Find Out Who Your Friends Are
Ray Krebbs' ranch
Braddock Co., Texas
Ray looked around his kitchen in satisfaction. Three truckloads of Southfork hired men had answered his call, along with Bobby, James and James' teenage son, who went by the self-created name of 'Jarick.' His younger brother Jack had complained mightily at being ordered to stay home, but a range war at Southfork had always had one hard-and-fast rule - all participants had to be old enough to be charged as adults. Nobody on the Ewing side was going to be hung with a juvenile record if something went wrong.
Adam and Olivia still slept in the barn. Bobby, James and Jarick had helped Ray silently do the morning's chores, and turn the horses out. Ray had confiscated Adam's Jim Beam, pouring both it and the doctored lemonade down the drain. Mickey would have been 47 this year, if not for the booze. Between Ray calling over to Southfork and the men arriving, a folded $50 had mysteriously appeared on the mantel, next to a picture of a smiling Mickey with Ray's niece Lucy Ewing. A single, shining, golden moment in time, shattered irreparably a scant 48 hours later.
"I still think we oughtta call John Ross, have him bring Walker and them up here. If these bastards do track Adam here, we can catch them between the Devil and the deep blue sea." Jarick never called John Ross 'Uncle,' there wasn't even ten years between them. He was currently zeroing in his favorite elk rifle through Ray's kitchen window.
"If what I got from John Ross is true, Buck's friend won't leave his wife - Adam's Momma - alone at Walker's, in case 'these bastards' track her there. And he sure won't bring her here." Ray told him.
Jarick shrugged. "So stop off and leave her havin' tea with Nana Ellie 'til we get through this."
Ray shook his head. Had he ever been that cocky? Yeah, he had. Right up until that military transport touched down at Tan Son Nhut. Vietnam had had her ways of dealing with young American hotheads, though he still personally believed that if Uncle Sam had sent over more rednecks and hillbillies instead of city kids, they'd not only have won the war, but there would be Wal-Marts and Masonic lodges in Saigon, now.
James reached over to smack his eldest upside the head. "You're just aching to spend the rest of your life in Huntsville, aren't you? Don't drop the soap, genius."
"Hey, at least if someone sticks a shiv in me in the joint, I'll know it's for somethin' I actually did, not because I'm gettin' hung with the blame for Granddaddy hornswogglin' somebody." Jarick snapped his head around to give his father a pointed look that Bobby and Ray chorused with chortling. Somewhere between the War on Terror and a pair of particularly nasty ladies named Katrina and Rita, J.R. Ewing had been his usual oh-so-charming self, characteristically sticking someone else with cleaning up his messes. 'Someone else' in this case being Bobby, James and Sue Ellen. It had taken a lot of midnight oil, a lot of prayer and a lot of good old-fashioned shuck an' jive, but they'd managed to save Enron's past from becoming Ewing Oil's future. J.R. sometimes had trouble remembering that the high times of the 1980's were decidedly over. It wasn't Alzheimer's, he just wasn't ready for his own personal good times to stop rolling, no matter what the economy of the rest of the world said.
One of the men gave a warning whistle. "We got company, comin' in from the south."
Jarick reached over and tapped a button on his cell phone, the kind that had two-way radio capabilities. As far as Ray could tell, the only functions the damned thing didn't serve were to open the kid's soda and drive his truck for him. Where in the world did you find the time to listen to 5,000 songs? Two beeps came through the speaker, the boys in the barn had seen their uninvited visitors.
After that, things got very interesting, very quickly. Whoever 'these bastards' were, they sure hadn't planned on being rebuffed by a bunch of Texas cowboys. They made an attempt at running, only to find they'd been boxed in by men on horseback. Angry American men on horseback. In less than ten minutes, it was all over but the paperwork, and Ray was shaking his head at the bodies in his yard. The Marine as well as the Texan in him more than understood the concept of death before dishonor, but he also believed in the ideal that war wasn't about dying for your own country. It was about making the other poor bastard die for his. He guessed that was what separated Americans from most of the countries that hated them. An American soldier's normal instinct was self-preservation, living to fight another day. Bobby's Christopher had recounted in his letters and e-mails some interesting conversations with Afghan tribesmen along the concept of martyrdom for your chosen cause right now vs. living to continue the struggle later. Christopher refused to believe that the mythical promise of "72 virgins in Paradise" explained anything.
Jarick echoed his thoughts. "Christopher's right, I totally don't get it."
Ray gave the kid a thin smile. He was shaky and pale, and Ray wouldn't lay money on his supper hanging around long enough to wave to breakfast on its' way out the door, but he'd handled himself well, overall. He still looked a damn sight better than the two kids standing on the back porch, looking at the burning barn. How he'd never know, but they'd managed to grab all of their gear before the roof caved in. The barn cat lay on a chaise lounge nearby, lazily grooming her kittens. Ray did a quick head count as he walked by, pleasantly surprised to see that Momma Cat had likewise gotten out with all ten kittens intact. He had some tuna to hold them over, until he could get to the feed store later this week and stock up on cat food, until he could get a new barn put up. And that was another thing, they hadn't had a barn-raisin' around these parts in longer than he cared to think about.
A whistle from the front of the house, then, "Nevermind, it's John Ross! Hey, wiseass, what's the PowerBall numbers this week?"
"What the Hell happened here?!? Uncle Ray? Uncle Bobby?" Damn, he'd recognized Bobby's red F-250. Someone obviously directed him around back, because he came jogging around the house moments later, a worried look on his face. The first faces he saw were Adam and Olivia. He stopped and planted his hands on his belt, turning to look at the barn. Nobody was bothering to call the fire department - Hell, some of these men were the local volunteer fire department. The ground immediately around the barn for a good fifty feet had been soaked with a hose, and the water kept turned on as a precaution; but with the weather lately, nobody could really see any reason to bother whoever was on duty at the station proper in town.
John Ross turned back around. "Judas Priest on a pony, you two. Buck's about ready to call an Amber Alert across the whole damn Southwest."
Olivia didn't know about Adam, but once the bullets started flying, her nerve went with them. "You don't gotta shout, I'll go peaceably."
"First peaceable thing you've done the whole time I've known you." He shifted his gaze to Adam, who looked away fast, cursing his inability to control his tendency to blush. He was one of those Irishmen who had moon-pale skin to go with his naturally dark red hair. He jammed his fists in his pockets and hunched his shoulders. John Ross had mercy. She'd only actually shot him once, but growing up with J.R. and Sue Ellen for parents was as close to a war zone as John Ross ever wanted to get.
"We have every intention of calling the boys at the Sheriff's office to come help us clean this up," Bobby announced, in what he hoped was a repentant tone of voice. It didn't work on his nephew.
"Oh, yeah, I just bet you do." He sighed and shook his head, thinking he was going to give himself whiplash doing that one of these days. He looked at the pair on the porch again. "Okay, you two. Gather up your stuff and let's go. It's a long way out to Walker's - even longer since the main road's out at the rez - and we'll be hitting town just in time for rush hour. You need a hand?"
Pride warred with Misery, and Misery won. Adam nodded, and John Ross stepped up on the porch to shoulder a few bags himself. He favored Olivia with a sardonic grin.
"Piece of advice, shortstop? Next time you bail out like this, don't carry your Thunder Karate bag through the 'Plex. You might as well just take out a billboard on the freeway." She mustered up enough sass to cross her eyes at him.
