replied, handing him the reins, seeming happy to be with him. For a moment, Vin wondered if he’d changed his mind about staying. “I figure if I keep working him like this, in a few more weeks, he’ll be gentle as Mary.” Vin gave him a look and Chris laughed. “Okay, maybe not, but he’ll be a lot better behaved.”

“You’re really gonna stay here?” Vin couldn’t hide his disappointment.

“Yeah, for a while.” Chris wrapped his arm more tightly around Vin’s waist. “Wish you’d stay, too.”

“How long are ya fixin’ to stay?”

“I don’t know for sure.” Vin thought he sounded a bit sad. “I guess long enough to make sure her stepson isn’t going to cause anymore trouble for her.” Vin knew he should probably care more about that, but all he cared about was the possibility of losing Chris. “After that . . . well, I’ll just have to see how things are working out.”

“You ain’t comin’ back are ya?” He knew it then. Chris didn’t plan on ever coming back. He said for a while because he didn’t want to admit he was leaving for good.

“I didn’t say that.”

”I want to get down now.” Vin told him, handing the reins back to Chris.

Chris trotted the horse over to the same place Vin had got on, but didn’t let go of him right away. “Honest, Vin, I haven’t made up my mind to stay here permanently. And even if I did, I’d still spend time at the Misison. I wish you’d just stay a week or two, give it a chance.”

Vin shook his head. “I don’t wanna stay here. I wanna go home.”

“Why couldn’t this be our home for a while?”

Vin squirmed out of his arms, then dismounted with Chris’ help. He looked at Chris for a long moment. “It just can’t,” he said quietly; then he took a deep breath and raised his chin. “I reckon you’re thinkin’ this place has everything ya need to be happy, but it don’t.”

Chris looked a little surprised.

“The folks here don’t do none of the things we do at the Mission. They have all this fancy stuff . . .. They could help a lot of people, but they don’t. What good is it to have all this stuff if ya only keep it all to yourself?”

Chris gave him a hard look, but nodded then looked away. “I don’t know, Vin. Maybe they’ve never had the opportunity?” he said quietly like he was trying to find an answer for himself.

Vin just shrugged. He didn’t know if Chris was right about that or not. Ms. Gaines had lots to offer, but she hadn’t gotten it by trading with anyone, at least she hadn’t mentioned it. In fact, they had talked about trading some generators and joked about how it turned out to be a good deal for the kids, ‘cause they had gotten a whole carton of bubble gum; she’d said she was thankful she didn’t have to do that kind of thing. Far as he knew, she kept everything to herself.

And there was nobody camped out on her property, nobody taking refuge there; she had mentioned having parties, having people stay there for a few days, but she hadn’t mentioned helping anyone and he couldn’t help but wonder at that. At the Mission and even at Wickes’ camp there was always folks showing up looking for shelter. But it didn’t look like anyone had ever found shelter here.

Just yesterday, she’d told a man who lived and worked there to leave, and her own stepson didn’t even want to live there with her. He could be wrong, but Ms. Gaines just didn’t seem like the type of person who cared to help anyone but herself.

“You best go get washed up for supper,” Chris said after a long silence. “I’ll be in after I put the horse up.”

Vin headed for the house, waving to Buck on his way in. Buck was sitting on the porch with a woman on each side and JD was nowhere around. Once he got inside he found JD with Ms. Gaines in the living room. They were sitting on the sofa looking through a big book.

“Hi, Vin!” JD called out. “Me and Miss Ella’s lookin’ at a caterlog.”

“That’s nice, JD,” he replied with a smile.

“Ya wanna come look with us? It’s got lotsa toys and stuff in it.”

“No, thanks.” He tried to make sure he sounded friendly. “I’m gonna go upstairs and see what Ez is up to.”

“Dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes,” Ms. Gaines told him, then she pointed to something in the catalog and nudged JD. “Look at that!”

“Whoooeey! That’s cool!” JD said, sounding a lot like Buck; his big dark eyes filled with awe. Then he frowned scrunching up his nose. “What is it?”

Ms. Gaines laughed. “It’s a jungle gym, silly.”

