Find Out Who Your Friends Are

by Amber F. Drabble

The MixMaster
Dallas, Texas

Going back to 4100 South had never been an option. After tromping through what felt like half of the Metroplex, she ended up at the MixMaster, the intersection of the I-30 and I-35 interstate freeways that connected the cities to the rest of the world. A multi-layered concrete forest of ramps and over-and underpasses with its own subculture of the homeless. Olivia slipped in with the eerie gray non-light that heralded the borderlands between night and day. Knowing what to look for helped, and she found a shack that was little more than a thrown-together pile of cardboard and storage pallets with a stained remnant of dark green carpeting for a door. From the looks it hadn't been occupied for at least a few weeks, and she wondered why it hadn't been dismantled and become part of its neighbors yet. She rearranged her pitiful baggage slightly, trying not to knock the whole thing over when she brushed aside the carpet scrap and stepped inside.

The first clue she'd been wrong was seeing a black oilcloth duster spread out on a rickety military-surplus cot. The second was the two arms that snaked around her from behind like the coils of an anaconda. One pinned her arms to her sides, the other came up around her shoulders and one hand clapped over her mouth. A rough voice that smelled like whiskey rasped in her right ear.

"Don't bother trying to shake me off, you'll snap your neck the way I've got you. I can't make any promises, but I will do my best not to hurt you, unless you give me no choice. And I have no problem with knocking you unconscious if you scream. You can stomp once with your right foot if you're not going to scream if I let you go. And if you do try to scream anyway, we're going to have a very hard time together."

Squeezing her eyes shut, Olivia took a moment to curse the fact that she was still only a white belt. She just didn't have anything lower to demote herself to. There was no such thing as a 'no-belt,' you needed a belt to keep your gi closed. No help for it, she stomped her right foot, and felt the arms loosen. There was a moment of charged silence, as her new companion waited to see if she'd scream no matter what threats he laid out. When she didn't, he grunted in satisfaction and gave her a short push at the small of her back to propel her into the shelter, such as it was. "Set your gear down and take a load off." He turned to rummage in a battered polystyrene cooler. "You like bologna sandwiches? It's all I got."

Olivia shrugged as she set her stuff down. Her school backpack, purse, Thunder Karate duffel and two airplane carryon bags landed on the concrete 'floor' next to a similar collection of her new 'roommate's' belongings. She bent down to rummage in her Thunder Karate bag. "I got some lemonade." Soda was rarely seen in the Malloy home, and she'd thought juice would go bad too quickly, so when she'd ducked into a 7-11 earlier she'd grabbed two plastic 20-ounce bottles of Country Time, surprised to see both regular and pink. "I'll take the pink, you don't want to be seen around here drinking pink lemonade. I'm Stray."

In the gloom of the shack he gave her an uncomprehending look. Whatever bitter knowledge lived in his eyes, it hadn't gotten there from living on the streets.

"You need a street name. You don't ever tell your real name out here. It's like the old days, with the People." You couldn't hang around Walker and not pick up Native American lore. "You'd have the name everyone knew you by, but then you'd have a name your parents gave you when you were born, and you never told anyone else that. So out here, I'm Stray."

He gave it a minute, thinking. "Slinger." He hadn't only picked up his clothes when he'd slipped back into the hotel hours ago. Ella's bodyguards weren't always careful about not leaving things lying around in plain sight, especially when they didn't have any reason to believe they wouldn't be coming back to reclaim it. All of the doors of the rooms Ella had paid for still had their 'Do Not Disturb' cards hanging from the doorknobs, and not a cop in sight. Using the keycards he'd filched, he let himself in and out of the rooms until he had what he wanted.

He looked about the same age as her, and there was something about him that stirred old memories she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to remember, but there was just something about him that just seemed so familiar ...

"Sorry there's no mayo, I didn't think it'd keep," he handed her a sandwich.

"The reason I didn't buy juice," she replied. "Besides, this is better than a wish sandwich. That's when you've got the bread, and you wish you had something else to put between the slices." She passed back the bottle of yellow lemonade.

He grunted in what might have been amusement as he rummaged around in the cooler again, coming up with a large bottle with a familiar white label. He drank about an inch-and-a-half off the lemonade, and then tipped the Jim Beam into it to make up the loss. He re-capped both bottles, set the whiskey back in the cooler, then gave the spiked lemonade several good shakes to mix it. "I think I've got enough bologna to avoid that, if we can eat it before it goes bad, don't know how long the cooler packs will last. And I've got a little money, anyway." There was a huge beanbag next to the cot, covered in moth-eaten blue corduroy, and he flopped down on it. "I'll be a gentleman and let you have the bed."

"You mind me sitting on your coat?" It felt strangely bumpy when she sat down, until she noticed the backs of the metal studs that had been punched into the tough oilcloth.

"It's not like I need it to keep warm, even at night." He watched her as they ate, and halfway through his sandwich he finally had to ask. "Ran, or got thrown out?"

"Ran, because I'm chicken." Properly it was more information than she should have been giving out on the street, but she just felt like trusting somebody, for once. That she hadn't trusted the Malloys enough to stay she tried not to think about. "I'll get yanked back fast enough if I don't keep moving, though. You?"

"On the run, more like. You're free to come with me, or go on your own."

Strength in numbers, or traveling light, fast and alone? "You buy that whiskey, or lift it?"

"Bought it, but it's a phony ID. My Mom's ... boss gave the Commonwealth of Virginia a doctored birth certificate. I just turned eighteen on the Fourth, the world thinks I turned twenty-one."

"I'll turn fifteen on August 22." She noticed but chose to ignore his hesitation in naming the person who had given him the ID. Or was it that he hadn't known exactly what to call them?

He gave her a long look. "You don't look fourteen. You look eighteen, seriously."

She gave him a delighted smile. "Really? You think so?"

"I'll get carded before you do."

Smiling, Olivia polished off the rest of her sandwich. The light was starting to come up more, giving her a better look at Slinger. That odd sense of familiarity kept nagging at her. Was it something about his eyes?

"So. You want to head out now, or rest for a while?"

Olivia shook her head. "I've spent hours prowling through half the rat holes in the Metroplex. All I want to do right now is crash."

Slinger nodded. "Okay. Probably be better to head out after dark, anyway. They'll have had time to get our descriptions out over half of Texas by that time, but most of the active searchers will probably have gone home."

"Yeah," Olivia knew better. Once Trent reported her missing, Walker would have most of northern Texas out looking for her. But not even Walker could be everywhere at once. All they needed to wait for was one unguarded hole in the net.

Walker Ranch
Outside Dallas

She'd thought about getting some sleep - she was certainly more than tired enough - but knowing that Chris's plane would be taking off within the hour and the short flight time between Denver and Dallas kept her awake despite her weariness. Once they landed at DFW, it would take a little less than another two hours to get from the airports to the ranch - the 'commute and a half,' Alex had good-naturedly complained about earlier.

So she lay awake in bed, in the dark guest room, listening to the rain pounding on the roof. It occurred to her that the weather might be bad enough to prevent the plane from landing at DFW - where would they be diverted to, Lubbock? Amarillo? She wondered if Chris would bring Buck with him, Alex had mentioned "one of your husband's men," she wasn't sure what to make of that. Chris was a Denver cop; unless he'd transferred to some special task force or something, why would he have other men working for him, and why would he bring them along? Then she thought of Alex, and of Sydney Cooke, and thought it might be better if Chris left Buck in Denver, because the big man was sure as the rain to make a fool of himself. The phone rang, and some minutes later she heard Walker and Alex up and moving again. They'd lain down to catch a little sleep, with John Ross keeping watch downstairs. So she got up and went down.

"I can't imagine why she'd do it, though. She's been doing so well." Alex's voice was full of worry and bewilderment as Sarah came into the living room. She was sitting on the couch looking up at Walker and John Ross, both of whom looked as confused as she did. Alex focused on John Ross, who had apparently fielded the phone call. "Did Trent say anything about what might have set her off?"