Ray came back from where he'd disappeared into the house. "Hold up a second there, John Ross." He passed a folded $50 to Adam. "This yours?"
Adam dropped it like it had burned his hand. He recognized it, all right. Right down to where someone with a red magic marker had put a dot in the lower left-hand corner of the front. His voice when he found it was hollow and shaky. "I gave it ... to that cowboy. He ... the one who gave us a ride from town. He had to let us off, back there." He turned to point off into the woods.
Olivia crouched to pick up the money. "We were just about to the trees, it sounded like he messed with a train. We went to look, came out on the front side of Southfork, he was just ... gone. Then when we went back to where he'd let us off, there was this trail, but when we got back there, it was all ... grown over." She looked up at Ray. "He said you were his cousin."
Ray nodded. "I was. He turned up in my room, told me to check the barn. I found you two, that's when I called in the cavalry." He gave a jerk of his head to indicate the men standing 'round. Then he showed them the framed picture in his hand.
Adam took one look and jumped straight back, almost going over the chaise lounge. Momma Cat yowled a protest, chorused by her kittens. Olivia's brown eyes were huge in her pale face.
It wasn't just the picture, it was the calendar, clearly visible over Lucy Ewing's left shoulder: April 1983. Bobby scowled at the image. "Ray, you don't seriously think ... "
"That's the guy who gave us a ride, that's even the outfit he was wearing. Even the hat. He was driving an old Mercedes, silver. Said ... said it belonged to his cousin's sister-in-law. She'd made him wreck his truck, so she was loaning him her car while the truck was in the shop."
"Explains the music coming out of the stereo." At Bobby's look, Olivia hurried on. "What Am I Gonna Do (With The Rest Of My Life) by Merle Haggard, Happy Birthday Darlin' by Conway Twitty, If You're Thinkin' You Want A Stranger(There's One Coming Home) by King George, A Headache Tomorrow (Or A Heartache Tonight) by Mickey Gilley, and She Believes In Me by Kenny Rogers. Five songs right straight in a row, but the radio station never once broke in."
Bobby looked back at Ray, whose face was set in stone. "The newest song on that list was Merle, and I know that that was released in '83. Mickey picked these two up at the bus depot, in Sue Ellen's old Mercy, the one she - they - were in that night. He let them off where him and Lucy cut that path between here and Southfork. The crash they heard was the Mercedes collidin' with Walt Driscoll's car."
John Ross let out a long breath. He'd been not-quite three, he didn't remember. Only that Lucy's boyfriend Mickey had been there one day and not-there-anymore the next. Ray had blamed J.R., saying that if the older man had treated his wife even halfway decent, she wouldn't have been driven to the bottle, wouldn't have tried to go tearing off that night, half in the bag already. "Momma was going to go out that night. She'd had a fight with my father - one among the many, she'd caught him cheating for about the fifty-millionth time - and she was three sheets to the wind. Mickey was dating my cousin Lucy, they were outside talking and saw Momma take off. Mickey could see she was in no shape to drive, he thought he could stop her, he jumped in the car. A silver 1978 Mercedes. They made it to the end of the drive, and another car came up the road. Someone Daddy had swindled - "
"Oh, of course!" Jarick groaned. "How did I know you were gonna say that?"
John Ross slanted him a look, but otherwise ignored him and continued telling the story. "Momma was going too fast, and so was Walt Driscoll. He was pretty toasted, too. When they collided, Momma's car flipped, rolled and went into the ditch. She'd been wearing her seat belt. Mickey wasn't. His neck was broken, he was going to be paralyzed for the rest of his life. He ended up dying in the hospital. He was, what, twenty-two, twenty-three?"
And only Bobby and Ray knew that John Ross had left out the end of the story. That Mickey had died because he hadn't wanted to live that way. He'd begged Ray to unplug him, to deliberately disconnect the machines keeping him alive. Ray had, and had been put on trial for murder. He'd been cleared, and had come after the person that in his mind was ultimately responsible for the young man's death: J.R. Ewing. There was a fistfight, and somehow in the middle of it they'd started a fire, right there in the middle of Southfork. Sue Ellen and John Ross had been upstairs - Sue Ellen passed out drunk, John Ross having cried himself to sleep because he couldn't understand why Lucy had shouted at and slapped him when he'd innocently asked her "Why Mickey no come see you today?" J.R. had saved Sue Ellen, Bobby had saved John Ross.
Cracking a rueful smile, Ray took the $50 from Olivia's unresisting hand and gave it back to Adam. "Here, use it to buy somethin' for Olivia. If I ever knew Mickey at all, that's what he would have wanted."
Olivia gave a quiet little sob. "He said ... he was gonna take his girl out to supper with it." She looked at the picture one last time. Mickey Trotter and Lucy Ewing looked so happy, young and so much in love. If she hadn't despised J.R. Ewing before, she certainly did now. She passed the picture back to Ray, shouldered her Thunder Karate duffel and turned away, not daring to look back lest she completely fall apart.
Silent, the teens followed John Ross around the front to his Cowboys-blue Silverado. Their stuff went in the back seat, and John Ross shoved the center console back to allow Olivia to take the center front seat. He waited to turn over the engine until they were all buckled in.
"Hope you two like Bo Duke, or at least have the sense not to say you don't."
A Southern man's voice, rich and smooth like summer honey, poured out of the truck's speakers."'Cause there was a woman,
Who made him turn lonesome.
Her memory turns over,
And over again.
And he's like an old stallion,
Who's lonely for freedom.
Tryin' to outrun the wind."8
Adam stared at the dashboard. "Jeez, I almost want to say I remember this stuff."
"I don't, but I think I could learn to lie about it," Olivia had shifted until her feet were on John Ross's side of the gearshift, while her head rested on Adam's shoulder. John Ross couldn't imagine how she could be comfortable like that, unless she had a Slinky where her spine was supposed to be.
"It was the Eighties, you had to be there."
Adam was as tense as a cat in a rocking-chair factory the entire time they were on the freeway, constantly looking out the windows. He glanced over at John Ross as they navigated the MixMaster.
"Are those two Rangers okay?"
John Ross grinned. "I was wondering how long you'd sit on that. Yeah, Gage and Sydney are fine. This is about the third, no, fourth time that's happened to them. Fifth if you want to count Gage being present that time a bank robber blew up Trivette's 'Stang ... with the tuxes for Walker and Alex's wedding in the trunk."
"I heard about that," Olivia giggled. "Gage said he was ready to pack his bags for Australia."
"Wouldn't have been far enough."
John Ross flicked a glance in the rear-view mirror, then downshifted to overtake a panel van that was turtling along at 45 on the freeway. He didn't like how long that black Lexus had been behind them. He thought about getting off and trying to shake it on the surface streets, then discarded the idea. The kids had had a hellish couple of days, culminating in the gunfight and the revelation about their ghostly encounter. If he got off the freeway now, they'd know something was up. This also let out calling in on the radio. 'Oookay, Walker. If that Cherokee sixth-sense of yours ever kicked in, let it work right now, because I could really use it.'