“A what?” JD questioned.

Vin snorted and trotted up the stairs having no idea what a jungle gym was either.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Dinner was even less cheerful than it had been the night before. They discussed again how much longer they’d be staying and decided that most likely another day would be enough. They hadn’t heard from Ms. Gaines’ stepson, and she said that she doubted he’d be back, but regardless, she felt safe as long as Chris was staying on.

Vin chose not to have dessert even though it was little cups of chocolate ice cream. Instead, he asked permission to be excused and sullenly went up the stairs to the room he was staying in. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring down at the carpet, feeling totally drained when he heard the soft knock on the door. He knew right away it was Chris. Before he could acknowledge the knock, Chris opened the door and entered the room. “Hey there,” he said, standing in front of Vin. “Mind if I sit down?”

Vin nodded.

The bed squeaked as Chris sat beside him putting his arm around Vin and giving him a squeeze. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Yeah,” he replied, leaning into Chris.

“How come you don’t like it here?”

Vin thought about that for a while, but couldn’t narrow it down to a specific reason. He just had a bad feeling about this place, about Ms. Gaines. He’d felt uncomfortable around her from the moment he’d laid eyes on her, but if he said that he knew he’d only sound stupid.

“Can you tell me what it is that don’t you like?”

Vin shrugged. He wanted to tell Chris that he didn’t like Ella. It also crossed his mind again to tell him about the things they’d found upstairs in the attic but, again, he wasn’t sure how to go about it. He knew it would be better for him to tell Buck or Josiah first, but so far he hadn’t had a chance. The more he thought about it, the more he felt Chris needed to know about the stuff upstairs. At first, he hadn’t wanted to ruin his happiness, but then he got to worryin’ about what might happen after they left. What if he found out about the stuff then, and was sad, or mad, and none of them were around to help him? But, how could he tell Chris about the awful things they’d found?

“Did the boys that were here yesterday scare you?”

Vin shrugged again. “A little.”

“I know it scared me when they shot at the house,” Chris told him, his voice gentle. “I was afraid you might have been hurt.”

When Vin didn’t respond, Chris sighed and then continued, “You know you can talk to me, Vin,” he said sincerely.

Vin looked up at him with worry in his eyes. “Don’t want ya to feel bad.”

Chris nodded and took a deep breath then let it out slowly. “Well, I gotta tell you, buddy, I’m already feeling kinda bad,” he admitted. “I’m thinking maybe if you’d at least talk to me, well, maybe we’d both feel a little better.”

Vin was pretty sure that telling Chris about what they’d found would only make them both feel a lot worse.

“You know, Ella ain’t so bad, once you get to know her.”

Vin turned to face Chris, looking startled by the man’s words.

“She can be a lot of fun,” he said with a fond smile. “I’ll bet you’d like her if you gave her a chance.”

The boy frowned at that, and the next thing he knew he’d started blurting out the information that had been weighing on him so heavily. “Me and Ez found things up in the attic, yesterday.”

Chris frowned then looked at him with a puzzled expression. “What things?”

Vin swallowed hard, his throat was hurting again and he wondered if it had more to do with his struggle for words than it did with being sick. “Your things . . .” he swallowed again, thinking this was a lot harder than he’d thought it would be, “pictures and stuff. I think some of it was from your house that burned down.”

“From my house that burned down?” Chris repeated, looking even more confused.

“Yeah,” he decided maybe he should start at the beginning, “Me and Ez wanted to go explorin’, but the door . . . down at the end of the hall was locked, so he got the lock to open and we went upstairs to the attic and that’s where we found . . ..” Maybe if he could just get Chris to go up and look for himself then he wouldn’t have to say what they’d found. “Your stuff. It’s up in the attic.” He moved to get the bandanna and harmonica from under the mattress, but Chris stilled him with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“Wait a minute.” Chris was staring at him, looking serious, maybe even angry. “You know better than to go around picking locks and snooping around in peoples attics! What were you thinking?”