John Ross shook his head. "I asked; he said he went over there for dinner. Given the case, he didn't do a lot of talking; mostly let them catch him up on what he's missed. Commiserated with Todd about how rotten the other Rangers are doing. Todd mentioned that the Rockies are playing better ball than the Rangers - hell, Colorado's playing better than the New York Yankees - and Trent said he'd mentioned that Vin Tanner was coming into town. But that can't be it, Olivia doesn't know Vin."

"That we know of," Walker interjected, to Alex and John Ross's surprised looks. "Remember, there's twelve years of Olivia's life we've never asked her about."

"But, that doesn't explain why Olivia would be afraid of Vin. Vin would never hurt a child, especially one who had been in the system, like he was." Alex shook her head, getting up from the couch to look at the pictures crowding the mantle. Almost every flat surface in the room was filled with framed photos, and the photo albums stuffed into the bookcases were groaning at the seams. Walker could see that something else was going to have to be done, and soon. Alex searched among the pictures until she came up with the one she wanted - a slender girl in her mid-teens, wearing a white-with-blue-sleeves #23 Mark Teixeira Texas Rangers 'alternate home' jersey, open over a red camisole and dark blue denim capris, with her honey-blonde hair pulled back through the keyhole in a blue Rangers ballcap. She was smiling as she affected a 'glamour pose,' draped across the hood of Trent's old 'Vette. It had been copied and sent to Tommy Malloy's unit in Iraq, for a morale booster. Sarah took one look at the picture and felt a wave of memory wash over her.

Ella was dragging a hysterical eight-year-old girl out to the springhouse, telling her how wicked she was, and that wicked little girls like her deserved to be punished.

"Sarah?" Alex's voice broke into her memory.

"I know this girl, she was one of Ella's hostages. Her name is Olivia Briggs." She moved to sit down on the couch. "Her parents came to the estate before me, Michael and Marella. It was Ella's father that started the practice of stealing people from their lives and turning them into slaves, rather than hiring servants they'd have to pay and treat decently. Marella is the nanny to the younger children, until they turn thirteen and are allowed to move into their own rooms. Michael is the tutor to the teenagers." She stopped for a moment, looking into the middle distance - or perhaps inwards. "There was something they had, something Ella and her father wanted, badly. When Mr. Gaines was still alive, he'd keep insinuating that they might have their freedom if they'd just give him what he wanted. Shortly before Mr. Gaines died, Michael said to him, 'I know you've read Don Quixote, Zeus. You might recall the line 'My honor is dearer to me than my life.' I never asked him what he meant by that, perhaps I should have."

John Ross spoke up. "I guess none of you ever talked much about your pasts?"

Sarah shook her head decisively. "Oh no, never. You never talked about who or what you were before."

The MixMaster
Dallas, Texas

They'd slept the day away, waking shortly after sundown. Slinger greeted the evening with some hair of the dog, to pacify his hangover. Olivia still had a few swallows in her own lemonade, so that and another bologna sandwich was 'supper.'

"We're not going to get away clean anywhere here in the city. What we need to do is get out of town, and try to pick up a ride there. I think there's a small bus depot in Braddock, up northeast of the city, if we can just get that far."

Slinger grunted, reaching over to fumble with the camping lantern he'd picked up at the hotel. One of the bodyguards was a survivalist type, and never traveled without a bunch of camping junk. The lantern was one of the newer styles that could be converted into a flashlight. Just to be on the safe side, he'd also taken one of the old-fashioned steel cylinder flashlights, because the same guy had once pointed out that it weighed two-and-a-half pounds when filled with three fat D-cell batteries, and could therefore serve double duty as a passable blackjack, if one didn't absolutely need it to see where they were going. Slinger figured he could use the lantern for light and the steel cylinder in its purported blackjack capacity. He reached back to yank the shirt he was wearing over his head and put on a new one. Once they got out of Texas, he'd see about getting them at least a roadside motel room for a night, so they could take real showers.

Olivia happened to turn while Slinger still had his back to her, so she could clearly see the body art on his back - a magnificent leopard seal that covered his shoulders and upper back, mouth open in a ferocious snarl. There were lines and waves and bubbles surrounding the seal, to create the illusion of water, and under the seal's tail and Slinger's left shoulder, the bubbles morphed into a cloud, from which a rainbow descended The rainbow cascaded down his back to where a whimsical looking leprechaun snoozed, leaning back on his pot of gold.

The reason for the tattoos was obvious, as well. Adam's back was criss-crossed with scars. Someone had beaten him, belt-whipped him, and badly. The world spun sickeningly as she was whirled into unwilling memories ...

A clawlike hand was snarled in her hair, dragging her by it in the dark. The gray stone façade of the springhouse rose up in front of her and she fought desperately to be free. She cried out as her shining, honey-blonde hair was pulled out by the root, and again as her captor slapped her, a vicious backhanded strike that snapped her head around. She felt a sharp, tearing pain in her neck and tried to hold still, but her attacker was shaking her now, like a dog shaking a rag doll in its mouth.

"Wicked, wicked little girl! I'd like to know just exactly who it is you think you are, little miss! Nobody, that's who you are! Quadroon trash, not fit to be allowed among decent people! You should be grateful I allow you to live here, and for everything you're given! Who do you think you are, to covet more than you're a right to? Wicked, sinful, thieving little wretch!" The iron door of the springhouse creaked open, like the creaky door on a Halloween gag CD. Inside it was as dark as a grave, and bitterly cold from the spring that still burbled up from the ground, like liquid ice.

"N-no! Noooooooooooooooo!" She writhed in terror, suddenly realizing what her punishment was going to be, for such a seemingly innocuous crime as having taken two cookies from the plate that had been presented to her. The claw in her hair gave another cruel yank, and she fell to her knees in the grass. Her jailer leaned close, hot breath pouring over the defenseless child's face and neck like sulfuric fumes from a volcano.

"You're going to learn decent manners, you ungrateful little bitch, if it kills you! Do you think I'm running a charity home? When you're allowed to have a cookie, you may have A cookie! I have better and more important things to spend my money on than feeding bottomless pits that are too spoiled to be grateful when someone takes them in hand!" The claw slid down to her neck, and the child was hauled without ceremony off her feet and tossed like a discarded doll into the springhouse. She landed in a similar sprawl of arms and legs on the dirt floor, upside down and looking out at the open door and the figure silhouetted in it, barely able to tell them from the darkness outside.

"A night out here should be sufficient to teach you decent gratitude, and not to be greedy with what doesn't belong to you!" With this, her abuser took their leave, slamming the door behind with a thunderous clang. Whimpering in terror, the child pulled herself into a ball, trying to keep warm. She was only eight years old.

She must have dozed off, but she didn't realize it until the door creaked open again. She pulled into a ball again, trying to melt into the stone walls. "No, no more, I'll be good, I promise I'll be good. Please ... " She'd have promised anything at that moment, just to be allowed back into the house. She was beyond cold, her teeth weren't even chattering anymore.

"Shhh," a different voice, and she couldn't put paid to any of the sounds she was hearing, until a blanket! was draped over her shoulders, and something deliciously warm pushed into her hands. "It's a Hot Pocket, hope you like chicken and broccoli, it's all there was."

It tasted like heaven, especially inside. "She-she'll lock you in here next."

She felt more than heard her savior shrug. "She's already done the worst thing she can do to me, she can't hurt me anymore." But he did look over his shoulder. "But I had better go, before the next round of bed checks. See you in the morning."

"Bye. Thank you."

"No big."

But it was a big deal the next morning, when the tall, dark-haired boy, no older than she was but eleven, was dragged into the courtyard and made to kneel on the crushed white rock. What had been his favorite Denver Broncos T-shirt - the one with Terrell Davis on it - was physically ripped off, and he was belt-whipped until his back was a bloody mess. All because he'd brought her a blanket and a Hot Pocket.

Not once had he cried out. In the short space of five years, he'd already learned not to give them that satisfaction.

She made her escape a week later, the night of the thunderstorm that knocked out power all over Northern Virginia. She survived by hook and by crook for four years, using what skills as she had, and her childish cuteness to avoid the pitfalls of street life, until she slipped into Jimmy Trivette's Mustang at 4100 South one rainy November night.

And all over two plain, single-stuff Oreo cookies ...