"Hey, Jimmy and Gage are behind us. Where'd that black car come from? PUNCH IT, PUNCH IT! THEY'VE GOT A - "
Bo Duke soared out of the stereo. "It's a short walk from Heaven to Hell." 9John Ross had heard tell of the singer's youthful misadventures in his native Georgia, him and his cousin in their souped-up '69 Charger. He wished that he had that car now, as he downshifted again, viciously, tires squealing as he ripped around a Peterbilt. "It's a Silverado, not Terry Labonte's Monte Carlo!" 'Thank you, Walker!'
In the rear-view, he saw Gage's green-and-tan F-250 drop back behind the Lexus. Someone - Carlos - had risen up from the back seat of Jimmy's black Mustang ragtop and was rasslin' with the guy who had leaned out of the Lexus with the RPG launcher. Now Sydney sat up in the F-250's open window, her hair whipping behind her like a seal-black banner as she took aim at the Lexus' rear tires. The back window of the Lexus and the F-250's windshield shattered. John Ross took a moment to be grateful Gage wasn't driving his prized '69 Chevelle SS convertible. Because if he had been, he wouldn't have done what he did now, which was to speed up and ram the Lexus. The guy with the RPG slumped. It was illegal about fifty different ways, but one thing Carlos held over from his 'bad old days' in the Tres-Sevens street gang was that he carried a 6-inch switchblade in his back pocket. Carlos grabbed the grenade launcher and slung it behind him into the Mustang, then shoved the thug back into the Lexus, just as Gage gave the black car another good solid rap in the ass. He then dropped back again, and this time Sydney scored two direct hits, shooting out both back tires. The Lexus went up and over and down. Trivette swung his Mustang crosswise in the road in front of it, coming out with gun drawn as the F-250 squealed to a stop behind.
Sydney's voice crackled over the radio. "John Ross, go on ahead, we'll take care of this."
John Ross let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "I will owe you guys forever for this. We're gone."
Adam had pulled Olivia down across his lap, covering her with his own body. Now they both sat up, Olivia shoving her hair away from her face as she snagged the radio from John Ross. "I have never been so glad to see anybody in my whole life!" She hung up the handset on Sydney's laughter and sat back. "I've been scared to death twice today, and I haven't even faced Chris and Buck, yet. You people must think going-on-fifteen's too young for heart failure."
Adam gave John Ross a long-suffering look. "She thinks they'll be mad at her for something that happened to me."
John Ross gave Olivia a confused frown. "Angry doesn't seem to be in Chris' dictionary today."
"You just don't know him well enough," Olivia muttered darkly.
Vin and J.D. were taking advantage of a rare moment between rain showers to pass a football in the yard when John Ross pulled up, and J.D. darted into the house to announce them. He and Vin nodded politely to Adam before mobbing Olivia, sweeping her off her feet and hugging the stuffing out of her, yammering questions at her a-mile-a-second as to What'n th' hey were ya thinkin'? and We've been worried sick about you! Nathan and Josiah were first out of the house, and J.D. tossed her through the air to Nathan with a playful, "Going up!" She didn't have time in the middle of it all, to realize that neither Walker's silver Ram nor Alex's black Durango were in the yard. Only a dark red Excursion she didn't recognize.
Nathan had had every intention of giving her his usual grilling to make sure she wasn't hurt, but she was clinging to him like a barnacle to a ship, her face buried in his shoulder. She resisted being pulled away until Josiah quietly spoke her name in her ear, then she latched on to him just as hard.
Adam hung back by the truck, watching as the older guy passed Olivia down to some guy who looked like he'd just stepped out of an issue of GQ. Talked like it, too, that Southern drawl was thicker than molasses running uphill in February. What the Hell would his Dad and Buck be doing, hanging around someone who wore a $2,000 linen Versace?
"Oh, Adam!" Sarah flew off the porch and ran to her son, who pushed away from the Silverado and allowed himself to be enfolded in a heartfelt hug. He muttered an apology in Irish into her hair, it sounded better that way. She broke away, catching his hands in hers.
"Come, come inside. Your Da and Buck are here, you can meet the rest in a minute. But come inside now."
The GQ ad, the scruffy-looking guy and the dark-haired guy in the Red Sox T-shirt had made a circle around Olivia, with the old guy and the black guy backing them up as she machine-gunned through an explanation-slash-apology. As Adam and Sarah passed, the black guy looked up long enough to offer a gentle "You okay?"
"I've had better nights, but I think I'll live. I've had worse ones, too."
GQ gave the black guy a look of sheer exasperation. "Oh, for Heaven's sake, Mr. Jackson! At least let him see his father and Mr. Wilmington before you commence with the badgering!"
'Jackson' swung around to spear GQ with an answering look of aggrieved suffering. Olivia giggled.
"Don't mind them, Adam, they're just like this."
Scruffy and Red Sox chuckled, while the Elder gave them all a serene smile. But Adam had an idea there was something underneath that serenity he'd be well not to tread too hard on. Then he jumped as a voice boomed out from the house.
"Olivia, little darlin'! You ain't gonna make me come out there, are ya?"
It was the wrong thing to say, at the wrong moment in time. Olivia went white as ice, and Adam turned to his mother.
"You didn't tell Dad and Buck about the time ... Oreos, Olivia in the springhouse, me and a blanket and Hot Pockets?" The look on Sarah's face said it all. "Aw, Mom!"
Buck was filling up the doorway, then out onto the porch. Olivia looked desperately for escape, but she was hemmed in on all sides. Josiah stepped away to catch Buck at the porch steps.
"A moment, Brother Buck. I think you may have unintentionally frightened our lost lamb."
Ezra had turned to one side to admonish Nathan, and when Josiah turned to catch Buck, that created a hole between Ezra and Vin. Olivia darted and ran in a move Emmitt Smith would have been proud of. She beat a path to the Silverado. She knew lots about driving a stick, this was the one she'd learned on ... hot-wiring it would only take seconds ... it was starting to rain again ...
An arm in a black shirtsleeve came around her waist like a striking anaconda, lifting her back off her feet. "Whoa!" A breath of whiskey floated past her ear, and Olivia turned into a wildcat. But Chris had learned self-defense from his time in the Teams, and he easily countered every move in Olivia's repertoire, even the stuff she'd learned on the streets. He didn't try to hurt her - let her get a few shots in on him - kept her from hurting herself, until he felt her sudden burst of fear-induced adrenaline burn itself out. When she slumped in panting defeat, he picked her up and turned back to the house.
She was beaten, but the temper was still there. Olivia huddled in his arms like an angry kitten. 'I'm not crying! I'm NOT! I'm just so mad, that's all!' She looked up to take distant notice of the fact that cradled against Chris' chest like this, she was caught directly between him and Adam. Adam couldn't take a swing at Chris with her in the way, and Chris couldn't defend himself if Adam decided what-the-Hell and swung anyway. And why on Earth was she all of a sudden thinking like that at all? Sarah laid a gentle hand on Adam's arm, spoke his name. He moved his arm in a sharp, twisting motion, shaking his mother off. The rain seemed to hesitate, then made up its mind From drip to sprinkle to spray to roar, in that many seconds.
"Where were you? Where in the Hell have you been? I was waiting for you! WE were waiting for you! I could have damn been killed the other night and again today! WHERE WERE YOU?!?"
Where was Buck? He'd just been right here ... this was twisted, or backwards, she couldn't get her mind around it. Chris and Buck were supposed to be mad at her, this was all wrong. She began wriggling desperately to be let loose, Adam was going to take a swing, he'd all but called Chris out right there in Walker's front yard! And where was Walker? Chris half-dropped her more than let her down, lifting his hands to ward Adam off.