Vin sat there stunned for a long moment and then he shook his head slowly not knowing what to say. Now that he thought about it, Chris was right, they’d had no business going up there, especially since the door had been locked. At the time though, he’d just thought of it as . . . as explorin’. He shrugged his shoulders finding that he had to blink and look away from the accusing eyes. Chris had never looked at him that way before and it frightened him. He suddenly wished he’d never gone explorin’ with Ezra, never found that stuff up in the attic, and never opened his big mouth about it. But, more than anything, he wished he’d never come to this place.

Neither one of them said anything for what seemed like a very long time then Chris turned to him on the bed, still looking a little angry but obviously trying to tone it down some. “If you don’t want to stay here, I guess there’s not much I can do about that, right now. I can’t make you like Ms. Gaines either, but I want you to at least respect her and her property while you’re here. Now, I’m gonna forget you two were snooping around in her things, but I don’t want to hear about you doing anything like that ever again. You understand?”

Vin nodded, a tingling, numbing sensation creeping over his entire body. He could hardly get his mind to accept that Chris wasn’t mad at Ella -- Chris was mad at him. He scooted over on the bed, for the first time ever, wanting to get far away from Chris, unable to stand the anger and accusation he saw directed at him.

This can’t be happening, he thought to himself. He didn’t want to lose Chris like he’d lost everyone else. You can only count on one person, he reminded himself of Ezra’s words, because as soon as you start to depend on anyone else they always let you down . . . or disappear. And he knew from experience that Ezra was right.

Chris ran a hand through his hair then let out a sigh and stood up. “Get some sleep, Vin,” he said.

Vin closed his eyes, but he didn’t hear Chris leave. In fact, Vin could practically feel Chris’ eyes on him and found it hard not to squirm farther away. He wondered why Chris was still there, but he was afraid to ask . . . afraid to open his eyes and look, because he might see the stranger, or worse, he might see a glimmer of the Chris he’d known, the Chris he was losing. He rolled over, curling his body away from Chris, and tried to hold back the tears and grief he felt rising. Some time later he heard the door open then close and knew that Chris was no longer there.

Vin had expected to feel relieved when Chris was finally gone, but all he felt was alone.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

After leaving Vin’s room, Chris went back downstairs and was surprised to find everyone still sitting at the table. They were all talking quietly, sipping coffee, just like they spent most evenings at the Mission. Chris joined them at the table, but found it difficult to keep focused on what was being said. He couldn’t stop thinking about Vin.

It wasn’t like Vin belonged to him. Vin wasn’t his son; there were no papers declaring he had any obligation toward Vin. Everything between them was completely unspoken, and until now that had always been enough. He wanted Vin to stay with him, but he didn’t know that he had the right to demand anything of the boy.

There was no longer a court system in America; there were no lawyers or judges to decide what or who belonged to who, or what rights anyone had. The reality was that Vin Tanner wasn’t legally his son; therefore Chris had no right to tell him what to do or where to live. For some reason Chris just couldn’t get his mind to accept that. It didn’t seem right.

Chris had never liked ultimatums, but here he was being forced to choose between Ella and Vin, even though neither of them had come out and said so.

He glanced at Ella, who just smiled calmly back at him then reached over, squeezed his thigh and flicked her eyes toward the stairs. The woman had a one-track mind, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe he needed a good nights sleep, or at least something to get his mind off of his worries for a while? Maybe things would make more sense in the morning? He gave Ella a subtle nod then yawned and stretched his arms out. “Well, boys, I think I’m gonna turn in.”

Buck laughed out loud then turned to him with a wink. “Right. Well, reckon we’ll see you in the mornin’, stud. JD’s gonna bunk with me tonight.”

JD beamed up at Buck.

“No!” Ella sat up straight in her chair, looking almost panicked. “He shouldn’t sleep out there. It gets cold this time of year; he might catch a chill.”

Buck gave her an odd look but then smiled. “Don’t you worry, none, ma’am. I’ll make sure he’s covered up good.”

Ella looked like she might just continue her protest, but Chris nudged her. “He slept out there last night, Ella. Don’t worry, Buck always takes good care of him.”

She stared at him with what appeared to be alarm, which puzzled him until she smiled and seemed to relax.

“Well, I’m sleeping upstairs,” Ezra informed them, like it was beneath him to sleep out in the bunkhouse. Chris studied Ezra for a long moment, thinking about Vin’s admission of their breaking and entering activities. Ezra noticed he was being scrutinized and began to squirm nervously in the chair, his guilty green eyes darted around the room perhaps looking for a route of escape.

Deciding a confrontation with Ezra could wait until later Chris stood up then stood by Ella’s chair, taking her hand as she rose. “Sorry,” she said, looking from Buck to Chris, laughing a little. “I guess I was being a little overprotective?”

“I remember you telling me once that you didn’t have any motherly instincts,” Chris said, half joking as he escorted her up the stairs.

“Yes,” she smiled, looking a little embarrassed. “Well, I may have acquired one or two over the years.”


~ ~ * * ~ ~

Vin kept his eyes closed and pretended to be asleep when he heard Ezra come into the room and turn on the small lamp. Apparently Ezra wasn’t fooled. “Did you tell him what we found upstairs?” he asked sitting down on the edge of Vin’s bed.

Vin rolled over so he was facing Ezra, squinting at the brightness of the small light between the two beds. He rubbed his eyes then nodded. “Yeah.”

“I thought so. When he came back downstairs he was glaring at me. I thought for sure I’d spontaneously combust.” In spite of that, Ezra didn’t seem too worried. “So, what did he say about her little collection?”

Vin shrugged, but a frown creased his forehead. “I don’t think he cared.”

“What? You’re joking?”

“Nope,” replied Vin. “He sure got mad at me, though. Said for us not to go snoopin’ around no more.”

The older boy looked stunned. “Did you tell him about the photographs and everything?”

“I tried to, but he got real mad. Didn’t give me a chance to say a whole lot.” Just talking about it made Vin feel like he might cry. “When I told him we found his things, from the fire . . . well, he didn’t want to hear no more than that.”

Ezra didn’t say anything for a long time. He got up and put on his pajamas, while Vin lay back on his pillow, staring up at the ceiling.

“Perhaps tomorrow we should try telling Buck?”

Vin shrugged and then closed his eyes. He heard a click as Ezra shut off the lamp and the rustle of bedding as he settled under the blankets, followed by a long sigh. “Don’t worry, Vin. Everything will work out all right. You’ll see.”

But Vin didn’t think that anything would ever be all right again.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris lay there in the dark staring up at the ceiling. Beside him, Ella had been sleeping for hours. The woman had managed to leave him exhausted every night, so far. Tonight, though, despite his weariness, he was unable to fall asleep. He couldn’t seem to stop thinking about Vin -- the look on his face was stuck in Chris’ mind. He’d looked stunned, lost, bereft, almost the same way he’d looked when Chris had first met him. Of course, then he’d just gotten out of Wickes’ camp, just found and then lost his father, all in the same week.

Sudden realization made his heart ache. In Vin’s eyes, he was losing Chris, just like he’d lost his father. The knowledge that Chris hadn’t seen it earlier made the ache even worse. He couldn’t do that to Vin, not after all they’d been through, but he wasn’t sure how to fix things, because he didn’t want to leave Ella either. She’d been a little desperate tonight, promising him things that maybe she hadn’t entirely meant. She’d only known they were important to him, though. She’d said she could give him a son, that they could start a family of their own. He’d known it was just her way of trying to make up for his loss, to make him happy, and maybe a little extra incentive for him to stay? She’d never had a child, so she couldn’t possibly know that there was no way to replace a child you’ve lost.

Maybe he didn’t have to lose Vin, though. Maybe he could have both? There was no reason he couldn’t spend time there, no reason he couldn’t still do his share and help out whenever they needed him. The commute could be done on horseback, and that was something he and Vin could do together. Maybe there was a way to bind the ranch and the Mission together? With all their resources combined, they’d sure be a force to be reckoned with.

A sense of peace finally settled over him, and he found himself drifting, his mind still envisioning plans for the future, his heart longing for the morning, and his arms aching to hold Vin.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Vin had a hard time falling asleep that night. He’d feel like he was starting to doze off only to find himself wide-awake again. He was somewhere between the two when he heard a noise in the room that woke him up completely. He held perfectly still, trying to keep his breathing steady and even. He listened, could hear Ezra snoring softly but nothing else, so he opened his eyes just a fraction. It was dark but the moon was bright, illuminating the room enough for him to be able to make out shadows and objects. Then he noticed the curtain was rippling inward, which could only mean that the window was open and he knew it hadn’t been open before.

He heard a creak on the floorboards and then the slide of a dresser drawer. He moved just enough to be able to see whoever it was in the room with them. The figure stood up then and turned right toward them. Vin closed his eyes, and held still, silently praying that the person would think he was sleeping. He heard footsteps coming closer, and was ready to jump out of the bed and scream for Chris, but the footsteps ceased and nothing happened.

“I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just getting some of my stuff.” A voice whispered.

Vin opened his eyes knowing that it was Ella’s stepson.

“This is my room,” he said. “Or it used to be, anyway.”

Vin didn’t say anything, didn’t know why the teenager was saying anything to him. Maybe he was just hoping Vin would let him get his stuff without causing a scene.

“We decided that we’re not coming back here anymore,” the boy told him. “We’re gonna go somewhere else. Somewhere far away.” Vin thought he sounded a little sad about that.

“Is your dad gonna be staying with Ella now?”

Vin shook his head. He didn’t know if the kid was trying to get information from him or just talking, so all he said was, “Chris ain’t my dad.” He heard the bed next to him shift and knew Ezra was awake now, too.

“Well, whoever he is, I hope he don’t cross Ella or he’ll end up just like my dad.”

“What happened to your dad?” He thought he’d heard that he was killed in a prison riot.

“It’s kind of a long story, but my mom was killed in a car accident.” He paused for a moment, then leaned against the bed and continued. “Ella and my dad got married a few months later. Not too long after that, I heard her talking – whispering to someone on the phone. She was telling them not to worry, that the police had already ruled it was an accident, and nobody would find out otherwise. I tried to tell my dad, but he didn’t believe me. Told me never to mention it again and sent me to a shrink. For a while, I wondered if he was in on it, too, but I don’t think he was.”

Vin took a deep breath, not knowing what to say, or why this stranger was telling him all of this. Oh yeah, he’d asked.

“Anyway, my dad was at the penitentiary when the attacks came. He sent Ella home, but he stayed there. We didn’t hear anything, didn’t know if he was okay or not, until a few nights later. A bunch of men showed up here in the middle of the night. They were driving my dad’s brand new Hummer, but I didn’t see my dad. I knew right then that he was dead, ‘cause he wouldn’t have let nobody drive that truck if he had breath left in his body. Ella went out to talk to the men and I saw some of them were still dressed in prison clothes.” The kid shook his head like he still couldn’t believe it. “The window was open and I tried to hear what they were saying, but I couldn’t. All I know is that Ella let ‘em have a bunch of our supplies and they drove away in my dad’s Hummer. The next day when I woke up, she said some of the guards from the penitentiary had come during the night and told her my dad was dead.” He took a deep breath. “Never knew no guards that went around dressed in bright orange prison clothes.”

Vin didn’t know this boy, but he found himself believing everything he was saying. Should he tell this to Chris, he wondered. Then he doubted that Chris would believe him.

“Didn’t a prison gang kill Chris’ family?” Ezra spoke up quietly, startling Vin.


The older kid huffed out quiet laughter, but Vin didn’t ask what he thought was funny.

“Well, I best get moving. We’re heading for Purgatory.”


“Yeah, a town, south of here. Used to be called something else, but it was abandoned after the attacks. Now only kids live there, they call it Purgatory. No adults anywhere around.”

Ezra and Vin looked at each other and Ezra asked, “No adults?”


“Well now, that sounds more like Utopia than Purgatory.”

The older boy studied the two younger ones for a long moment, “You’re kinda little, but if you wanted, I guess you could come with us.”

“Really?” Ezra sounded hopeful.

“It would probably be better than staying here . . . with her. We’re leaving at first light. If you want to come, there’s a bridge about two or three miles down the road, that way,” he said, gesturing a hand in direction. “Meet us there at dawn.”

“We just might take you up on that offer,” Ezra said, thoughtfully.

“Whatever you do,” even in the darkness Vin could see the boy’s expression turn hard, “don’t you dare tell anyone else about Purgatory, okay?”

Both Ezra and Vin nodded solemnly; then they watched as the boy slung a duffel bag over his shoulder, climbed out the bedroom window and disappeared into the night.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris woke up sometime before dawn, thinking he’d heard a noise, but not entirely sure. He listened carefully for a minute or two, hearing nothing more than the wind blowing at a pretty good clip outside the window. He glanced toward the alarm clock out of a long ingrained habit, noting the time at the same moment his brain registered gratefulness over the simple fact that there was an alarm clock to look at. Back at the Mission, there was no alarm clock in their camper because they simply couldn’t spare their precious energy on things like that.

It was 5:25AM; the sun would be coming up in an hour or so. Ella was sleeping on her side with her back to Chris, and he was a little surprised to find an inch or so of space between the two of them. He yawned, thinking he should probably try to go back to sleep, but then he heard a muffled thump that sounded as if it had come from the boys’ room across the hall.

As quietly as possible he crawled out of the bed, grateful when Ella didn’t stir at all. He pulled on his jeans and slipped out of the room, pausing only to stand at the boys’ closed door and listen for a moment. When he didn’t hear anything else, he twisted the knob and peered into the room. Both boys looked to be sleeping and he could see nothing out of the ordinary, so he backed out of the room and closed the door again.

He stood in the hallway near the top of the stairs, trying to listen for anything from upstairs or down. The house was dark and still, and when he heard nothing more than the wind blowing outside, he decided that whatever he thought he heard must have only been the wind. He almost went back to bed himself, but something made him stop to study the door at the end of the hall -- the door that Vin had told him led to the attic. What had Vin been saying about finding something of his up there?

His curiosity got the best of him and he walked down the hallway, trying the knob and finding it locked. He fingered the keys in his jeans pocket, knowing that he had a tool there that would easily open the lock, and feeling more than a little guilty when he took it out and used it. The lock opened without problem and he felt a chilly draft on his bare feet when he opened the door. As he crept up the staircase, he thought about the harsh way he’d spoken to Vin earlier, when he’d scolded him for snooping around. ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ He smiled, remembering how his dad would use that whenever Chris busted him doing something he’d previously scolded Chris for doing. Now, he knew for certain that the words were merely a quick cover for a guilty conscience.

As he stopped to jimmy the lock on the door at the top of the stairs, it occurred to him that he’d never gotten the chance to use that theory with his own son. In fact, there were a lot of things he’d experienced with Vin that he’d never been given the chance to with Adam. Having Vin in his life had been such a blessing to him and he’d been taking it all for granted. He of all people ought to know better than that. Somehow he had to make things right with Vin and let him know how he felt.

There was the tiniest hint of light inside the cold room, coming from a triangular shaped, stained glass window high up on the wall. It was enough that after his eyes adjusted a little he could barely make out a white string dangling a few feet in front of him that he assumed led to a light bulb. He decided that if the light worked, he’d look around, if not he’d go back downstairs and forget about it.

Whatever she had stored away up here, whatever Vin had seen -- if it was his stuff -- must be junk he’d left behind when he’d made his break from her all those years ago. It couldn’t be anything that had ever mattered much to him because he’d never noticed anything missing. But, still . . . he was curious to see what she’d been holding onto for all these years.

When the light switched on, he looked around the room, immediately getting an eerie, chilling sensation that sent a shiver up the length of his spine. He looked around, guessing that the attic must have been used as a church at one time -- most likely because there hadn’t been and there still wasn’t a real church within 100 miles of the place. There were four finely crafted wooden pews set before an altar that was cluttered with various objects. Above the altar was the stained glass window that had a depiction of a hill with three crosses, against a dark crimson colored sky with jagged bolts of lightning coming down from it.

The room smelled old and musty, like it had been closed up for years, but there was no dust or cobwebs that he could see. Then another scent caught his attention. As he took a few steps toward the altar the stench of soot and smoke and ashes filled his nostrils.

Chris glanced at the stained glass window again and forced himself to keep walking toward the altar. As he got closer, the acrid smell intensified, triggering painful, unwanted memories, and making him feel slightly nauseous. A few feet away, he paused to let his eyes travel over the items laid out there. The cross that was supposed to be mounted on a center platform of the altar had been knocked over and pushed aside, apparently to make room for the other objects to fit there.

A lot of the things were burnished or blackened with soot, but not all of them. One thing in particular caught his eye: A uniquely designed frame in pristine condition. He knew it well, could remember looking at it almost everyday -- in its place atop his and Sarah’s bedroom dresser. Sarah had bought it on their honeymoon and it still contained the photograph. The frame itself was undamaged, apparently untouched by the fire, but the picture inside . . .. With a shaky hand, he reverently traced his fingertips over the glass covering the marred photograph. Grief welled up inside him as he lifted the frame and stared in bewilderment at the gouged out section that had once been the image of his bride’s beautiful face.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

As soon as the door closed, Ezra and Vin opened their eyes. Vin’s back had been toward the door, so he whispered, “Who was it?”

“Chris,” Ezra whispered back, then let out a relieved breath. “That was close!”

Vin nodded, then looked a little puzzled when Ezra threw the blankets back and climbed out of bed. “What are you doing?”

He started pulling his clothes on, but glanced up at Vin. “The Macarena. What does it look like I’m doing?”

Vin rolled his eyes. “Getting dressed, but why?”

“I’m going to Purgatory.”

That made Vin sit up. “Why?”

“Why not?” he replied, grabbing a t-shirt and pulling it over his head. “It sounds like the perfect place. No adults . . . no one to tell you what to do, or not to do . . ..” He pulled another shirt and buttoned it up. “No one to tell you where to go . . .” he pulled on a fleece sweatshirt and looked at Vin pointedly, “or leave you behind.”

Vin frowned for a moment, trying to puzzle things together. Ezra was leaving, to go with a bunch of teenagers, to a place where there were no grown-ups? Okay, it had its good sounding points, but truthfully, he wasn’t sure he believed there was such a place. And grown-ups had their good points, too. At least some of them did. Chris and Buck and the others had always taken good care of him. They made sure he had food, clothes and a warm place to sleep. They took care of him when he was sick . . ..

Some part of his mind whispered a reminder to him that all of that was about to change. That he was about to lose Chris, and he’d already pretty much lost Buck, and even if he went back to the Mission he couldn’t imagine that anything would ever be the same again.

“Are you coming?”

Vin stood up and gathered his clothing, deciding he might as well go. Because if he didn’t, he’d lose Ezra, too.

Ezra grinned at him. “Think of it as an adventure.” He quietly slid the window open and looked down to the ground below. “Hmm . . . I don’t think we’ll be able to go this way.”

Vin hurriedly dressed, still buttoning his flannel shirt as he joined the older boy at the window ledge. Whoa, that was a long way down. He wondered how the other boy had gotten up there to begin with.

“Perhaps he had a ladder?”

Vin nodded. “Must have.”

“Well, in any case, I suggest we make our exit the conventional way.”

Vin grinned at him. “Chicken?”

Ezra grinned back, gestured out the window. “Are you volunteerin’ to go first?”

Vin looked down again then backed up and shook his head. “Heck no.”

“Well, then, shall we Mr. Tanner?”

“Quit callin’ me that,” then he smirked, “Ez.”

Ezra rolled his eyes and gave Vin a shove toward the door. “Get going, Pipsqueak.”

“Wait a minute.” Vin moved to the side of his bed, reached under the mattress and pulled out Chris’ bandanna and the old harmonica. He stuffed the harmonica in his back pocket then tied the bandanna around his neck like a cowboy. “Okay, I’m ready.” He grinned and gave Ezra a playful shove. “Hurry up. We ain’t got all day.”