"Stray? Stray, are you okay?" The shack underneath the MixMaster, that's where she was. Whatever she was laying on was horrendously lumpy, an image of black oilcloth dotted with silver studs swam through her mind. Oh, yeah, the cot she'd slept on. Someone kept talking at her.

"Let me get you something to drink ... damn, never mind, I forgot, all we've got left is mine. We'll get you some water or something. Something." Slinger, that's who it was. And Slinger was ... her mind threatened to slither off again, but she concentrated and hauled it back. Slinger was Adam O'Rourke, who had risked and received a belt-whipping to bring her a blanket and food when she'd been eight and he eleven, and Ella Gaines had locked her in the springhouse because she'd taken two Oreo cookies.

"I remember you."

He whipped around, black hair swinging across his face like a curtain. Across his eyes ... his eyes ... Oh, sweet Lord, his eyes.

With the light from the lantern, she could see them now, two pieces of burning green ice. Chris's eyes. Running out in the Denver street, while Morgan Coltrane's Harley burned behind her. "Mama, Mama!" Her mother - the woman she'd thought was her mother - turning to catch her in a desperate hug.

And Chris turning away, a look of anger on his face, in those burning crystal-green eyes. They'd spent the next day at his ranch in the mountains, and she'd been as good as she knew how, because she knew he was very disappointed and angry with her. If she'd just stayed with Ezra, Nathan and Josiah like she'd been told, J.D. wouldn't have gotten hurt. She'd apologized to J.D. without having to be told, only a little mollified when he'd pulled up one leg of his jeans and showed her the scar on his right shin. A drunk outside the annual Boston College-Boston University hockey game had slipped on the icy sidewalk, coming up with a busted Sam Adams bottle with which to take on the young cop working crowd control. He could laugh about it now, having gotten over the terror that he'd lose the leg or worse, because he hadn't been able at the time to remember if his mother's slender budget had ever included her only son's tetanus vaccinations. But she'd never forget the look in Chris's eyes that night, that unspoken but deadly condemnation - You let me down. I trusted you, and you let me down.

And all because she'd wanted two cookies ... the terror suddenly overwhelmed her again. She could all but hear Chris roaring in her head. "Because of YOU, Olivia! It's all your fault! He was belt-whipped and it's ALL YOUR FAULT!" Someone had her by the shoulders, shaking her. "Olivia! Olivia!" She turned into a wildcat, twisting until she could bring her arms in, push against whatever had her. Moves she'd learned from Trent, from Walker, from Sydney, and practiced over and over and over until she'd wept from fatigue and physical agony. Once in the early days, she'd slipped out of bed to work out in the backyard, collapsing from exhaustion and even sleeping through the rain shower that had passed overhead, not to be found until morning by Trent. Frozen to the bone and unable to move, she'd spent three days in bed. Trent had taken the responsibility on his own shoulders, admitting that he'd been pushing her in school. "I see something in Olivia, she's got real potential. I let myself get carried away, wanting her to be the best she can." The demons howled closer, this time even Buck would be disappointed with her. "Eight's plenty old enough to know better, little lady." Ezra, "The first lesson is never to get caught. You recognized a man palming cards when you were six, but could not do the same with a cookie two years later?" But I promised Mama I wouldn't anymore! And Vin, "Oughtn't ta ask fer more than yer a right ta, 'Livia." Nathan and Josiah and J.D. simply melded into a faceless blur of disapproval. 'It was only a cookie!'

Someone gently touched her face, smoothing the blonde tangles away from her eyes. "Olivia, hey. Calm down, it's just Adam. It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you." He smelled like whiskey ... Chris had smelled like whiskey, she'd seen him standing with a glass tumbler in his hand that one day, swirling the liquor gently and sipping occasionally. And when the huge black dog had come out of the mudroom and spat a mangled, barely recognizable baseball at her feet, Chris had set the tumbler aside and hunkered down, asked her if she knew how to throw a fastball. Of course she hadn't. So they'd gone outside - even in the snow in Summit County, Colorado in February - and Chris had shown her all of the pitches the big leaguers used on TV, while the black dog chased and brought the ball back. Buck had snorted that it was the first time he'd seen the dog retrieve anything besides his supper, and Chris had laughingly replied, "He missed that pot roast by, what, six inches?" The ball had been so big, her hand so small, she could barely fashion her fingers into the positions Chris wanted and still hold on to it properly. And Chris had smelled like whiskey. She couldn't see anything of Slinger's - of Adam's - face except those green eyes, and even those blurred as the tears started to fall. Adam made some quiet, broken sound of his own and pulled her close, her face buried in the soft, black jersey of the new shirt he'd pulled on at some time while she'd been passed out. She could feel his heart this close, a steady rhythm that she focused on while she tried to find her way back to reality.

"I'm s-s-sor-r-ryyyy. You got ... you got ..." she couldn't say it, she could barely breathe through the sobs. "And-and-and ... it-it'ssss all-all ... m-m-my f-f-f- ... "

"No, Olivia," she heard him from above her, felt the vibrations of his words in his chest. "I brought you the blanket and the food. And I knew what Ella would do the next day. I used you, not the other way around. I was trying to yank her chain, and you just happened to be there."

"Noooooooooooooooo ..." she was all but helpless in her sudden misery, the deep, internal agony raging in her soul, tearing her to shreds after years of being caged. "My fault, my fault. He's gonna be so mad ... and, and Buck - " she could hardly bear to think about it, those gleaming blue eyes, darkened in censure, that roguish grin changed to an angry frown.

She suddenly found herself looking into a pair of stunned green eyes. "You know Buck?"

Whoops. "Y-yeah ... you - your eyes. You have ... Chris's eyes." She stopped, wondering what he'd do next. Oh, if only she'd gotten the courage up to do this seven years ago ...

"You know my father." For several moments, neither of them moved nor spoke. Time froze in the tiny shack. Olivia didn't realize she was holding her breath until her lungs began to burn. She was more than a little light-headed when Adam finally let her go to pace away a few steps in the limited space they were in. He plowed one hand through his already-disordered black hair and let out a gusty sigh. Olivia gulped in a few breaths, before speaking in a quiet voice.

"He should already be here; I heard they were coming in last night. That's - that's why I took off." She felt her face flame.

He swung around to face her again. "You can't possibly be afraid of them. They're not gonna be mad at you over a dumb cookie, Olivia."

"It's not just the cookie - or you getting whipped, either. I - I - " she broke off. How to say what she was so upset about, without it sounding any lamer than it already was? "I took something of Buck's, and then I left it behind when I ran away from Ella's. I don't want him to know I've lost it - or where I lost it, either." His father. Chris was his father. She was in so much trouble ... taking a deep breath; she reached up to dash the tears from her face, trying to change the subject. "Look, we'd better get going, we've let them get a huge head start on us. If we don't want to get busted the second we stick our noses out of here - "

"Olivia." He stepped back to her, reaching out to cradle her face in his hands, tipping her head up so she could look nowhere but at him. "There's something I've been wanting to do for a long time." Slowly, so slowly Olivia could have backed away anytime she'd wanted to and couldn't imagine why she wasn't, he lowered his face to hers. He kept his eyes open all the way down, looking into hers. Olivia had a sudden, giddy moment to wonder if this was how Sarah had felt, the first time Chris kissed her. Then all thoughts of the past few out of her mind. Their lips were a hairsbreadth away from meeting ...

"Hey! You kids in there! Hey!" The moment shattered like a fine crystal vase dropped carelessly on a stone floor, a million pieces scattering. In a split second, Olivia found herself pushed behind Adam as he clenched his fist. How it had made its way through the MixMaster and into the shack, Olivia didn't know, but a flash of sunlight glanced off the full-finger dragon ring on Adam's right hand. The wings were hinged, and their outer curve had been sharpened to a cutting edge. Adam stepped forward, and twitched the green carpet door aside just enough to see out.


A man's voice that Olivia thought she ought to have recognized answered him. "You kids better vamoose. There's some pretty tough-looking customers flashing your pictures and asking if anyone's seen you. They don't look like the kind of guys who take no for an answer."