"Adam, son, please, you have to listen, I didn't - " He didn't mean to shout like this, but just to be heard over the rain ... and when had the kid gotten so tall? Saying goodbye at DIA, Adam had still been small enough to pick up and hold. Now they were eye to eye. Dimly he heard Buck from the porch, "Damn, Rascal! Look how tall you got!"
"No, you didn't, did you? You didn't and you don't and you never will!"
Chris reeled back as if he'd been shot, his face a mask of pain. "No, Adam, please listen to me, that's not what happened, son! I thought you and your mother ... Ella tricked me, she made me think - "
"You and Ella and thinking don't even live on the same planet, Dad." If Olivia had ever thought of Chris's eyes as green ice on fire, she was skipping the ice part looking at Adam. His eyes were pure green fire, and she was still standing between them. She gave Sarah a desperate look, 'What do I do?' She stepped closer to Adam, reaching up to touch his chest. His heart was racing.
"Adam, stop. Just let your Dad explain - " The rain was coming down hard enough to actually hurt, hard enough that the drops bounced a good three feet back up, the first time they struck the ground.
"Whose side are you on?" Now that rage was focused on her, and the thought flashed through her mind that not twenty-four hours ago, he'd almost kissed her. Now he looked like he was about a fast half a second away from ... she sensed more than saw Chris come up behind her, too close for Adam to swing unless he stepped back.
"Adam, please! You have to listen to me!" And the Surreal Express took another sharp left turn. Because that simply couldn't be Chris Larabee behind her sounding that desperate. As if he was a hairsbreadth away from breaking down ... NO.
And that was when Chris heard his own voice coming out of his son's mouth. An exact quote from that last argument with his own father, a teenage man's face twisted in rage. "I'm through listening to anything you have to say, old man."
And that was when someone - much later she'd realize it was Buck - reached out to pull Olivia away. Chris made the fateful mistake to try and take Adam by the arm, a last-ditch effort. 'He's not really this angry at me, he's just upset, and he's coverin' it with the anger, like I do! He just doesn't understand, if I can just get him to listen to me for five seconds!' Someone, Olivia or Sarah or both, cried out a warning, but the rain had loused his vision, and he didn't see Adam's fist coming until his teeth ground together. His feet tangled and he went down in a heap, stunned. He almost managed to drag Adam down with him, but Adam had the advantage and fought loose. By the time Chris realized he was gone it was too late. He scrambled to his feet, barely able to see a black-clad figure running away through the downpour. "NO, ADAM! PLEASE, FORGODSSAKE, COME BACK!" Some blur of pink and blue latched onto Adam, slowing him down almost enough for Chris to catch up. Then that blur hit him square amidships and they both went down. It was Olivia, Adam had literally thrown her at him. He'd nearly managed to get them standing up again when Adam made the trees. Chris made to go after him again when he felt the hair on the back of his neck going up, soaked as it was ...
Olivia felt herself falling again, felt Chris under her, then he rolled to shield her. There was such a strange humming in her head all of a sudden; her whole body was tingling, had she hit her head somehow ...?
Sarah had realized what was about to happen, and would have been there when it did except Buck had her, and then it was too late. The light was blinding, the heat seemed as if it would sear her flesh from her bones, she had no idea if she'd screamed. And the noise, this must be what the crack of Armageddon sounded like ... And Olivia, at least, went 'somewhere else.' For a very long time.
Adam never even slowed down.
That was the morning.
It would be after sundown before Olivia returned to herself again, waking up suddenly in the guest room at Walker and Alex's ranch, waking up as suddenly as she'd been stricken unconscious. She woke up crying, calling Adam's name as if her heart would break for the lack of his presence.
And Adam wasn't there, but Ezra was, leaning over her suddenly, then going out of the room. A moment later she heard him calling to Nathan that she was awake. By the time Nathan arrived, that initial terror of awakening had receded, and she was able to answer his gentle questions. Someone had changed her clothes, dressing her in a pair of gray sweat shorts and her favorite Superman T-shirt, the one with the Man of Steel's famous S logo done in Stars and Stripes. The same person had wrapped her head turban-style in a towel. Now why ... oh, that was right, she'd been out in the yard when it began to pour, caught between ... she looked up at Nathan. "He hasn't come back, yet, has he?"
Nathan sighed. Just like Olivia, to wake up with perfect recall after having been fried by lightning. Chris had been standing in a low spot of the yard, his black Red Wing boots in a good four inches of water, when he'd caught Olivia. The bolt had struck Chris square between the shoulders, he'd only awoken an hour or so ago himself. Buck and Sarah had been knocked senseless as well, but only for about two hours. The rest of them had gone up on the porch when the rain started to fall again, and into the house when Adam's temper went off. As much as they'd wanted to intervene, they knew it wouldn't have been appreciated. As J.D. had said before, they were outsiders. But they'd come charging back out at once, ears still ringing from the explosion of thunder. Walker and Alex had returned about ten minutes later. With all available hands on deck, they'd done what they could. No ambulance was getting through this, they'd just have to wait and pray.
Olivia was still looking up at him, tears sliding down her face to soak into the towel around her head. Nathan was seized by the sudden desire to shake Adam Larabee until his skeleton rattled apart, just like the guy who got eaten by the demon in BeastMaster. "No, baby. He ain't come back yet." No use trying to lie to her, either, she'd see through that like a window. "It's gettin' dark now, nobody's gon' go out lookin' 'til mornin'. Not in this." Not at all surprised to see her start at the lightning, he pulled her into his arms as the thunder roared. It was as if Adam had called the storm, cast a spell to make the sheer electrical fury remain centered over the house. As the thunder grumbled away, she twisted to be let go, rolling over on her side and putting her back to him.
"I ... I'd just like to be left alone now, please."
"Chris said he wanted t'be told when you came 'round. Wants t'see fo' himself that yo' alright. An' Buck's worried sick."
That sigh had to come straight from the center of her heart. Oh, Adam was getting a huge chunk of his mind, maybe several.
"Just Chris and Buck, then. Tell Ezra and J.D. and Josiah ... just ... just later, okay?" She hadn't seen past Nathan to see Ezra still in the doorway, didn't see the pain that flashed across his face before he turned away. And she did manage to hold back the whimper of pain when Nathan gently squeezed her shoulder. Everything just ached, like she'd had a charley horse over her entire body.
Chris needed Buck's help, but he got there, giving her a weary, lopsided grin. "Hey, Sparkler. Guess we know what chicken-fried steak feels like, huh?" He sat up, propped up against pillows and the headboard. Olivia slid across the bed until she was lying across his lap. He pulled her up to sit, his arms feeling like safety in a hurricane. Buck sat on the side, pulling a fright face and making her smile through her tears, if only for a moment. "You big goof. If you were a dog, you'd be a Saint Bernard. Big and goofy, but totally harmless."
Chris tactfully decided not to mention that Cujo had been a Saint Bernard, or Buck's eerie resemblance to the actor who'd played the father in Pet Semetary. "He's certainly good at savin' people. I'm losin' count of the times now that he's saved my sorry hind end." Something flickered in Olivia's peripheral vision and she looked up to see that it was only Sarah, coming to sit on Chris's other side. She'd had time to run her borrowed outfit through the wash, though she'd replaced the jeans with a pair of Red Sox sweatpants, obviously borrowed from J.D. "Are you alright, Olivia?"
"I guess so. I just ... " she looked down at her shirt. "When he comes back, I'm gonna kill him."
The adults shared a chuckle. "He's certainly in line for a goin' over from me as to the proper way to treat a lady," Buck commented mildly. "Throwin' your girlfriend at your Daddy like you're Jeff Francis, she's a split-finger fastball and he's Yorvit Torrealba ain't exactly what I call a good startin' point."
"Split-finger?" Chris snorted. "Felt like a full-on four-seamer from where I was standin'. And Adam pitches more like Cookie than Francis, besides."
Alex's voice in the hallway, rich with laughter. "Oh, is this Wet Eagle, come to his senses at last?"
A man's voice from downstairs, "This old Eagle's feeling too foolish and ashamed of himself to even argue with you about that!"
Sarah shared a grin with Alex as the blonde passed in the hallway. "The tribal shaman. Apparently he's been threatened with getting flooded out for some time, but he wouldn't leave his home."
"In '99, there were a lot of wildfires in Colorado." Buck rolled his eyes at Chris's quiet words. "I felt like if one more person asked me if or when I was goin' to have to evacuate, I'd just have to start shootin'. Turned out the people who got chased out of their own house was Ezra and Inez, when the Hayman Fire started snackin' on Highlands Ranch. Nobody even thought he'd be in danger, he lived in town. I'm up in the mountains. The fire didn't make it as far as their place, but it was a heck of a scare for Ezra."
"I thought about you that summer," Olivia admitted, her head resting on Chris' shoulder. "Where we were living, they just said there was a fire in the Rockies, west of Denver. I couldn't find anyone to tell me if it was close to you or not. I almost called, half a million times I almost asked Mama Terry if we could call. But she was always so sad and anxious all the time. I didn't know she was already sick, then. I was only little, and I didn't know." And her all-over charley horse feeling didn't matter in the least when Chris tightened his arms around her.
"Sarah told us about some of what happened to you, Sparkler. You got nothin' to apologize for."
Downstairs, Vin gave White Eagle a thumbnail description of Adam as the shaman sat in the kitchen having a hot coffee before he went up to take a shower. He squashed his disappointed sigh as the elder replied that he hadn't seen the teenager, because he would have brought Adam with him if he had. All Vin could see behind his eyes was the positive streamer of the lightning rising up from Chris's back as Adam disappeared into the treeline. If the kid had just kept going straight, there were a couple of places he might eventually end up. But if he'd taken a right or a left once he was sure he was out of sight, that opened up at least four or five other options. And Vin didn't like any of them. Adam didn't know where he was, didn't know the land like Walker did, or even Vin himself. And Vin was willing to bet that his nephew had never been in anything even remotely resembling flood conditions. The way the weather was going, the kid could get swept halfway to the Gulf!
They'd made sure to get Adam's description out to the tribal police, at least, and Sam Coyote had promised to pass it along to the sheriff's departments of the 'Anglo' counties surrounding the rez. They didn't think he'd get off the rez on foot in these conditions, but it didn't hurt anything to be extra careful.
Somewhere on the reservation
It seemed like a strange place to put a cabin, just sitting out there all alone by itself in a small clearing ringed by what looked like ash trees, but there it was. The door was unlocked, not that he couldn't have forced it if it wasn't. He peered inside carefully, hoping he didn't find a ... well, he wasn't entirely sure what! looking back at him. But it was empty, except for an old military cot piled with blankets in one corner. He made a point of locking the door behind him.
Inside wasn't perfect, but it was four walls, roof and floor, and it got him out of the hammering rain. And more importantly, hopefully, away from the lightning! He shrugged out of his oilcloth duster, the drenching rain had even defeated his coat, he was soaked to the bone. He peeled out of his clothes and used the giant-size towel he found tangled up in the blankets to scrub himself dry. His hair left black dye on the light blue towel when he dried that, but he'd never wasted money on the high-quality stuff, anyway. Spreading the towel out next to his longcoat in the vain hope both would dry at least a little, he wrapped up in the blankets and sat down.
He felt like hell, and not just physically. Had that raging animal really been him? What the hell had gotten into him? He'd hit his father! He'd decked his father! He hadn't even let the older man get a word in sideways. What was wrong with him? He'd yelled at Olivia, accused her of being on ... there was no 'other side,' what had he been thinking? He choked on a sob, then couldn't hold it in any longer. What was in him had to come out, or else kill him in the trying. He slumped over on his side, curling up like a shrimp in a ball of misery. He cried for most of an hour, though he wasn't aware of that, finally sniffling and hiccupping to a badly needed sleep.
It was pitch dark out when he woke up, stiff and sore from sleeping in a ball. But on a night after like the days before had been, warm and dry he considered worth stiff and sore. He carefully straightened his body, wishing it was as easy to untangle his mind. His head felt like it was stuffed with cotton - wet cotton - and pounded with a wrecking ball headache. He figured he'd burned off whatever whiskey had been left in his system by the trip here, so at least he wasn't facing this night with a hangover. Not that that little realization made him feel any better overall.
"Like Ella says, you're free, white and 18, Adam Jonathan. You may well have burned your last bridge. You go back there, he doesn't have to have you back anymore."
How could he have screwed up so badly? Up until that little encounter with the guys in the black Lexus - and please, God, if You haven't completely given up on me, could You please let that be the last of them? - he'd spent the entire trip from Braddock County rehearsing what he wanted to say to his parents. But he'd taken one look at his father, standing there in the rain cradling Olivia like a broken doll he was about to fix, and some demon had taken over his mind. Everything had gone red, and the only thing that came out when he'd opened his mouth had been fire. Scraps of what he'd said came back to him. "You didn't and you don't and you never will!" Where had that come from? And his parting line, that "I'm through listening to anything you have to say, old man." Jeez, why hadn't he just taken John Ross's .45 and shot his father? From the look on Chris Larabee's face, that might have hurt less. "You and Ella and thinking don't even live on the same planet, Dad." Oh, that had been inspired, yeah, that was a real winner. Once she was old enough to understand, he'd be lucky if Faith didn't slit his throat in his sleep over that one.
"Oh, jeez, Faith!" He scrubbed his hands over his face, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes until he saw stars and lines and pinwheels, which didn't help his headache any. Faith, and Mark and Laureen. Dad didn't even know about them, unless Mom had told him by now. The cabin was lit up from outside by the blue-white brilliance of lightning, and the ensuing roar of thunder shook the little structure on its' rock foundations. Adam blinked, seeing everything in negative for a few moments after the lightning. He checked his watch. It was nearly midnight, it had been nearly ten in the morning when they'd arrived at Walker's, Olivia had asked John Ross the time as they'd pulled up behind the house. He'd been gone for over twelve hours. He had no idea where he was, and even less as to how he'd get back. The rain was still falling like Niagara outside. The towel, his longcoat and his clothes were still wet, and there was nothing to eat. Nothing to drink, either, but he thought that might have been at least 90% of his trouble, earlier.
Nothing for it, he trudged back to the cot and sorted through the blankets, finding a thin mattress under them. He made up a semblance of a bed, then laid down. He thought of the song that had been playing on the stereo in John Ross's truck, when they'd realized the black Lexus was back there. Something about it being a short walk from Heaven to Hell.
"No foolin'." Another blast of lightning and thunder, and Adam rolled over and pulled the blankets over his head.
There was a map of the rez on Walker's dining room table. All of Team 7 - even a still-shaky Chris - Jimmy, Sydney and Gage, Trent and Carlos and Trent's kid brother Todd, Walker, John Ross, White Eagle, Sam Coyote and George Black Fox and a dozen other men from the rez were standing around, trying to guess where Adam had taken himself off to. Walker's place was marked by a seven-sided die Todd had had in his pocket from the role-playing game tournament Trent had shanghaied him from. It was of course turned up to the number 7.
Sam Coyote shook his head. "I still don't think he could have gotten off the rez itself, and White Eagle, you didn't see him on your way here from Bitter Water." He tapped a point northwest of the die.
"We wouldn't be here talking about it if I had," the shaman asserted.
"It's flooded around from Bitter Water, my place, the Judge's, Brian and Rachel's, and your place, Luther," George Black Fox described a wavery half-circle on the map, glancing up once at Luther Iron Shirt as he spoke. "He couldn't have gotten through that from here, so that at least lets out anything between Willow Creek and Red Cloud's."
"Every bridge between the main road and Red Hawk's is out, too, and John said he hadn't seen any sign of anyone at his place when he went back there this morning. So that lets out anything from Red Hawk's to town." Sam's crooked right angle was southeast of George's half-circle. Walker looked at the map.
"That still leaves Miller's Caves. If he got that far, he'd go in the caves to get out of the rain, not knowing like we do about how tangled those caves are." Walker looked up as two of the younger men, about the same age as John Ross, shared an 'Aha!' look.
"Ash Cabin! Lenny Ironhorse's old hunting cabin, remember? We used to go up there with Joseph and get drunk, until he tried to kill Brian, anyway."
John Red Cloud smacked himself on the forehead. "I'm sorry, Washo. I should have thought of Ash Cabin, but after the thing with Joseph, it went right out of my head."
Joseph Ironhorse had been a young man from the rez, part of the original Team Cherokee crew. But Joseph had become bitter and resentful, had thought it should have been him and not Brian Falcon in the car. He'd conspired with the racist owner of another team, had nearly got Brian killed. He was in Huntsville, now.
Vin scrutinized the map. He knew Ash Cabin, himself, Joseph's older cousin Lenny had been an acquaintance of his own, until Lenny had drunk bad moonshine and got himself dead. "What flooded White Eagle out's got ta be comin' through Split Rock Creek. That means if'n Adam was goin' like he'd go ta Miller's Caves, he'd be forced ta turn ... here. Where Split Rock passes Badger Rocks." Badger Rocks was named because for as long as even elders like White Eagle and Judge Fivekills could remember, there had been an unbroken succession of exceptionally foul-tempered badgers living there. "An' that trail'd spit him out right on Ash Cabin's front steps."
Chris sat back. "So how do we get from here to there, besides a helicopter or an ark?"
Sam gave a groaning chuckle. "Gets much worse around here, I might start building one." He focused his attention on the map. "The closest road to the cabin is what we call Pancake Alley. Don't ask," he said to the out-of-towners, earning a round of chuckles from the locals. "If you've got four-wheel drive, it's passable, but it's a five-mile hike from there to the cabin. If you don't mind my saying, Chris, you don't look like you've got even a five-miler in you just now."
Chris wasn't sure he even had from here to the barn and back 'in him' just now. "No offense taken, believe me, Sam." Then his own thoughts had him sitting forward suddenly. "However, if I'm not the one doin' all the work ... is that five miles a horse can handle?"
That got a long round of exclamations, and cackling laughter from White Eagle. Luther addressed the crowd with "Wow! What kind of Indians are we, if this white-eyes government agent has to tell us our business, huh? What kind of Indians are we?"
Sam laughed as he swept one arm to indicate the room at large. "The rest of you go home, or wherever you're staying. We'll call you when we find the kid. Lee, Joe, thanks for remembering the cabin."
Walker headed out the door, as well. "I'll go hook up the trailer. Does Adam ride?"
Sarah nodded. "He talked Ella into giving him a pedigree Morgan stallion, from the University of Vermont breeding program. His name is Searcher."
Chris' jaw was on his chest. "A UVM Morgan is worth more than one of Ezra's suits. Maybe two suits."
Sarah gave her husband a fond look. "Wait until you see the circus wagon of a truck he talked her out of."
Walker pulled the truck close to the door so Chris wouldn't have to walk across the yard. It was decided that only the two of them would go, Adam might be likelier to listen to reason if there wasn't a crowd.
Ugh. If there was anything worse than having to put back on damp clothes, Adam didn't want to know what it was. Even his longcoat was still damp. His sneakers squelched when he walked. He followed the Rocky Mountain News, Denver Post and Colorado Clarion websites as faithfully as he could, navigating around the filters and firewalls and lockdowns Ella had installed like the Berlin Wall on his computer, to make sure he didn't call out for help. He knew that Colorado was in the grip of several years of drought. Right now, drought didn't seem like a bad thing at all.
In the front yard of the cabin, his suspicions of last night were realized. He couldn't remember which way he'd come from. But there was a trail leading off to his right that didn't look as badly grown back as the other two, so he figured he'd try that.
He figured he'd covered about two miles, the sun was coming out, and he was starting to steam-roast in his damn coat when he heard what had to be the best sound in the world. A horse, whinnying a greeting. The wind was blowing from behind him, had to be blowing his scent right in the horse's face. Squelching sneakers or not, he busted into a run, nearly falling on the uneven trail a half a dozen times, once nearly braining himself on a rock the size of a Newfoundland that suddenly reared up out of nowhere. The trail took a couple of twists and turns for no reason he could imagine, but ahead through the trees he could see two men on horseback, leading a third, riderless horse. One of them looked enough like Walker to convince him it was, and the other one was wearing a black shirt and black jeans.
"DAD! DAD, I'm here!"
Chris's head snapped around at the shout, searching through the woods. Walker spotted the splash of black in the background of green. "There he is, right up ahead, there."
Chris stepped on the urge to push his horse into a full-on gallop. He took the reins of the extra horse and nodded. "Give us a minute?"
Adam winced at the bruise darkening Chris's jaw, and the older man didn't look at all steady. Had he cracked his skull on something when he'd fallen? "Dad? Dad, are you okay?" He stepped forward to catch a beautiful chestnut Quarter Horse mare's bridle. The horse that had obviously been brought for him was an equally attractive and spirited palomino Quarter gelding.
It took more than Chris wanted to admit to swing down out of the saddle, but he did it. He was barely down before Adam was engulfing him in a bear hug, crying and apologizing and begging forgiveness, all tangled up together. The arms Olivia had likened to an anaconda and Sarah to a python felt more like a teddy bear, but he got them up and around right. For a minute or two or ten, they just stood like that, Chris rasping out fragments of a mostly-forgotten lullaby into Adam's hair.
"Jeez, Dad, I'm sorry. I don't even know why I said all that junk. I didn't mean any of it. I'm sorry." Adam finally stepped back to look at him out of ashamed and fearful eyes. It was so easy just now to see that bright-eyed little boy, hidden in the almost-man he was becoming. Chris pulled him back in. "There's nothin' needs forgivin' between us, Adam, and you got nothin' needs apologizin' for. You've had a hellish couple of days to top off a hellish twelve years. I'd be more worried if you hadn't exploded at someone. Remind me, sometime, to tell you about the time I called my own father out. Better yet, ask your Grandma. Believe me when I say it didn't end this well."
Adam sighed, feeling Chris's heartbeat through the black shirt. A memory burbled up, triggered by the fragments of lullaby. Being sung back to sleep with that heartbeat under his ear, while an Irish temper cleared monsters from under the bed, inside the closet and away from the windowsills. "How mad is Mom?"
"She's not mad at all. I explained to her what happened." He ducked his head to catch Adam's eye, looking up when Adam raised up. "Adam, last night you asked me where I was, where I'd been, told me you'd waited for me. Adam, I didn't know I should have even been lookin' for you. One of Ella's hired thugs planted a bomb in my Jeep. Blew it to pieces, the garage and half the house with it. I knew your Mom's Taurus was in the shop, the transmission was screwed up, so she was usin' my blue Cherokee. And one of Ella's men blew it up. Adam ... until two nights ago, I honestly thought that you and your Mom were dead, that I'd never see you again."
Adam's head swam as his knees unhinged. Dead. He'd thought they were dead. The palomino snorted in alarm and side-stepped closer, catching Adam on his powerful withers. Chris came up behind, giving Adam what little strength he had in himself at the moment. He'd actually been struck by lightning twice before in his life - once in high school and once in the Navy - he knew it was going to take a few days at least before he felt at all like himself again.
He happened to have his left arm within sight, so he could see it was close to three minutes before Adam regained his composure. "Dad ... "
"I'm right here, son. I'm right here. I've got you safe now." And Chris thought he'd gladly relive the last 48 hours - hell, the last twelve years! - just to hear Adam say "Dad," again, in that tone of voice.
"Jeez, Dad." Adam couldn't even imagine. His mind didn't want to go there. He refocused on Chris. "Are you okay? Jeez, I didn't hit you that hard, did I?"
Chris chuckled. "You remember throwin' Olivia at me? You might want to manage a little grovelin' in her direction, last night she did threaten to kill you when you came back. Anyway, after I caught her, a bolt of lightnin' decided to see what we tasted like."
"Lightning?!?" That threatened to send Adam's mind skidding away again, like a muscle car on a wet road, but he managed to yank it back into line. "Where is she?"
"She's back at Walker's. She and I missed most of yesterday, I think she's decided to call today a wash, too, at least she was still in bed when Walker and I left to come out here lookin' for you." Chris gave his son a serious look. "Took a lot of courage at eleven to bring her a blanket and hot food when Ella locked her in the springhouse, knowin' what Ella would do to you the next day. You know who Craig Morgan is?" Adam nodded silently. "Well, Craig wrote a song about his own son, goes somethin' like, 'There's an awful lotta man in that little boy.'10 That's what I thought about you, when your Mom and Olivia were tellin' me about that night."
"She thought you and Buck were gonna be mad at her, because I got belt-whipped over it."
Chris chuckled. "Me and Buck and the five other guys you didn't get to meet yesterday monopolized Olivia's life for 48 hours when she was all of six years old. She built up a bunch of pretty tall pedestals under our all-too-human feet. She may be wearin' a Superman shirt, but she thinks we are."
"When I was six, I knew you were." Adam rubbed his forehead against the palomino's neck, and the horse turned to nibble at the collar of his longcoat. The horse's wise dark eyes studied Adam with absolute trust, and Adam realized that the gelding had been gentled, not broken. Too many people didn't realize there was a huge difference, and it all too often carried over into how they treated one another. "You need a hand getting back up?"
"The way I feel today, I just might!" But he did manage it alone, though he was glad he wouldn't have to do it again today. When they got back to the house, he was going to call Nathan and Josiah to cart him up the stairs, and follow Olivia's example of scratching this day. Adam let the palomino get used to him for a moment or two, then swung expertly into the saddle.
"We riding all the way back?"
"Nah, there's a road at the other end of this trail, Walker's truck is waitin' there."
"He better have air, I'm boiling in this stupid coat."
"Funny, I've got a coat that looks a lot like that at home. Just ... without the studs and all."
Adam's mouth twisted in a sardonic grimace. "It's just a mask, Dad, I can shake it off anytime I want to. It's just that I tried a few things, and I realized Ella hated it. So the more she hated it, the more I laid it on with a shovel." He looked at the trees around them. "I don't even like black half the time! I feel like I'm undercover at a Raiders game and I can't get out of it! I want a Jay Cutler jersey and a Todd Helton jersey, and a Joe Sakic sweater before he hangs up his skates!"
Chris laughed out loud, and God, that felt good! "I think I can manage that. What you call a mask I don't mind. If it pissed Ella off, so much the better. I feel like a hypocrite, callin' you out on somethin' God knows I've done way too much of myself, but Adam, the drinkin' we are gonna have a problem with."
"No, we're not," Adam replied, in a voice that declared the matter no longer up for discussion or debate. "If yesterday morning is what the whiskey gets me, I'm cutting myself off. Ella caught me with my hand in the bar about a year or so ago, and she never tried to stop me. She figured out what I liked, and made sure there was plenty lying around, got me a fake ID so I could get my own."
"And the list of charges grows. You know what the whiskey got me? Her. She caught me on a night me and Buck and the other guys in our SEAL team were 'sendin' off' a couple of guys who hadn't made it back from our last mission. In the condition I was in that night, all I saw was a pretty face, a body that looked like it could make the next mornin' worth it, and she didn't say no. I was twenty-three and an idiot."
"I have this shirt in my closet back in Virginia: 'I Am Not Worthless. I Can Still Serve As A Bad Example.'"
"'The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.'"
Adam whipped his head around. "Does it have a skull and crossed sabers? I've got that one!"
"'I'm Only Wearing Black Until They Make Something Darker,' with dark brown letterin'."
Adam shook his head. "Don't got that one."
"Yet. You know who gave me that one? Olivia, for Christmas of '98."
"Nuh-uh, no way."
"Wait 'til you see the one she gave Buck!"
Walker's truck did indeed have air - after one horrendously close call, Alex wouldn't let a broken A/C go longer than a week anymore - and Adam gratefully slung his longcoat OFF, tossing it on the driver's side of the QuadCab's back seat. He then worked very hard at looking anywhere and everywhere except at Walker. Walker didn't try to push him, just got the truck and trailer turned around and headed back to the ranch. Finally Adam couldn't stand himself any longer.
"How'd you know where to find me?"
"Process of elimination, mostly," Walker answered. "Once we figured out what was too flooded out for you to have gone that way, what was left after that. Then a couple of the younger guys remembered going up to Ash Cabin to get drunk with a friend of theirs. It used to be his older cousin's hunting cabin. If you weren't there, I was going to suggest calling in the National Guard."
"You can't," Chris cracked. "They took all their high-water vehicles overseas, to fight in the desert."
"The sad thing is, you aren't kidding."
Sarah had been sitting with Olivia and Buck, regaling Olivia with tales of his past misdeeds, while he protested his innocence and attempted to explain his side of the stories. Sarah had loved Nathan's retelling of how Olivia had 'introduced' herself to Buck. Ezra was suddenly in the doorway. "They have returned. Mr. Wilmington, I believe Mr. Larabee would like your assistance."
"Got it." Sarah bade Olivia goodbye and followed Buck out. Ezra sat down in the space Buck had vacated. "How are you feeling?"
"You mean in general, or about ...? Hey, I can think of worse people to have for an older brother. It means I get to keep the rest of the guys, too."
Ezra smiled. "That's what Mr. Dunne said. 'You mean we get to keep her?' I believe were his exact words."
"You gotta teach me how to play Texas Hold 'Em. I'm awful at it. And Pai Gow, too. Completely mystifies me."
"Oh, pshaw, Pai Gow's the easiest thing on the planet."
"Not for me, for some odd reason. Hey you."
Ezra turned to see Adam in the doorway, looking decidedly uncertain of his welcome. Because he had once been going-on-twenty with his world blown to pieces around him, he was more inclined than a lesser man might be to mercy. "Hello, Adam, come in and sit down."
"If I sit I'll fall." But he came in, hands in his pockets. Olivia had her arms folded over, and her left ankle crossed her right under the covers. Her left foot was making a tapping motion. Adam sighed and sat down.
"I'm sorry for what I said. I'm sorry I threw you."
"You apologize to your Dad?"
"Yeah, we got it all worked out." He looked and sounded, Ezra thought, as if he were on his way to the executioner. Lovesick, he thought, with even more sympathy. He had been the same way with Inez, and had likely made similarly dumb mistakes because of it. He decided to give them some privacy.
He emerged into the hall just in time to see Buck and Chris get to the top of the stairs. "Mr. Larabee, I daresay you actually look worse than you did immediately after the event."
"You're all heart, Ez."
Within about fifteen minutes, the house was quiet again. Adam took a shower and put on dry clothes, endured the teasing from his father and Buck that he had more body art than a Japanese gangster. There was an American flag, Irish flag and the state flag of Colorado surrounding his heart, a four-leaf clover, claddagh and a Celtic cross on the front of one shoulder. Despite the heat of the day, Alex made him a mug of hot chocolate and a bowl of chili, telling him he was colder inside than he realized. Ezra was teaching Olivia how to play Texas Hold 'Em, using M&M's in place of chips. Nathan sat in to make sure Ezra taught it straight. Vin tried but eventually gave up listening in on Josiah's conversation with White Eagle.
Olivia was just about to doze off again, when she heard Adam let out an anguished cry. Nathan stepped out in the hall, encountering J.D.
"Buck left the pictures from when Adam and Sarah were taken out. Adam just found them."
The screen door squealed on its' hinges, then slammed shut as Adam flew out of the house. He headed for the barn, desperately hoping he made it. Chris was trying to push himself back up out of bed, Buck pushed him back down.
"I got him, Chris. I should have put the pictures away."
"I forget, too often, to thank you, don't I? I ask too much of you, I always have. Hell, I've been usin' you since Gerry Ford was in office, and I never do thank you."
Buck grinned. "Will you hush, and let me go do what I'm good at? You never know, one of these times I might drop the ball."
"Not bloody likely."
When the big rogue had gone out, Chris turned to Walker. "Sometimes I wonder, how far I have to push before Buck won't back me up. Then I realize I never want to find out."
"Sounds like me and Jimmy. And don't get Alex going on everything I've put her through over the years."
Adam made it around behind the barn, just barely, before the hot chocolate and chili came back up. He'd heard his father's explanation, but seeing the pictures ... Oh God. He jumped at a footstep, cowering back against the building.
"Easy, Rascal, it's just ol' Buck."
"Buck ... " the big man had water, which he used to rinse with. They moved a few feet away, so Adam could collapse more than sit on an overturned washtub. Buck lowered himself into a crouch at the kid's side.
"I'm sorry, Adam, I should have packed those pictures away. I shouldn't have left them out where you could see them."
"Why, Buck? Why? How could she do that?"
Buck chuffed out a laugh that held little humor. "Rascal, if I had the answers for questions like that ... I've never been real good at mazes, I leave that stuff to Ez and 'Siah. And Ella's mind is one of the dark and twisted kinds I don't think I'd care to go too deep into even if I was good at them."
"Half of me has a thousand questions I'd like to ask her, the other half doesn't ever want to see her again. And right now, a big part of me just wants to beat her face in. What was she planning to do with us, when she went looking for Dad in 1999?"
"I'm really tryin' not to think about 1999 any too hard, myself. And I can honestly tell you that Ella Gaines is the one woman in this world I have no trouble at all callin' a bitch, and meanin' it. I think I might even say it straight to her face." Buck looked up at the sky for a moment. "You're old enough to make up your own mind now, but if you'd like my advice, I think you'd be better off facin' her.
Buck gave his godson a sad smile, and looped one long arm around the kid's shoulders. It suddenly occurred to him that Adam was only a year younger now than J.D. had been, back when they'd all jumped on this hayride. But there was none of J.D.'s youthful exuberance and eagerness in Adam. His was the scarred caution of Vin Tanner, eternally cursed to be far older than his years. Fitting that they'd end up related. He thought for a minute, wanting to say this right.
"Adam, for years I thought my Daddy was just some guy who got my Mom knocked up and then took off. I wrote him off when I was about thirteen, figured if he hadn't been man enough to face up to his responsibilities, then to Hell with him. Mom and I did fine on our own, we didn't need him. And then ... and then Mom died. She was murdered, knifed by some guy the Vegas PD still haven't caught, and next month it'll be 32 years since I lost her. I've never been able to face that man, to look him dead in the eye and ask him how he could do what he did. I think about that, a lot. On Mom's birthday, on the day she died. She was just turned 32 when she died, she woulda been 64 this year. When I watch my Mary with our kids. Our little one, we named her Sarah-Anne after your Mom, she reminds me of my Mom so much it just kills me sometimes. So two years ago last month, Trent Malloy, that private detective friend of Walker's, he tracks me down. He knew Vin back when they were about Olivia's age, before Vin high-tailed it to Denver to get out of what Texas was callin' 'Child Services.' Anyway, he comes lookin' for me, says there's an old man in Texas, thinks I might be his son. Turned out that my Daddy knew about me the whole time, had been more than willin' to acknowledge me as his son, raise me up right along with the sons he already had. But Mom wasn't havin' it. She took off for Nevada, never left a forwardin' address or anythin', and it took him over forty years to find me again. And I haven't got any way to ask Mom, what was goin' through her head, why she kept me away from him for all those years. I got a whole family history that's just stories and pictures to me. And the reasons behind all of it are just one big, fat question mark I'll never have the answers to. Now, I'm not sayin' Ella's goin' to make any hell of a lot of sense - I never did care for her, never did see what ol' Chris ever saw in her longer than the one night - but at least if you do face her and ask her, you'll get somethin' for an answer."
Adam didn't say anything, just turned to give Buck a long-overdue hug, which Buck gratefully returned. "Hey, Buck? Do me one favor?"
"You just name it."
"Don't ever call me Rascal again where Olivia can hear you."
Buck laughed, but it was a little soggy.
Back inside again, and Alex - who seemed to have a bottomless well of kindness, it was a little scary, nobody could really be that nice all the time - scared up a new toothbrush for him. He wound up back in the room his parents were using. He didn't remember falling back to sleep, but when he opened his eyes, Chris was growling because his cell phone was suddenly malfunctioning. Adam looked out the window, realized with a small sense of shock that it was dark out again. Olivia was in the doorway, then crawling on the foot of the bed.
"I fried my phone, too, