by Estee

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Chris stood at the altar, not feeling the chill of the air, nor the goosebumps that covered his bare flesh. He held the frame tightly to his chest as he looked more closely at the other objects laid out before him, most of them ruined, but some things completely in tact. His good watch, a bottle of his brand of cologne . . . oh God. “My baby . . ..” he whispered brokenly, setting down the one frame and picking up another. He stared in disbelief at the photograph, remembering with clarity that the image had been of him, Sarah and Adam, taken right after he and Buck had set up the front porch swing.

“What are you doing, Chris?”

Chris spun around, grief and pain instantly turning to rage. “Where did you get these things?” he demanded.

She smiled at him, apparently unconcerned that he had found her secret collection. “They were brought to me after the fire.”

“The fire? But . . .. You--”

“Well, I couldn’t just let her have you, Chris,” she said patiently, as if talking to a small child. “You belong to me.”

Chris stared at her, emotions twisting his face into a mixture of rage, despair and confusion. Then he squeezed his eyes closed, pinching the bridge of his nose and taking several ragged breaths, trying to think of any rational explanation for this horrifically bizarre situation.

“I love you. I’ve always loved you, Chris,” she said calmly, smiling and reaching up to touch his face. “And now you know just how much.”

Finally, he managed to make his voice work, barely. “I-I don’t understand.” He didn’t want to understand. It was just . . . crazy – insane. He’d seen a lot over the years, dealt with a lot of psychotics, criminals and murderers during his years working homicide, but he just could not comprehend that something like this could happen -- was happening -- to him. That someone he knew, intimately, could be capable of such an unspeakable act.

“I won’t allow anyone to come between us,” she told him, her eyes darkly intense.

Chris stood there seemingly dumbfounded as he worked to fit all the puzzle pieces together. He held out the frame, what was left of the photograph, taking a long moment to stare at the remains of what had been his happy family, his happy life.

Slowly, he looked up until his eyes met Ella’s. He could see no remorse there, no regret or even the slightest hint of sympathy. But she did seem to be growing impatient that he was taking so long to process everything. His mind flashed back to the scene of the fire: he and Buck bound to the big tree, struggling desperately against the ropes, watching the house burn, knowing his family was inside, knowing they were dying horribly, and being utterly helpless to do anything to save them. Then, something snapped inside him and he took a step toward her, letting the frame slip from his hand and fall to the floor; his soul thought was that he would need both hands to choke the life out of her.

“I did what I had to do,” she told him, suddenly anxious now. Even as she backed toward the door, she reached out for him, her eyes pleading for him to understand. “Don’t you see, I had to do it so we could be together.”

Chris pushed away the hand reaching out to him. He advanced on her steadily, purposefully moving forward as she tried to back away.

Somewhere in the distance he heard the sound of breaking glass followed by gunshots, but he ignored it, letting vengeance consume all of his rational thoughts. Ella turned sideways at the stairs, going down each step slowly, still calling his name and trying to reason with him. He followed her down the stairs, down the hallway and down the second set of stairs. Like a cat toying with a mouse, he enjoyed watching her panic grow. She would not escape him.

Then, as she stepped down the very last step, the front door burst open. Buck looked up at him, his eyes wild. “Chris we got to get the boys! The house is on fire!”

And Ella was pushing past Buck, running out the door before Chris could tell Buck to grab her. He wanted to go after her, but Buck was already racing up the stairs two at a time. Chris automatically followed him, some part of his brain registering that they needed to get the boys to safety, first.

They nearly busted the door down only to find an empty room. With frantic urgency they shouted for the boys, looking under the beds and in the closet before dashing out of the room. “Where the hell are they?” Buck asked, ready to bust down the other doors.

“I’ll look downstairs,” Chris told him, then rushed down the steps as fast as he could. He’d already lost one son to fire, he’d be damned if he was going to lose another.

Buck lifted a hand, ready to pound on one of the doors, but it opened and Hilda looked fearfully up at him. “Buck? What’s going on?”

Buck didn’t want her to panic, so he tried to sound calm. “The house is on fire. We need to get you out.”

She was already dressed, but turned from the doorway. “I need my shoes. Are the boys out? What about Jeanie?”

“Chris is lookin’ for the boys. I haven’t seen ‘em yet. Hurry up now.” He knocked on the door opposite of Hilda’s. “Jeanie?” When he got no answer, he forced the door open and went into the room.

Hilda heard the shriek of surprise from her sister, and heard Buck telling her about the fire and that she needed to hurry and get some clothes on. She slipped her shoes on and looked up and down the hallway, immediately noticing the attic door was wide open. “Oh no, the boys . . ..” she whispered with dread, knowing that the door was always kept closed. She glanced once more into her sister’s room, thankful that she was getting dressed. Buck was holding her shoes, coaxing her to hurry. She heard Mr. Larabee shouting for the boys downstairs, but she was pretty sure he wouldn’t find them down there.

Thick, black smoke had already started to billow up the corner of the living room wall and she knew the old house was likely to go up in a hurry. She hurried for the open attic door; her only thought to save the boys.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris ran back up the stairs just as Buck dragged Jeanie from her bedroom. “Go on now! Hurry!” he ordered, guiding her urgently toward the staircase. “Any luck?” he asked Chris, watching as Jeanie made for the front door. Chris was standing at Ella’s bedroom door, hurriedly pulling his boots on and wearing a shirt now, although he had yet to button it up. The house was filling with smoke, flames were licking up one of the walls and it was already getting hard to breathe.

“No, I didn’t find them,” Chris said, “I checked the basement, too. The whole back part of the house is on fire!”

“I’m gonna go look up them stairs,” Buck told him pointing toward the attic door, but Chris grabbed his arm.

“No, I was up there already. They aren’t there.”

“Okay, so what now?” They both looked once more in the boys’ room, then Ella’s room just to be sure, and then headed back down the stairs, barely making it to the bottom before the entire staircase went up in flames. They ran outside, hoping that they’d find the boys out there.

“We let the horses out of the barn,” Nathan said, handing a crying JD over to Buck then pointing to the section of the barn that had caught fire. JD wrapped his arms around Buck’s neck and laid his sooty face against the big man’s shoulder. Buck whispered shushing noises and patted his back as the little boy cried quietly, his eyes streaming tears, his nose running.

“What the hell happened?” Chris shouted, noticing that the bunkhouse was completely engulfed in flames. The wind was blowing, too, fanning the fire; spreading it to the surrounding buildings.

Josiah came jogging over to them looking as soot-covered as JD. “Where are the other boys?”

“We can’t find them!” Buck said.

”Dammit where could they be?” Chris looked desperate.

Jeanie was suddenly there, pulling on Buck’s sleeve. “Where’s Hilda?”

“What?” Buck looked confused. “I sent her out before I woke you up.”

“Nobody else came out that I saw,” Nathan told them.

“She’s still in there?” Chris asked.

“Oh shit, Chris,” Buck said, stricken. “She knew we couldn’t find the boys. What if she went up them stairs to look for them?” Just then there was a loud crash as the bunkhouse collapsed in on itself.

Chris suddenly looked like he might throw up. Buck handed JD back to Nathan and dashed back toward the house.

“Buck!” They all shouted at the same time as Buck ran through the flames and into the house.

Chris started to follow him, but Josiah grabbed a hold of him and said, “We gotta get out of here fast; as soon as that barn goes up it’s gonna take those gas tanks and everything else with it.”

“Okay, you boys take one more quick look around,” Chris ordered, “and then run for that tree line and keep going. Get as far away as you can. I’ll get Buck!”

“Buck!” he called out through the roaring of the flames. He spotted his friend standing still, staring with desperation at the place where the staircase used to be. If Hilda was up there, there was no way they could get to her, and most likely, she was already gone.

Chris fought his way through the smoke and flames, grabbing Buck by the arm, half pulling - half pushing him back toward the front door. It was no longer possible for them to get out that way, though. That part of the ceiling had collapsed, blocking the doorway and flames were quickly eating up the floor, spreading out across the front wall. He ran past the door to the opposite side of the house, still dragging Buck, and managing to pick up a chair on the way through the parlor. He let go of Buck long enough to swing the chair through a thick leaded glass window then took hold of his friend again, prompting him through the window frame then following close behind.

His left pant-leg caught on something as he cleared the window; there was a sharp pain when he yanked it free, but he paid no attention to it. Once out, he focused on keeping a hold of Buck, forcing him to keep up as he made a dash across the yard. Both men were coughing hard, struggling to catch their breath and run at the same time. Although his eyes were stinging and tearing, Chris could see the blurry forms of their friends a short distance ahead of them, still running, trying to outrun the impending explosion. The calf of his leg was starting to throb; the pain intensifying each time his left foot hit the ground. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he registered that he must have pulled something, injured it some way, but at the moment he didn’t have time to stop.

They were all still running when it hit, the force of it rocking the landscape and tossing them through the air like rag dolls.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

“What was that?” Vin asked, halting in his tracks, turning to look at Ezra with wide eyes.

Ezra was frowning, looking back in the direction they’d just come from. Even though he couldn’t see the house from where they were, he could see a thick column of smoke rising into the air. “An explosion?” he guessed, looking more than a little horrified. “Like, a really big one.”

Vin’s face went white as a sheet. “Chris!” he shouted, and took off at a near sprint back up the hillside, Ezra on his heels. When the boys reached the top of the hill they both stopped, looking down at the horrible scene in the valley below. They were close enough to see the huge smoking crater, the fire still shooting out of the ground where the house, barn and bunkhouse had been, just moments ago. Vin dropped to his knees, staring in shock. “No . . ..”

Ezra could see no movement, no signs of life. There were two buildings, equipment sheds, still standing, mostly in tact, but he doubted anyone had been in either one. They’d all been sleeping when he and Vin had snuck out. Nobody could have survived something like that and there was no way he was going back to check. Neither was Vin, if he had anything to say about it.

He kneeled beside Vin, letting his friend have a moment of grief, which was a moment longer than he was comfortable with. Then, as gently as he could, he took hold of his arm and tugged. “Come on, Vin. We have to go.” It was the truth. The sun was already up in the sky, and they needed to get to the bridge before the others left. For all he knew, they were already too late.

Surprisingly, Vin didn’t protest. He allowed Ezra to guide him back toward the road. They watched as two vehicles sped over the hill, the first truck going air born for an instant before its tires reconnected with the road. Both vehicles flew by, never slowing down and leaving a trail of dust behind. It took only a moment for Ezra to realize that the first vehicle had been driven by Ms. Gaines. He didn’t know who was in the second vehicle, but he had an idea. He’d seen a Hummer before, and knew that at one time it had been an extremely coveted, extremely expensive vehicle. He doubted there was even a chance of finding two models in the same state.

When they came to the bridge, there was no sign of the boys they’d planned to meet. Ezra paused, wondering if they should turn back and head north. He knew his mother was in Virginia City, which was north, but he had no idea of how to get there. He supposed they’d eventually run into some form of civilization, someone who’d be able to direct them – but there was even more of a chance that they’d run into miscreants who would only cause them trouble.

If they went south perhaps they’d eventually find Purgatory on their own? Or perhaps they’d catch up with the other boys? More than likely they were on the same road and if they just kept going they’d be able to catch up.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that there was more of a possibility of them catching up to the boys, or finding Purgatory than there was of them making it to Virginia City or finding Maude. “Come on, Vin,” he said, guiding him over the bridge.

As they continued following the road, southward, Ezra had a sudden, painful urge to see his mother. It was something he felt more often than he liked, but would never reveal to another soul. Not even Vin. He tried not to think of his mother coming back for him and finding only a gaping hole where the ranch had been. He wondered if they should maybe stick around there for a few days, just incase she would show up, but knowing his mother she was still in Virginia City - ‘working’, and if they waited, and she didn’t show up, there was that much less of a chance they’d catch up to the other youths. He forced himself not to turn around -- to continue in the direction they were going – letting the anger he felt over his mother’s unpredictability keep him in motion.

Vin hadn’t said a word since the explosion; he was trudging along, stone-faced, his head lowered, fists clenched. Ezra wished his friend would say something – anything -- just so he’d know that he hadn’t gone back into his non-speaking mode.

He knew Vin was grieving over Chris, Buck and JD and the others; he knew his friend was feeling their losses much more than he was. Ezra was trying hard not to think about it, trying to keep his mind focused on other things, like their survival, but he doubted that Vin would be able to do that for a while. Ezra was worried about Vin; he wanted badly to ask his friend if he was okay, but he was afraid to hear the answer, afraid that he’d be incapable of dealing with the emotions Vin might display. As Vin would say, he was a chicken.

Instead of offering shallow-sounding words of sympathy or encouragement, Ezra decided to let his actions speak for him. He vowed to himself that he’d stick by Vin, keep him going, keep him safe and do whatever needed doing as long as Vin needed him to. It was what Vin would do for him if the tables were turned.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Buck had never been so happy to see that old monastery. He was glad to be home, but now that they were, it was painfully apparent that they were missing one of their own. Two, if you counted Ezra. And, three if you counted Chris – because it was all too plain that Chris was only here in body; his soul was somewhere else entirely.

Nettie Wells had taken good care of their horses while they’d been away, but now apparently the responsibility had fallen to Buck. It broke his heart to look at those horses, to look at Vin’s little colt – all legs, playful and full of mischief.

Chris was in no shape to be riding, or mucking out stalls, which was probably a good thing for now. It would tear Chris up to see that little horse growing like a weed, romping around like everything was fine and dandy. And Chris surely didn’t need to see that every time Buck entered the stable, the colt would tilt its head and try to nudge him out of the way so he could find his boy.

God, Vin . . . where are you? He couldn’t seem to stop asking that question, even if there was no one who could give him an answer. In the aftermath of the fire and explosion, they’d found no trace of either Vin or Ezra. As soon as the earth had stopped shaking and they’d been able to get to their feet, he’d noticed Chris had been wounded. His friend’s dark jeans had been torn from knee to ankle, and beneath the material there had been a huge gash running down his leg.

Nathan had wrapped it tightly, trying to staunch the liberal flow of blood. Chris had insisted he was fine and able to help search for the boys, in spite of the doctor’s protests. Sure enough, after a few hours of walking around the man had nearly passed out from the loss of blood. By then, Nathan had managed to scrounge up a needle and thread in one of the machinery sheds and ended up putting about fifty stitches in the stubborn man’s leg. After that, Chris had sat in the bed of his truck with his leg elevated. JD had sat beside him, patting him on the arm, trying to offer comfort and reassurance. When they found nothing around the ranch property they’d searched the woods, the pastures, everywhere they could think of, hoping to find some sign that the boys had made it out alive, but in the end, they’d come up empty.

Buck had no idea what might have happened to them. The boys hadn’t been in their room; hadn’t been anywhere in the house – which made it all the more difficult to believe that they were gone. Hell, maybe they weren’t? Maybe they’d taken off? Vin had been none too happy with Chris, after all. Still, Buck couldn’t imagine the boy taking off on them. Vin hadn’t been feeling that well, and he’d said he wanted to go home. So, it just didn’t make any sense that he’d have run off. But, he and Ezra had run off before, so he couldn’t totally rule out the possibility that they might have done so again.

Thank God, JD was safe and sound. If the boy wouldn’t have demanded to sleep with Buck that night he’d most likely be missing as well. Because of his young age, JD couldn’t quite seem to understand that Vin and Ezra weren’t coming home. The little boy had been continuously trying to assure them that Vin would be home soon, until Buck finally had to sit him down and ask him to stop. It had broken his heart, but the truth was that he simply couldn’t bear to hear the innocent words of comfort and hope, and he knew it was tearing Chris apart.

Chris hadn’t said one way or another what his thoughts were, but Buck could tell by the way he kept looking out at the horizon that he hadn’t given up on the boy. He’d searched that ranch with single-minded determination until he’d nearly dropped and then he’d been reluctant to leave even when they’d finally had to admit they weren’t going to find anything.

They were pretty sure that Ella Gaines had gotten away; her vehicle had been missing from the garage. Even knowing what Chris knew about the woman, knowing that she was responsible for the death of not one, but two of his sons, Chris had pushed that need for violence and revenge aside during his hunt for Vin. Now though, Buck figured that was probably all that kept him going. That and the small spark of hope that Vin might still come riding over the hill.

Buck had no doubt that as soon as that hope was gone, Chris would be gone too.

And then there was Hilda. He couldn’t seem to stop thinking about her. More than anything, he regretted not paying more attention to her when he’d had the chance. He’d spent so much time chasing after her sister and trying to impress her that he’d almost completely overlooked Hilda.

Jeanie’s beautiful features had caught his eye, but Hilda had such beauty inside that she’d captured his heart and he hadn’t even realized it until it was too late.

“Wherever you are, darlin’,” he whispered to the heavens, “you took a part of me with you.”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Vin had no idea where they were going and he doubted Ezra knew either. Truth was, Vin didn’t care as long as they stayed on this road, and kept going in the same direction Ella Gaines had gone. He hated that he still didn’t feel good; that he felt so tired all the time. His legs felt heavy and seemed to move to a lot slower than he’d have liked. He almost wished they could stop and take a break, but his want for revenge kept him going.

The image of Ms. Gaines’ ranch mingled with images from the dream he’d had before they’d even left the Mission. He could picture the heap of bodies he’d seen in his dream -- only now they were lying in a big, smoldering crater, and Ella Gaines stood by them, laughing at him, trying to stab at him with her pitchfork. He wondered if it would have made any difference if he’d have told Chris about his dream? No, he decided, Chris would have told him that it was only a dream, and they would have went anyway.

He had no idea what had caused the explosion. He hadn’t seen anything suspicious when they’d snuck away that morning. It had been pretty dark though, but still . . ..

He had seen Ella Gaines, and Miss Jeanie drive past them on the road. He’d noticed that they were alone in the first truck, and the second had been full of men, but none of them had been Chris or Buck or any of his friends. Had Ms. Gaines exploded the ranch and killed them all on purpose, just like she had killed them in his dream? He wished he had his dad’s gun, or any gun, because he wanted more than anything to shoot her dead.

As he lifted his head to survey the long, deserted stretch of road ahead, he decided that no matter how long it took him, somehow he would find that woman and make her pay.


Vin heard Ezra say his name, but he kept pushing forward, afraid that if he paused he might fall over.

“There’s a tree up there,” Ezra told him. “Why don’t we sit down and take a rest?”

Vin shook his head. No, he wanted to keep going.


He heard Ezra calling his name, but the voice seemed so far away. And then the voice and everything else faded away.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Chris sat outside the camper, trying to read, but finding himself stuck on the same page he’d started with. He heard Buck and JD come up behind him, and sit down on the stairs, but didn’t acknowledge them. His leg was healing up all right, and he knew he was fit enough to help out with some of the chores, although Nathan was likely to disagree. Problem was he just couldn’t seem to find the energy to do much of anything at all. He couldn’t even read the damn book in front of him. Not for lack of trying, though. It was just hard to concentrate. He’d start a paragraph, and without realizing it, look up and begin scanning the distance, his eyes automatically following the deserted highway, the line of bare trees that ran alongside it, over and over. As soon as he was aware of what he was doing, he’d turn his eyes back to the page and the process would start all over.

Now, he found himself doing it again, and was about to force himself to return to the book, but this time . . . he thought for a brief moment that he saw movement. He squinted his eyes, trying to distinguish the trees and shrubs from whatever had caught his eye, at the same time, trying to snuff out the tiny spark of hope he felt before it could flare up only to fizzle out again.

But, there it was, the moving object, and this time he managed to keep track of it despite its antlike appearance. He was afraid to blink; afraid it would disappear. He kept telling himself that if it was a person, it was most likely a stranger needing help or directions. It could even be a bandit out for an easy score, something he definitely wouldn’t find here. Whoever it was – and it was looking more and more like a person, on horseback -- it surely wouldn’t turn out to be who he wanted it to be.

Minutes went by, Buck and JD stood up and went inside the camper, but still Chris kept his eyes focused on the tiny approaching figure, not allowing himself to hope, because it could be anyone. It wasn’t Vin, he kept repeating to himself. It couldn’t be Vin.

Besides, where would Vin have gotten a horse?

Two horses, he realized as the ‘figure’ turned off of the highway and onto the long gravel road. Two horses and possibly two riders, but it was still hard to tell. His eyes were burning and he had to blink, his fear becoming reality when the figure disappeared behind a hill. He kept his eyes glued to the next hill, waiting for the horses to reappear. It seemed to take a long time, long enough that Chris almost wondered if they’d stopped – or if he’d imagined seeing them to begin with. But, sure enough a few minutes later, there they were, coming slowly up and then over the rise: two horses and at least two riders.

He kept watching, trying desperately to contain the excitement building inside him. The horses and riders continued down the gravel road at a steady pace, close enough now for him to see that the second rider was actually two riders, and both were much smaller than whoever was riding on the first horse.

At the same time they turned onto the drive, Chris heard Buck open the camper door, and tell JD in a firm but mild voice to keep his eyes closed. He knew that Buck had left the door open a tiny bit like he always did when JD took a nap. Buck came over to him, squeezed his shoulder then sat down in the squeaky chair beside his. “Hey, pard, how you doing?”

Chris didn’t reply; he leaned forward in his chair letting the book slip from his lap.


“Buck . . .” he grabbed Buck’s arm and squeezed it hard.

“What’s going on, Chris?” Buck sounded worried, but Chris felt himself grinning like a fool.

“Am I seeing things? Tell me I’m not seeing things.”

He waited, only half listening for a response, unable to take his eyes off the approaching riders. When he heard his friend’s sharp intake of breath followed by, “Well, I’ll be damned,” he stood up, his vision blurred with tears.

The horses came to a halt and Raphael Cordova – his grin nearly matching Chris’ – removed his hat and bowed cordially. Chris had completely forgotten about foreman that Ella had sent away – with two horses. On the second horse sat Vin who looked tired, pale and too thin – but Chris thought he had never seen a more beautiful sight. As he watched, the boy handed the reins to Ezra, slipped from the saddle and was walking slowly, uncertainly toward him.

Chris wanted so badly to meet him half way, but he couldn’t seem to get his legs to cooperate. He felt his chest heave, felt the tears sliding down his cheeks, and didn’t care in the least that he was crying. He dropped to his knees just in time to catch Vin, to wrap his arms around him and hold on, with no intention of ever letting go. Vin wrapped his skinny arms around Chris’ neck, holding on just as tightly. They stayed that way, time standing still as the bond between them flared larger than life.

Not too far away, Josiah and Nathan were alternately teasing and hugging Ezra, who looked happier than Chris had ever seen him. And then there was Buck, standing beside him, loyal and steadfast as always. Chris could tell his fingers were twitching to get at Vin and he knew eventually he’d have to give Buck his moment, and the others too -- but not yet.

These days not too many folks had friends they could count on, or family, or a purpose to their lives. But Chris Larabee had them all right here, in this place he was proud to call home. And he couldn’t bear to think of how close he’d come to throwing it all away. For what, he honestly couldn’t say, because right now Ella Gaines and everything she’d had to offer seemed so meaningless and insignificant – so insubstantial compared to everything he had here, everything he held in his arms right now.

When he finally stood up, still holding Vin, he turned to face the old mission. Looking up at the steeple, to the cross on top; he sent a silent thank you to whomever might be listening, for showing him what was real and what really mattered, and for giving him the chance to understand so he could cherish it all the more dearly.

Finally, reluctantly, he handed Vin over to a teary-eyed Buck, who gave him such a look of gratitude as he took the boy in his arms. Chris watched as Buck turned, walked a few steps away, murmuring quietly in Vin’s ear, needing a moment alone, for just the two of them. Chris could understand that, but there was no way he could take his eyes off of the boy, until he heard the door of the camper slam open and a high-pitched squeal of delight from JD. “Vin! I knew you would come home!”

Buck and Vin looked at each other, both laughing through tears and then Buck reached out and scooped JD into his arms, including him in the hug too. Vin didn’t seem to mind, in fact he was holding onto Buck and JD with all the strength he had. Then he turned his head, his arm reaching out for Chris -- and Chris wouldn’t have let the devil himself hold him back.


As soon as Nathan had gotten a good look at Vin, he’d whisked him away to the camper, saying he needed to check him over. Vin had been feverish, worn out; his throat had been sore and he’d admitted to having a stomachache too. Raphael had quietly confided to them that when he’d found the boys, Vin had been feverish, unconscious and Ezra nearly beside himself with worry.

Without protest, Vin had allowed Nathan to examine him, and fallen asleep half way through. The doctor had taken his time, being as thorough as he could. After gently probing Vin’s belly, he put his instruments away with a strange, almost curious look on his face. Then, to Chris’ surprise, he’d told him that he had a tentative diagnosis. It was more than he’d been willing to give before, and Chris was confident that the doctor wouldn’t say anything unless he was relatively certain.

“I think,” he scratched his chin, looking almost surprised, “I can’t be sure, now, but it looks like . . ..” his voice trailed off before he finished the sentence.

“Like what?” Chris asked impatiently.

“Well, like Mononucleosis.”

“Mono?” Chris had to blink; feeling surprised himself.

“That’s what it looks like.”

“The kissing disease?” Chris asked. They’d been worried all this time over that?

“Ya don’t only get it from kissing, Chris. He coulda gotten it from . . .” Nathan scratched his head, looking perplexed. “Well, truth is, I’m not exactly sure how he got it. Nobody else has any symptoms that I know of. I suppose he coulda caught it from someone from Wickes’ camp. Maybe we oughtta ask around and see if anyone of them has been sick recently, but it’s possible for someone to have the disease and be asymptomatic.”

“Mono,” Chris repeated, shaking his head with relief.

“It almost seems too easy,” Nathan said, looking down at the sleeping boy. “The sore throat and swollen glands, the lack of energy . . .. Those are all symptoms of mononucleosis, but they could be symptoms of a lot of other things, too. But now, his spleen and liver are enlarged, too. That’s why his belly’s aching,” the doctor continued, matter-of-factly. “He’s pretty small, and he don’t have a whole lot of room inside to accommodate the enlarged organs. He’ll need to stay in bed a couple of days, and if it is, in fact, mono then . . ..”

What was that? Enlarged organs? Chris’ ears were ringing so loud that he could barely hear what Nathan was saying; he was barely aware that Nathan was standing right in front of him, looking at him with concern.

“Chris? Maybe you best sit down.” Nathan guided him into the chair and poured him a glass of water. “Here, drink this. You’re white as a ghost.”

Once he was able to make his voice work, he looked at Nathan with fear in his eyes. “What can you do for him, Nate?”

“Well, unfortunately there ain’t much anyone can do, Chris.”

”Oh, God.”

Nathan gave him a strange look, then suddenly his eyebrows lifted and he raised his hands. “No, no . . .. Damn, I’m sorry, Chris. Listen to me,” he waited until Chris met his eyes, “Vin’s gonna be okay, Chris. He’s just gonna need to take it real easy for a while and get lots of rest.”

”But, you said . . . enlarged organs. That can’t be good.”

“No, it ain’t good,” the man said, calm, yet serious. “In fact, it can be real bad if a person doesn’t take care of their self properly. But if we keep a close eye on him, don’t let him overdo it, I’m pretty sure he’ll be okay in a few weeks or so.”

Later that day, when Buck was told of the diagnosis, he responded pretty much the way Chris had, at first.

Awake, but forced to remain in bed, Vin had no choice but to put up with the man’s response. “The kissing disease?” He’d said giving Vin a nudge and wink. “Well, alright pard.”

“I didn’t kiss nobody!” Vin cast such a deadly glare on Buck that Chris wouldn’t have been surprised if the man burst into flames.

“Hey, it ain’t nothing to be embarrassed about. I had Mono once, back in the second grade. If I remember right . . .” his eyebrows drew together thoughtfully, “I got it from my babysitter, Beth Marie Halverson. Course, Beth Marie didn’t know she had it at the time . . . ended up passing it around to the whole varsity football team--”

“Buck,” Chris said in a warning tone.

“But that’s another story.”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Sitting around the campfire after supper, drinking coffee and chatting seemed like such a normal thing; it almost felt as if they’d never gone to Ella’s ranch – like the past several days had never happened at all. The conversation was much livelier than it had been the previous evening. They had reason to celebrate and Raphael had generously shared his flask of rum, aiding their already cheery moods.

JD had fallen asleep first. Buck had scooped him up, taken him into the camper and tucked him into his little cot. Ezra had been next, nearly falling out of the lawn chair he’d been seated in. When Josiah had picked the boy up, he didn’t so much as twitch a muscle, but Chris had the feeling he’d be mortified to learn he’d been carried to bed like a child. Oddly, Vin was still awake, although blinking owlishly, trying hard to keep his eyes open. Chris had him wrapped up in a thick blanket, warm and snug. “Go to sleep, pard,” he whispered, carding through the long curls.

Vin was clutching Grandpa Larabee’s old harmonica under his chin, like it was a teddy bear. When the boy had first shown it to him, he’d stood there staring, unable to speak as waves of emotion pounded at him. The last time he’d laid eyes on the harmonica it had been stored away in their dresser drawer – for when Adam got a little older. Vin had held it out to him, wanting to be able to give back something he’d lost.

When he’d finally regained control of himself, Chris had held it in his hands, gazing down at it with a soft smile. “I remember the day my dad gave this to me. I was just a little tike, even smaller than you.” Vin had made a face at that, causing Chris to laugh. “He told me that it had belonged to his dad – my grandfather, who I never got a chance to meet. He’d been killed in the war, back when my dad was still a kid. He said I should take real good care of it and then someday I’d be able to give it to my own son.” He’d stared at the harmonica for another few moments, remembering the words, remembering his dad’s voice, his face – that strong jaw and cocky grin; those piercing eyes that would look so intense one minute and so soft and full of love the next.

His heart was telling him that Vin was his son, as much as Adam was. True, they might not share the same last name, but they shared a whole lot of other things, and he couldn’t imagine having the same name could make him love this boy any more than he did right now. He remembered the time Sarah had told him she thought she might be pregnant again. He’d actually worried and wondered how he’d possibly be able to love the second child as much he did Adam. But, it was all so clear to him now. There was no measuring love, you simply loved your children – each of them -- with all your heart, with every bit of love you have inside.

He’d looked up to find Vin staring at him solemnly, with wide eyes, and knew he was making the right decision. “Here,” he said, taking hold of Vin’s hand and placing the harmonica across his palm. Curling his fingers, he closed the small hand around the object and then smiled. “I’d like you to have it.”

Those clear, blue eyes had grown impossibly wider and he knew Vin understood his intent. “Are ya sure?”

Chris wrapped his other arm around Vin’s shoulder and pulled the boy close. “Absolutely, I’m sure.”

Raphael had already explained to Chris and Nathan how he’d happened to find the two boys, and what condition they’d been in. But as the man began telling the story to Josiah and the others, Chris gave him his full attention.

“I was camping out a few hours west of the ranch,” he began, adding a splash of rum to his coffee, then passing the flask around again, “trying to decide what to do with myself . . .whether I should accept your gracious invitation, or set out on my own. I was awakened by the explosion, as were the horses. They panicked, and got loose, but thankfully didn’t run too far away. As soon as I rounded them up, I hurried back to see what had happened and if I could be of help. Unfortunately, by then, there was nothing left. I checked through the debris, but could find no bodies. I found some of the livestock roaming nearby, so I rounded up as many as I could and put them in the north pasture, then I decided to try and find my way here. I could only hope to find that someone had survived.” He took a long drink of coffee, then glanced over at Vin, whose eyes were now closed.

“I found the two chiquitos by the side of the road the next day. The little one was burning with fever and the older one was trying to keep him cool, but they were almost out of water. I told them I would take them with me, on Bonita, but we had to get this one’s fever down first.”

“Damn,” Nathan said quietly. “If you wouldn’t have come along, they woulda really been in trouble this time.”

“Si.” Raphael nodded. “When he woke up the next morning, he was doing much better. When I told him we were coming back here though, he didn’t want to come along.”

They all looked a little surprised to hear that. “Why wouldn’t he want to come back?” Chris wondered.

“From what I understood, this one already had his mind set on where he wanted to go.” Dark, serious eyes met and held Chris’. “He intended to hunt down Ms. Gaines.”

Nathan shook his head, looking at Vin with disbelief. “What did he think he was going to do if he caught up to her?”

Raphael shrugged, then took another sip of his coffee before continuing. “Ezra talked him into coming here . . . only to get his father’s gun.”

Buck whispered a curse, looking like he didn’t know whether to laugh or curse again. It might have been funny if they’d been talking about any other kid. Kids were prone to saying such things on a whim in the heat of temper. But, Vin was different. It wasn’t hard for anyone to picture a calm, determined Vin Tanner, dogging his target without ever considering that he was too little to be doing such a thing.

“It was good that we found you here.”

There was an extended silence after that, each man seemed lost in his own thoughts. After a while Chris spoke again. “Any idea who would have started the bunkhouse on fire that morning?” he asked, sounding exactly like the detective he’d once been.

Raphael shrugged, seeming puzzled. “The bunkhouse?”

“The fire started with the bunkhouse, spread to the other buildings, the house, barn, the gas tanks . . ..”

“Are you sure somebody started it purposely?”

“Pretty sure.” It had been so much chaos, with the boys being missing, and then Buck running back into the house for Hilda . . .. “What about your Godson?”

“No,” the man firmly denied. “He would never do such a thing.”

Chris shrugged, his eyes hard. “He’s the only one I can think of with a motive.”

“Wasn’t him,” Vin spoke up quietly, letting on that he hadn’t been as deeply asleep as they’d thought.

Chris looked down, his expression softening. “Did you see who did it, buddy?”

“No, but he was there earlier in our room. Said he was getting his stuff and going away.”

“Well, there ya go,” Buck said, mostly to Raphael. “That puts him at the scene.”

“No, Buck.” Vin pushed himself up so he was sitting. “He was really going away. He said we could go, too, but we didn’t know for sure if we wanted to. Well, Ez did, but I didn’t. He said we could meet ‘em at the bridge at dawn if we decided to go, but when we got there they was already gone.”

“That doesn’t mean he didn’t start the fire before he went,” Nathan said. “You should be sleepin’, young man.”

Chris nodded agreement, adjusting the blanket so the boy was wrapped up warmly.

“But, wait . . .” Vin continued, trying to make them listen. “He told us about what happened to his mom and dad. Why he thinks it was Ms. Gaines that got ‘em killed. He said he heard her talkin’ on the phone about what happened to his mom, but when he tried to tell his dad, he didn’t believe him. Then he told us that one night when his dad was still at the prison some men came in the middle of the night. Some of ‘em was dressed in orange clothes and they was driving his dad’s new Hummer. He said his dad never let nobody drive it, as long as he had breath.” Vin was utterly serious, but the words brought a smile to Raphael’s face. “And that’s what made him know his dad was dead, and then Ms. Gaines gave the men supplies and let them drive away in his dad’s new car.”

“Okay, cowboy,” Chris said gently, trying to get him to lie back again. He didn’t know whether the story was true, or whether it was something Jake Petrie had worked up in his imagination. Most likely, they’d ever know all the facts for certain. But he didn’t really need to know anymore than he already did. Because he had his own reasons for wanting to make sure Ella Gaines got what was coming to her.

“We saw that Hummer car, me and Ez did. It was followin’ Ms. Gaines’ car after the . . . ‘splosion.” Vin took a deep breath, suddenly looking drained.

“Did you see who was in the Hummer?” Raphael questioned, leaning forward in his chair, looking intense.

“No.” Vin shook his head sadly, glancing at Chris then back to Raphael.

“It’s alright now, okay?” Chris assured him, settling him back down. “We can talk about this tomorrow. Right now, I need you to go back to sleep, partner.”


Raphael took another sip of his coffee, then leaned back in his chair again with a distant look in his eyes. “I hope the boy did not travel south. It’s very dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” Vin asked quietly, keeping in mind his promise to the older boy. He knew they’d gone south, but he wouldn’t give that information away.

“There is a town, not too far away, that has become a haven for criminals – murderers, thieves . . . prisoners exiled here from other countries. They could end up in a lot of trouble if they go near this place.”

”I’ve heard of that town,” Josiah said. “They call it Purgatorio.

“Great,” Chris said with disgust, “that’s all we need.”

They sat there a little longer, watching the fire die down. Vin wondered if he should break his promise and tell where the other kids had said they were going. Maybe if he only gave away a little information? Later, he’d tell Chris and let Chris decide whether to tell Mr. Rafe.

After a while, Nathan excused himself, followed by Josiah and Raphael – who notably wasn’t being subjected to the quarantine rule, and was sleeping up at the mission in one of the extra rooms. Chris and Buck sat a little longer, neither one speaking, until Buck finally yawned then said, “I think I’m gonna turn in.”

”We’ll be up in a few,” Chris replied, still staring at the glowing embers of the campfire.

With a nod, Buck folded his lawn chair and headed for the camper.

Chris was just about to rise himself when Vin shifted in his arms. “Chris?”

“Hey, I thought you were sleeping.”

“Not yet.” Vin yawned, then licked his lips. “I was just ponderin’ . . ..”

Chris grinned. “Ponderin’ huh? Well, why don’t you tell me what you’re ponderin’?”

“When I thought you were . . ..” He looked up at Chris with troubled eyes. “I wanted to find her, so bad, and . . ..”

Chris nodded, tucking the blanket around Vin’s shoulders. “I know, cowboy.”

“Do you think she started her own ranch on fire?”

He thought back to the words Josiah had spoken, when he’d first come to live there. The preacher had been trying to make him see that allowing himself to be driven by anger and revenge could easily lead to destruction, not only of himself, but all those around him, and anyone else who might happen to get in his way. “Obsession over anything, whether it be money, food or drugs, love or hate, it’s never a good thing.” At the time, Chris hadn’t really listened. Hadn’t cared whether it was good or not, whether he or anyone else ended up dead. He’d only wanted to avenge his family. But, now he understood exactly what the man had been trying to make him see. Mostly likely Ella hadn’t intended for house and barn to go up in flames, for the gas tanks to explode. It would seem that her own ranch had become a casualty in her deluded obsession.

“Yeah, Vin. I think she probably did.”

“But, why?”

He could think of one reason why Ella would have wanted that bunkhouse destroyed. She wanted the men sleeping inside to be out of her way, no matter the cost. His friends could be dead right now, just like his wife, and his son -- all because of that bitch’s sick delusions. And it made his stomach roll to think how easily he could have become just like her – how easily he still could. He vowed silently that he would never give her the power to turn him into that.

The past, the future were exactly what they were, and he couldn’t do anything about either one, right then. The only thing he could do – the only thing he wanted to do at that moment was to shelter this child, his child, from everything bad in the world. “I don’t know the answer to that, Vin.”

“Ms. Gaines went south, toward that Purgatory place,” he said thoughtfully; then he looked at Chris, his eyes both sleepy and troubled. “Her step son and his friends went that way, too.”

With a nod, Chris combed his fingers through the sandy locks, smiling as he watched sleepy eyes struggle to remain open. “We’ll worry about all that later, okay? Right now, you need to get some rest, so close those eyes.”

Thankfully, Vin didn’t argue. One more yawn, and his eyelids slid shut.

Chris waited a few more minutes, then he stood up, kicking a little dirt over what was left of the fire. Josiah had once told him about a thing called Karma. Other religions had different names for it, but the meaning was pretty much the same. What comes around goes around. For now, he would leave her fate in the hands of karma or cosmic justice or whatever else might be out there. But if that didn’t work, he’d have his retribution one way or another.

Next time.