"Maybe Middle Eastern accents?" Adam was mentally kicking himself. They must have had a mole or something inside the cops, which was the only way they'd have known he wasn't in the van. But how could they have known about Olivia? Or that they were even together?

"Yeah, real mean-lookin' suckers. I'd advise gettin' gone from here, and right quick about it."

"Thanks, man." Adam came back in, then scanned their 'luggage.' "We can't bring all of this."

Olivia suddenly had a brainstorm. That kid who had just been kicked out of the H.O.P.E. Center last month lived near here, and the last time her and Tandy had seen him, he'd been driving a tricked-out Ford Crown Victoria. "Yes, we can, if you've got enough change to make a real fast phone call."

Twenty minutes later, they were stuffing their gear into the trunk of Pablo Ortiz's car. "You sure you know how to get there?"

"No problema. My Tia Consuelo lives in Braddock. I was up there last weekend for my cousin Isabella's quinceañera." Pablo had come into the lot of the abandoned gas station with lights and radio off, in response to Olivia's desperate phone call. He'd pulled enough of his gang brothers out of bad situations to recognize the circumstances.

"And you won't tell Walker you saw us."

"Man, I wouldn't give him the time of the day. For real." He pulled out of the gas station and headed for the freeway. In less than an hour, he was letting them off in front of the Braddock County bus depot.

Adam tried to push a fifty into Pablo's hand. "For gas, and for coming out after us."

Pablo pushed it back. "De nada, amigo. No worries." He gunned the Crown Vic's souped-up engine and Adam had to step back. Shaking his head, he closed the passenger side door and watched as Pablo peeled out.

"He'll be dead a week from now," Olivia's voice was hollow, to match the hopelessness in her eyes. Pablo had almost been a friend, until he almost got Sydney killed. Almost.

"Probably. The point for us now is to make sure we won't be." He shouldered his gear and looked at the bus depot. They hadn't been quick enough in getting here, and Braddock wasn't big enough to keep its bus depot open 24/7. The hours were printed clearly on the door, it wouldn't be open again until six o'clock the next morning. "And the first thing I guess is to find a place to sleep tonight." He looked around. Braddock was a small town, the population was under 2,000. It looked like everything except the local roadhouse was closed down already, and Adam wasn't quite crazy or desperate enough to try going in there with Olivia. The sound of a honking horn had him turning, thinking Pablo had changed his mind and was coming back for that fifty. But it wasn't Pablo.

A silver Mercedes of late Seventies vintage pulled in, and the passenger door swung open. "You kids need a ride someplace?"

The driver was a cowboy, who looked to be not much older than Adam and Olivia themselves. He was dressed in the typical outfit of scarred and worn brown boots, blue jeans, a blue work shirt open at the throat over a white T-shirt and a straw cowboy hat that had been soaked and reformed more than once. A man's voice came out of the stereo, smooth and easy. "Well, if the whiskey doesn't get me, I know the memories will. 'Cause you've left a hole in my heart, too deep to fill."

"Just a place to sleep tonight, until the bus station opens." He looked harmless enough, with an open, friendly face under the hat, framed by a mop of dark brown curls that looked as if no brush tamed them for long. He reached over and flipped open the glovebox, pressing a white button. The Mercedes's automatic trunk gave a metallic 'click.' "Just toss your gear in the back, you can crash in my cousin's barn. He won't mind."

"You sure?" The leather seats were as soft as butter when Adam slid in. The song continued to soar out of the stereo.

"The sun goes down,
The blues come around.
And the choice is black and white.
Low down and lonesome,
Or high as a kite.
When you can't win for losin',
Oh, you know it's just not right.
It's a headache tomorrow,
Or a heartache tonight."

The cowboy pointed at the roadhouse as they passed. "He's in there tryin' to keep his brother from dyin' of liver failure. I decided to split before the brawl got started, thanks." They were out of town in less time than it took to tell it, cruising through the Texas ranchlands.

"Nice car," Olivia commented, running an appreciative hand along the seat. It was the kind of car she'd associate with Ezra, not a hired hand on a ranch. But she knew that in Texas, appearances were often deceiving. John Ross Ewing's uncle was one of the richest oilmen in the state, but he was just as likely to be seen in a battered F-250 that had been new when Ronald Reagan was in office, as he was in his red Mercedes.

"I wish I could say thanks, but it actually belongs to my cousin's sister-in-law. She contributed to me wreckin' my truck last week, so she's loanin' me this 'til mine's out of the shop. Beats the used Escort the insurance company wanted to loan me."

"Boy, I'll say!"

They drove for most of half an hour, accompanied by the country music coming from the stereo. Having lived with the Malloys as long as she had, Olivia knew she was listening to what most radio programmers nowadays called 'classic country,' which seemed to be anything produced during what Trent called "BG" - Before Garth. A gravelly voice she recognized as Merle Haggard came out of the speakers now.

"I can make it, for a day or two, without you,
And maybe, I can make it through the night.
I can smoke, and I can drink,
And probably be alright until morning.
But what am I gonna do,
With the rest of my life."

There was no mistaking 'King' George Strait for anyone else, even in one of his early hits:

"If you're thinkin' you want a stranger,
I'll soon be there.
You're gonna see a change in me,
This time I swear.
No more late nights,
Comin' in at daylight.
And no more doin' you wrong.
If you're thinkin' you want a stranger,
There's one comin' home."

Adam actually asked the name of the next singer, and Olivia laughed out loud that he didn't recognize Conway Twitty:

"And then, if someone asks you,
What I got you for your birthday.
You can say, Why,
He didn't get me anything.
But he sure took a lot of things away.
Happy birthday, darlin',
I've no presents, no fancy cake.
But I hope I'll make you happy,
With everything I take."

Kenny Rogers was singing, "And she believes in me, I'll never know just what she sees in me,"7 when the Mercedes cruised over to the side of a dirt road, and the cowboy turned to look at them, an apology in his eyes.

"I'm really sorry, I forgot I have to make a turn just on up the road here, I won't be goin' your way. If you head straight through those woods, you'll come out on the back of my cousin's place. He never remembers to set the alarm on his barn, you'll be okay." He pointed out into the pitch-dark field off to their right. "I really do apologize."

This time Adam wouldn't be deterred, after he and Olivia had gotten their stuff out of the trunk. "Here, for gas." He pushed the fifty into the cowboy's hand.

The cowboy took a look and grinned. "Hey, thanks! Now I can take my girl out for supper! Thanks!" He watched until they'd crossed the fence, then peeled out again. Adam handed Olivia the steel-cylinder while he took the lantern. They crossed about two hundred yards of field before coming to the woods, and found a well-worn trail.

Adam was about to say how easy this was going to be when they heard it. A thunderous crash, two large, heavy vehicles colliding, obscenely loud in the darkness. Olivia's eyes were huge in her face.

"Oh, my God."

Adam was busy shaking off his bags. "We gotta go help him, he helped us. Jesus, sounded like he hit a train. Or got hit by one."

Olivia shook out of her bags and followed Adam back across the field, their running pace causing the lights to shake crazily.

They found the turn the cowboy said he had to make about another five hundred yards down the road. There was no evidence of an accident. "Maybe he got further than we thought. Sound carries better at night." Olivia tried not to think about how it had rained while Pablo was driving them up from the city. And how there were no obvious tire tracks in the still-wet dirt road.

"Yeah, come on." They pressed on through the dark, eventually coming out at a vast, open expanse of grass, bordered by what seemed like miles of split-rail fencing, glowing ghostly white in the moonlight. The lights of a large ranch house shone in the distance, and Olivia gasped as she suddenly realized where she was. This was Southfork Ranch. If she was to get caught here ...

And there was no car wreck in sight.

"Okay, okay, this is - "

"Let's just get back to our stuff."

They ran the seven hundred yards back to where they'd left their baggage. And got another shock. The well-worn trail had vanished in a tangle of undergrowth.

"Nobody's been by here in at least twenty years," Olivia was really starting to get freaked out.

"'The Ride,'" Adam's voice was quiet. "It's - it was, at least - one of Buck's favorite songs. This guy - David Allen Coe - he's hitchhiking to Nashville, and he gets a ride from - "

" - From Hank Williams, Sr.'s ghost. Yeah, I've heard that one. There's 'Phantom 309,' too, by Red Sovine. This guy is hiking from California back East, and he gets caught out of town. This truck driver gives him a ride, and gives him money to get some coffee at the truck stop. When he tells the people at the truck stop this guy gave him a ride, he finds out that the trucker died ten years ago, at the spot where he was picked up." She looked around. It was starting to drizzle again. "Look, there's no way we'll make it back to town in the dark. Let's just find our way through this," she waved a hand to indicate the woods. "And then we'll figure out what to do in the morning. Maybe his cousin will give us a ride."

It took them a good twenty minutes to forge through the patch of trees, coming out just as they'd been told, on the back side of a small ranch house and barn. The barn wasn't locked, the alarm off. They got inside just as the thunder growled outside.

"Does it ever stop raining around here?" Adam looked around until he found where the blankets were stored, making them comfortable beds on hay piled in an unoccupied stall. There were about five horses in the barn, who greeted their arrival with curious whickers and quiet but friendly whinnies.

"This is very not normal, it's usually dry as dust around here. Last year, there was a wildfire right in Arlington, right in the middle of the city." Olivia was digging through one of her bags. She needed to change, there was no way she'd sleep in damp clothes.

"Well, wherever that cowboy went, he took my money with him. It's not back in my wallet," Adam commented.

"Was that all we've got?" The bright pink Colorado Rockies long-sleeved T-shirt would be warm enough to sleep in, and tomorrow she could shove up the sleeves to stay cool. Now for a pair of jeans, here they were.

"Not hardly, I just haven't sat down to count it all." Adam was digging through all of his bags, looking for something he didn't seem to be able to find. For a moment, Olivia was torn. She wasn't sure she liked to see him drinking, and not just because he was underage. But if this kind of borderline frantic was what happened when he was starting to sober up ...

"The lemonade, or just the whiskey itself?" And why did her voice suddenly sound so defeated to her own ears?

"Never mind, I just found it." He pawed around in the green duffel bag, coming up with the spiked lemonade.

Olivia opened the nearest door, which conveniently led to the tack room. She changed in there, and came out with her rain-dampened clothes in hand, which she stuffed back into her Thunder Karate duffel. Adam took her cue, changing into a pair of jeans time-worn and softened from black to charcoal gray, and a Colorado Avalanche 2001 Stanley Cup Champions sleeveless T-shirt. When he stepped back into the stall, Olivia could see more tattoos on his arms. The logos of several Colorado sports teams marched down his left arm - the Broncos, Nuggets, Rockies, Avalanche, Rapids, Crush, Mammoth and Outlaws. On his right arm was a broken heart, with the date '10-13-95' in fanciful script over it. It got her wondering what might be on his chest.

Bologna sandwiches were quickly made, with Adam commenting, "This'll be the last time we can trust the bologna, guess I shouldn't have bought so much." Folding and rolling two blankets each to serve as pillows, they settled down for the night, again. Within minutes, they were both sound asleep.

A little over an hour later, Ray Krebbs slipped into the barn, stepping over to the stall and looking in on them. He'd been woken out of a sound sleep by the appearance of his cousin Mickey Trotter standing at the end of his bed. His twenty-four years dead cousin. Mickey had given him a peaceful smile, and said, "Check the barn," before fading from sight. Ray leaped out of bed and ran to the barn, barely having the presence of mind to stuff his feet into a pair of sneakers, and not bothering with a shirt at all; he'd fallen asleep as his usual habit, in his jeans. He recognized Olivia on sight, and guessed that the young man with her must be the Adam Larabee that John Ross and Buck had told him to be on the lookout for. Ray checked the clock mounted on the wall nearby, the John Deere novelty clock his daughter Maggie had bought for his last birthday. It was sliding past eleven o'clock, closer to midnight. He'd leave them alone, call John Ross in the morning.

And if John Ross was looking for them, he'd just spend a couple hours tonight making sure that his firearms collection was loaded and ready to go, maybe call over to Southfork and see if some of the boys were a mind to raise a little old-fashioned Texas hell.

Walker Ranch
Outside Dallas

Vin drove. That way, if they did get pulled over for going 80 in a 35 in a rental Excursion, he could get them out of it. Besides which, he was the only one who really knew the layout of the area, and where they were going. In the two years since he'd been discovered to be a Ewing, Buck could get himself from DFW to Southfork, from either of those to the Ewing Oil offices at Fountain Place down on Ross Ave., around to the major sports arenas - the Cotton Bowl, Texas Stadium, American Airlines Center, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, FC Dallas's new Pizza Hut Park - and to Reunion Tower and the Oil Baron's Club. Beyond those selected locations, the Metroplex made about as much sense to Buck as J.D.'s Boston did to Vin.

Chris barely noticed when the city became suburbs became farmland, fields and woods. The parental intuition he'd thought long dead seemed to have been only dormant, and now that it knew its primary focus was still alive, it was screaming at him. Something was very wrong, Adam was in deep trouble.

Buck shifted in his seat, second shotgun. Vin was driving, Chris was first shotgun, Buck right behind him. Now Buck angled his big body in between the front captain's seats, trying to see the dashboard. "Hey, Junior, what's the top end on one of these rigs?"

"Ain't," Vin replied flatly. "S'dark, s'rainin', we're outta town. Ain't."

"Okay, just askin'." Buck sat back.

"'Sides," Vin continued as he began pumping the brakes to dump velocity. "This here's th' turnoff fer th' rez. We'll be at Walker's place in 'bout fifteen, mebbe twenty minutes." He began cranking the wheel to the right as the headlights lit up a sign announcing their arrival at a Cherokee reservation. Predictably, they moved off the paved road and onto dirt, which was more like mud now. Numerous vehicles - most of them pickups and SUVs - had churned up the road, and Vin growled as he downshifted, pushing the drive into four-low.

Vin was focused on one thing right now - getting Chris to Walker's front door in the shortest amount of time possible. Chris had pulled him aside and explained the situation at the airport, including why he hadn't said anything before they left Denver. Vin couldn't really argue with his brother's logic. To Sarah, he was a stranger. Chris and Buck could tell her that she could trust Vin from now until the Rangers won the World Series, but talk was cheap. Vin was going to have to prove himself - all the boys were. He hissed as he braked the Excursion before a water-covered bridge. "Dang it all."

They piled out, coming to stand in the Excursion's headlights. What looked like a normally placid creek was now about to break its banks, and had covered the bridge. Thanks to the murkiness of the water, they couldn't see if the bridge itself was even still there, or if it had been washed away to leave only the railing to mislead the unwary. On the other side, an early-Nineties Ford Bronco eased to a stop, marked with the shield of the Cherokee tribal police. A lean-built man in his mid-50s swung down, his uniform covered with a dark green full-length poncho, the hood back to accommodate his Stetson. "Don't cross, it's out!" He hollered across.

"We's tryin' ta git ta Walker's!" Vin called back. "Is there 'nother way?"

The tribal cop gave Vin a considering look. "Sees Beyond The Sky? I thought you were in Colorado?"

"I am, Sheriff Coyote, but Walker called me back here, an' I got ta git ta his place. Is there 'nother way?"

Tribal Sheriff Sam Coyote looked first up the creek, then down. "You know where Red Cloud lives? You could try going by his place. But don't take the turnoff to George Black Fox's, that's flooded out, too."

"Yeah, I know by Red Cloud's, thank ya kindly. Hey, if'n Dep'ty Black Fox is flooded out, Bitter Water's gonna be in trouble right quick. Someone go in an' git White Eagle ta high ground?"

Sam shook his head. "I was out there yesterday, he won't budge. And Judge Fivekills has been after him for weeks."

"He'll see reason when he's got ta doggy-paddle out, I reckon. Y'all be careful." Vin turned back to the Excursion, the others following him. Sam Coyote stayed, to put up some red nylon warning flags.

Vin was cussing in Spanish when they got back in the SUV. "Puts 'nother forty-five minutes, mebbe a whole hour on it."

"Just get us there safe, Vin. That's all I'm askin'." Buck clipped his seat belt closed.

Chris nodded. "Won't do me any good if we drown."

Vin reversed and got them back on the paved road, driving for another twenty minutes before turning onto a second dirt road, this one in slightly better condition. They passed three trucks coming the other way, Vin stopping each time to ask the drivers if they'd been up to Red Cloud's, was the way still clear. The third person they spoke to was Deputy Sheriff George Black Fox, who reported that he'd just come from Bitter Water himself, and no, the shaman White Eagle still wouldn't leave.

"I keep tryin' to remind myself that he's seen this weather a lot more than I have, and that he should know when it won't be safe to stay there any longer." Black Fox groused.

"Jist r'member, if'n he does need rescuin', ya don't tell an elder ya done tol' 'im so." Vin grinned.

"Oh, I can't," Black Fox agreed. "But believe me, Judge Fivekills will."

Something occurred to Vin. "Hey, if'n yer flooded out an' Bitter Water's threatened, Judge must have water comin' up his place."

"Oh, he does," George cackled as he reached to put his Bronco in gear. "But he's up in Anadarko, visiting his grandson!"

Vin was chuckling as he rolled the window up.

"'Magine this floodin' must be a nuisance fo' most folks," Nathan was sitting behind Vin, with Josiah between himself and Buck. J.D. and Ezra had what J.D. called 'the way-back' to themselves. "But 'round here - "

Vin cut him off. "'Round here, th' People take care of each other."

A battered Chevy station wagon came up behind them a while later, stopping as it drew even. A woman leaned over the 9- or 10-year-old girl sitting shotgun. "You going up to Red Cloud's? Who - Vin Tanner?"

"Yeah. Hey, Rachel. Thought y'all'd be in Florida with Brian."

The little girl ducked her head, shiny black hair falling forward over her glasses, and her childishly round face.

"We would have been, but Brianna," Rachel nodded at the girl. "Came down with an ear infection and can't fly."

Vin gave the little girl a sympathetic look. It was obvious from her posture that she was blaming herself, as children her age tended to when something went haywire in their lives. "Whyn't ya try ta stay in our tire tracks, I'll take ya up ta Red Cloud's? We's tryin' ta git ta Walker's but th' bridge on th' main road washed out."

"Yeah, Luther Iron Shirt and his truck almost went with it." Rachel Falcon settled back into the driver's seat, waiting until Vin pulled the Excursion ahead.

"Man, if'n Brian's floodin' out, Bitter Water's got ta be next."

"How old is White Eagle?" Josiah inquired.

"Old 'nough ta've bin in Korea," Vin replied. "An' I think him an' Judge Fivekills both had ta lie 'bout they's ages ta git there. Walker's Uncle Ray tried, but th' Army found out his older brother - Walker's Daddy - was already enlisted an' sent 'im home."

"I'll bet he didn't like that," Josiah's voice held more than a hint of a laugh.

"He tried goin' up when Walker enlisted in th' Marines fer Vietnam, but Walker like ta killed him. Tol' 'im, 'I need ya here, so's I know I got somethin' to come back ta.' Ray was th' only family Walker had left, his Momma's family disowned her when she married Walker's Daddy, on 'count of she was white, and John Firewalker was Cherokee. In 1950, they didn't cotton ta such things, 'specially 'round here. It's what ended up gittin' 'em both kilt, when Walker was thirteen. He survived 'cause he looked more like her than his Daddy."

"It happened to an acquaintance of my father's," Ezra's voice was quieter than they were used to. "Her father was white, but her mother had come from Haiti. Her father left the family when Marella was barely three. Ten years later, the trailer she and her mother lived in was torched with them inside. Father had gotten off the highway at the wrong exit, then taken a wrong turn trying to find his way back. The odds that he would have been in that place at that time ... he was able to save Marella, but not her mother. He subsequently took responsibility for her - her education and upbringing. She went on to become his right arm." He was silent for a few moments more, then, "She died for her loyalty."

"And you lived," Josiah didn't look around. The headlights from the station wagon behind them would provide too much light for Ezra's liking if he did. Ezra didn't answer, Josiah hadn't expected him to. It had been clear from his tone of voice that Ezra still didn't consider it an even trade-off, and Josiah knew from Maude that Ezra's father had died in 1986.

Ten minutes later, a large two-story frame house was lit up by the Excursion's headlights. Several vehicles were parked around the clearing, as Vin had expected of a house on high ground.

He got out, to help Rachel and Brianna get their stuff inside, waving the others to stay inside. Buck looked like he was about to object, until J.D. stopped him.

"We're outsiders, Buck. We may be Vin's friends, but around here, we're outsiders."

Buck sat back, silent, watching Vin and Rachel walk back and forth between the station wagon and the house. A tiny woman who could have been anywhere from fifty to ninety stood on the front porch and scolded them, smacking Vin on the arm once when he sassed back. Brianna appeared in the door with a piece of fry bread in her hand, and gave Vin a quick, one-armed hug. He backed away from the house, talking to the old woman, shaking his head 'no' the whole way. She finally gave up and went inside when his back rapped against the Excursion's fender.

He waited until they were well out of sight to rub his arm. "Dang, glad I never had her fer a teacher." They were on a new road, one that went at a right angle from the one they'd been on before.

"What did you say?" Chris asked. Vin slanted a sly look across the vehicle.

"It loses somethin', goin' from Cherokee ta English."

"Yeah, I just bet it does." That got a laugh all around, as they'd intended.

"Th' good news is, we shouldn't have any trouble gittin' ta Walker's from here. John Red Hawk said they jist come up from that way, didn't have no trouble. Passed Walker's on th' way, saw lights on. They'd've tried ridin' it out at their place, 'ceptin' the power already gone out on 'em a couple times, an' Katy's asthma. She has a machine if'n she has a bad attack, but they don't got a generator if'n th' power quits for a long while. Red Cloud has."

A little less than another thirty minutes after that, they came upon a house in a large clearing, with a white-trimmed red barn to one side, surrounded by corrals. The house had porches front and back on the first story, but not along the sides, or on the second floor. Lights were on inside, and a small light over the back door lit up a child's bright pink bike, with training wheels. Chris felt his heart twist - they'd just taken the training wheels off Adam's bike the weekend Before, and he had still been a little wobbly, still wanted an adult close by.

"A bike," Vin was shaking his head. "Th' last time I's down here, Angela was still pullin' herself 'long th' furniture, hadn't even took her first free steps, yet. Now she's got a bike."

"It does go quick," Nathan intoned. He had been the first of them to get married and start a family - Obadiah had turned nine in June, and little Ebany had been born in April. Chris was very grateful that Rain had been there from the beginning of Team 7, and that she understood him hauling Nathan off to Texas when they had a three-month-old in the house. It wasn't that Obadiah wouldn't help his mother, it was simply the matter of dynamiting the kid out of whatever book he'd buried himself in at the moment. Harry Potter was a huge hit in the Jackson home.

They'd come up to the house from the back, which meant Chris could just get out and walk up to the front door, without having to round the front of the truck. Walker's Ram was parked close to the house, a considerable coating of mud dulling its silver paint, so Vin pulled beyond it. He couldn't see Alex's black Durango, but if there was trouble -

'Uh, 'scuse me, IF'N?' A loud little voice in his head piped up suddenly. 'IF'N there's trouble? This's Walker we's talkin' 'bout, here. An' then throw y'all lot in, an' ya want ta talk ta me 'bout IF'N?'

Oh, shut up, you, Vin mentally snarled back at it. Walker woulda jist driven both of 'em back in th' Ram, left Alex's rig in town. Cuts down on escape options, sure, but he wouldn't have ta worry 'bout gittin' split up in th' travelin'. Th' bad guys've gotten ta Alex that way b'fore, y'know. An' aw Hell, I'm talkin' ta myself, now of all times. He braked the Excursion to a stop, hissing through his teeth as the SUV shimmied and slid a bit in the mud bog that was usually Walker's driveway. Walker's grandfather had never had the drive graded, so his uncle had never had it graded when he inherited the house. So Walker wasn't about to have it graded now, no matter that even though he and Alex both had 4WD, they still risked sinking axle-deep when it did damn rain. Vin entertained a short but very amusing mental picture of Jimmy Trivette's shiny black Mustang sinking up to the windows, if for whatever reason he was foolish enough to come out here before the ground dried out. That would be some fun scene to watch. For now, he cranked the wheel hard right, trying to get out of the mud and up on the grass. For a few seconds it looked as if even such a vehicle as an Excursion might get stuck in the thick Texas gumbo, but then the front tires found traction. They ended up under the tree in the front yard, and Vin shifted into park.

Sarah had tried not to worry, but the phone calls had started coming in. Tribal Sheriff Sam Coyote had intercepted seven men in an Excursion at the bridge on the main road, one of them had been a 'Vin Tanner' who it seemed Walker and Alex knew. Sam had redirected Vin and his companions to the road going up to 'Red Cloud's place,' and Deputy Sheriff George Black Fox reported seeing them along the road. Then Rachel Falcon had called from Red Cloud's house exactly, saying she could see Vin's taillights going away. As Alex had said goodbye to Rachel, she'd smiled at Sarah and told her that Chris would be here within half an hour, surely no more than forty-five minutes. She'd then given Walker a quick rundown of the 'refugees' currently taking shelter at Red Cloud's and elsewhere - families with exotic names like Red Hawk, Bright Hawk and Iron Shirt; Iron Hand, Crow Feather and Bright Feather; Who Talks, Little Bear and Gray Wolf; Little Eagle, Running Bear and Running Wolf; Lone Wolf, Going-Snake and Grey Fox; Red Bird and Raven and Ironhorse. She laughed at herself; to these people, names like Larabee, Connelly and O'Rourke were the exotic ones.

When she caught herself watching the clock and the window, she begged Alex for something - anything! - to do. "My mother would be appalled at me making a guest help me sort laundry," Alex had admitted with no small amount of chagrin.

Sarah looked up at the utility-room ceiling. "Mrs. Cahill, I hope you're not minding, but if I've nothing to do but compare the clock to the window for the next hour, I'll be as mad as Ella before Chris ever gets here, and that's the truth of it!" Alex was laughing so hard she had to hold on to the dryer to keep from simply collapsing in a pile on the floor. It took her several minutes to regain her composure.

"I don't remember a lot about my Dad's family, but I do have a vague memory of being about nine or ten, and my Great-Aunt Orlagh - and that's why I can remember this, because I've never met anyone else named Orlagh ever again - explaining to me the difference between 'shanty Irish' and 'lace-curtain Irish.'"

John Ross had been drawn by the laughter and now held up the doorframe, thumbs hooked in his belt loops. "There's a difference?" At Sarah's arch look he threw up his hands palm-out to ward her off. "Hey, I'm Scotch, I don't know!"

"There's truth," Sarah agreed. "You can always tell a Scotsman. You just can't tell him much."

Alex's laughter now was more of a groan as she rolled her eyes. "I can say the same thing about a Cherokee."

"I heard that!" Came from down the hall, somewhere to John Ross' left.

"You were supposed to!" Alex fired back. "We're going to have guests any minute, and you want me to get started on your misadventures now, darling?"

"To answer your question, John Ross, 'lace-curtain' Irish set store in the 'niceties,' as my Ma would call it. It's important that a task be completed, but it must be completed with style. Appearances are essential, the smallest detail is as vital as the largest." She glanced at him to see if he understood. He was nodding.

"Sounds like my grandmother. And shanty Irish?"

"Well now, the shanty Irish like a wee dram of whiskey now and again, love to laugh, and take life as it's handed to them."

Now John Ross laughed. "And that's Granddaddy, Scotch though he may be. Come to think of it, that's pretty much all the men in my family, except we mostly skip the whiskey part. Daddy had to get a new liver about twelve years ago, he started drinking when he was in high school, nearly fifty years - I was really shocked he hadn't keeled over a long time before that. Uncle Gary's better now, but back about fifteen, twenty years ago, he was on and off the wagon half a dozen times at least. Uncle Ray and Uncle Bobby stopped after Daddy got sick and they got scared. Buck I guess still does, but he knows when to stop himself, he doesn't get stupid with it. And he doesn't when he's down here visiting, out of respect."

"And you?" Sarah asked gently. John Ross snorted.

"I am the only son of J.R. Ewing and Sue Ellen Shepard. I never even started drinking at all, I grew up with those two for parents. Momma is much better now, she's been on the wagon for about twenty years, but Daddy made the best part of the twenty years before that a living Hell for her. When Daddy got sick, I said I wasn't at all surprised, it was just a matter of which one of them it was going to be first. His coming down with cirrhosis scared her into getting a full check-up."

"I really need to get after my own father about that," Alex muttered as she sorted Walker's shirts. "If you get a shirt that's Walker's, Sarah, check the seams and the buttons before you put it in this pile. His clothes take a lot of abuse."

"Grandma says she mends my shirts more now than she did when I was ten." John Ross chuckled. "And it wasn't that my cousin and I weren't pounding each other's faces into the dirt every chance we got back then, either."

The phone rang, and Walker called out that he had it. John Ross tipped his head back to hear better, then mouthed 'Trivette,' to the two women. Alex nodded, and Sarah suddenly became very interested in sorting shirts. The only reason she could think of for Jimmy Trivette to be calling was to inform Walker that Forensics was finished with the bombed van. She looked up when Alex touched her arm gently. Alex had a sympathetic, supportive look on her face. What she would have said Sarah didn't know, because just as Alex opened her mouth, a car horn sounded from outside, a simple two-toot signal.

The utility room - distinctly unlike most such rooms John Ross knew of - wasn't directly accessible from outside the house. One had to enter by the back door and walk down a short hallway, and the room's only window would have been a tight squeeze for the male bobcat whose territory included the ranch. Knowing Walker had the front of the house covered - front and back doors only, there was no 'side door' here - John Ross held one hand palm-out to signal Alex and Sarah to stay where they were while he drew his .45 and checked the back door.

"It's okay, John Ross," Walker called from the front. "It's them; Vin just hit the dome light."

Every butterfly in Texas suddenly invaded Sarah's stomach, and her heart began to race.

Outside, Chris and Buck slid out of the Excursion, while Vin held out one hand to forestall the others. "We wait, fellas. Bucklin'll let us know when it's time, but jist now, we need ta give Chris a minute er two."

Chris turned just before he shut the door. "You can tell them now, Vin." Then he walked toward the house with Buck in tow. Buck didn't look anything like his usual steady.

Sarah felt as if she was floating, that her feet weren't touching the floor. She wished she wasn't wearing borrowed clothes; 'At least the shirt is green,'; how much would he have changed? She hadn't dared ask in March of 2000, when Ella had given triumphant birth to a green-eyed baby girl she'd named Faith Christina. She'd simply savored her own inner sense of triumph when Faith's favorite person turned out to be Adam.

The door opened before Vin could knock, Walker standing there in jeans and a Longhorns T-shirt. He let them in without a word, then faded off into the living room. Alex was nowhere in sight. Buck stayed by the door, actually leaning back on it, as he in no way trusted his legs to hold him up. Tomorrow he'd go back to being the Rock of Gibraltar; tonight, he had about as much strength as the sand in his kids' sandbox. From here, he could see clear down the long hall, almost to the back door. The floor plan of the house wasn't quite a modified shotgun, but it was durned close. He was just taller enough than Chris to see beyond him, to catch a glimpse of dark auburn hair and an - oh, dear LORD - emerald green T-shirt, a split hair before an anguished cry of "CHRIS!" rang through the house.

Sarah wasn't aware of moving but she must have, because the very next thing she was aware of was being in Chris' embrace, held high off the floor, his arms strong and tight around her, like the implacable coils of a python. Holding her so tight she nearly couldn't breathe and didn't care. A shadow couldn't have slipped between them. Her name sounded like torn silk in her ears, she simply chanted his.

"Sarah, sweet Sarah. I have missed you so much, and I've been livin' in Hell without you. My sweet Sarah."

His face was strangely blurry when she looked at him, until she realized she was crying and blinked the tears away. Her mother's voice in her head again, "Sadness is when you hold the tears inside," words meant to comfort a teenager who was trying to be 'a good Air Force daughter,' to be stoic in the face of her mother's terminal illness. Sarah couldn't imagine that Maureen O'Rourke Connelly had ever envisioned her only daughter's life turning out as it had. She brought one trembling hand up, to frame the left side of Chris' face. She'd wondered how he might have changed, and the evidence was right there, in those crystalline green eyes. The merry sparkle she'd so loved was gone, and in its' place was a hard, cold darkness, a burning kind of rage. Green ice, on fire. It was a look she could see on their son, any day of the week.

"It's really you, you're really here." Chris's voice was full of surprised wonder, as if he hadn't quite allowed himself to believe. Sure that he was being played, certain that at the last minute everything would be yanked away, like Lucy van Pelt and Charlie Brown and the football. But no, this time it was real, the dream/nightmare that had taunted him for over a decade was real. And Sarah was not at all surprised to see hot tears melting that burning green ice.

"Sarah ... " a hand, shaking as much as her own, raised to brush across her cheek, smooth over the dark fire silk of her hair. His face blurred again, but only because he had pulled her up again, aligning their faces for a kiss. He tasted like whiskey, but only a little.

Buck had gone straight down to his knees when Sarah had cried out, crumpled by the weight of his own emotions. Buck had never been, could never be, stoic and controlled like Chris or Vin or Ezra. Everything Buck Wilmington felt was right out there on full display. Joy, sadness, rage - for good or ill, the world knew exactly where things stood with Buck. He looked up now, as Chris began to speak again.

"If I had even had a second to think ... Sarah, sweet Sarah ... even a hint that I hadn't lost you forever. Sarah, my God, twelve years. We've lost twelve years."

It was the words 'lost you forever,' that dropped the final penny for Sarah. She gave him a stunned look. "Lost me? Why would you think ... oh, Chris!"

Now it was his turn to look stunned. 'She didn't know I thought ... ' of course not, he realized, as anger finally shoved through the sheer soaring joy. Ella hadn't told Sarah that she'd fixed things to make him think ... and Sarah and Adam had spent all this time living on that shoestring of hope. That all they had to do was stay alive for One More Day. Tomorrow, he'll find us.

A memory of himself at 17, the final fight with his father. He'd been a little drunk, and a lot full of teenage male machismo. What Col. David Larabee had started with words, his son had been determined to finish another way. They had paced around the family room, the old lion and the overgrown cub. Trading shouts accompanied by the barking of Laurel Larabee's ever-present Golden Retrievers, until David had unwisely strayed too close to Chris' personal airspace. The last thing Chris really remembered yet to this day before waking up in the ER with a grinning Buck was taking that first fateful swing. And if Adam was anything like he had been, had spent all this time thinking Chris knew he was still alive, and thought his father should have been looking for him ...

"Oh, Lord, is Adam gonna be pissed ... "

Down the hall, John Ross mouthed an incredulous 'Gonna be?' to Alex and earned himself a slap on the arm.

Chris dropped his forehead to rest against Sarah's. "One of Ella's goons planted a bomb in my Jeep, love. I thought ... all this time ... " he suddenly remembered. Buck had the pictures, in his carry-on. And Buck's carry-on was sitting outside in the Excursion, stuffed along with the rest of their luggage - and Ezra and J.D. - into the way-back. Neither he nor Buck had considered themselves a mind to drive, or they would have rented a second vehicle just for their gear.

Most of the time it caught her unaware - the infamous 'pot roast incident' flashed across her mind - but sometimes Sarah could feel her Irish 'going up.' She wanted Ella Gaines' throat within arm's reach, and she wanted it there right now, if you please. Chris was turning, looking back toward the door. "Buck?" A deep sigh. "Hey, Buck." And she peered around Chris to see Buck on his knees, quickly scrubbing his face on the sleeve of a cobalt blue shirt that almost matched his eyes. He forced himself shakily to his feet, and managed a watery smile, holding his arms out in a polar bear posture as Sarah came to him.

A polar bear hug, indeed, and she felt as much as heard his greeting. "The wind blew, the clouds parted, and out came the sun."

She could only laugh as she looked up at him. "And you haven't changed a bit."

The watery grin turned sly. "Why mess with perfection, darlin'?" As quickly as that, he sobered again, hands coming up to catch her shoulders. "Sarah, there's somethin' I need to say to you, somethin' I need to apologize for - "

Chris groaned in exasperation. "Are you gonna drag this out again? Buck, I've told you - "

"And you're gonna let me get through it, for once!" For just a moment - she'd have missed it entirely if she hadn't been paying such close attention - fire flashed through Buck's eyes. "For just once, Chris, you are gonna let me get through this." The two men shared a long look over her head, before Chris sighed and shook his head. Buck nodded and returned his attention to Sarah.

"Sarah, that day ... you know me and Chris were supposed to be home the night before. And that's my fault, darlin'. I talked Chris into stayin' the extra night. Just so I could cozy up to a little lady I met at the hotel bar. And I kept Chris in Mexico, when you and Adam needed him so badly in Denver."

Chris was shaking his head and muttering, "I coulda just caught the flight out and left you to catch up the next day yourself."

Sarah could see the guilt and sorrow in Buck's eyes, glowing like the lights of his native Las Vegas. This gorilla had been sitting on the big man's shoulders for twelve long years. She shook her head in amused exasperation. One of the multitude of 'Dutch aunts' of her military brat childhood had introduced her to the Anne of Green Gables books, and Mrs. Rachel Lynde's famous, "Well, isn't that just like a man." But 'Aunt Pat's' version had been more like, "Well, he's a man, what do you expect?"

"And if you had come back on schedule, wouldn't Ella have simply bided her time, waiting for another chance? And someone might really have been killed. Or worse! Buck, the only person at fault for what happened to us is Ella herself, and she's finally getting her comeuppance. You are entirely innocent, and I've never once blamed you." She stood on her toes to press a kiss to his damp cheek as Chris exclaimed "SEE?" behind her. Buck let out a shuddering sigh that shook his entire frame and hugged her close again, the weight of Mount Everest lifting off his shoulders. When Sarah stepped back again, sliding like the breeze from his arms into the curve of Chris', Buck's trademark goofy grin was back in place.

"Thank you, little darlin'."

Chris was glad that was over, though he bet there was going to be a repeat with Adam. "Why don't you go get those pictures now. And get the guys in here, already. I was gettin' cramped in the front seat, you and Nate and 'Siah must have been dyin', stuffed in there together."

"Me and Nate, sure, but you know Josiah. He's still stuck on that 'sufferin' is good for the soul' business." Buck chuckled as he reached back for the doorknob.

"So were the nuns at every school I ever attended!" Sarah shot back with asperity. "I believe my soul's suffered quite enough, thank you!"

Buck laughed his way out the door, waving at the truck. "Come on in and meet her, boys! Hey, Kid, grab that pack of photos in my bag on your way out?"

"We have to excavate yours, first, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra replied, gratefully extricating himself from the SUV's rear seats. He speared J.D. with a look that would have melted diamonds. "Never again, Mr. Dunne."

J.D. stuck his tongue out as he pawed through Buck's carry-on. "You mean these, Buck?"

"Those're them, thanks." Buck slipped the paperboard folder between his denim shirt and the T-shirt he wore under it. "Come on, she's only Momma Bear if you get her Irish goin'."

Inside, Walker, Alex and John Ross had finally emerged. John Ross ducked into the living room to snag the picture of Olivia, which he was now tapping against one denim-clad thigh. He stood back as Sarah was introduced to the balance of Team 7, then caught Vin's eye. He passed over the picture.

"She's been staying with Miz Katie Malloy, but she rabbited earlier tonight, after Trent said you were coming in. Her name is Olivia."

Vin had been frowning at the picture, but the frown turned to a look of astonishment as John Ross revealed the girl's name and his mind made the connection.

"She ran? Why'n th' Hell would she do a dang fool thing like that?"

"We were hoping you'd know," Alex's heart took a final sharp dive, like that first drop on a roller coaster.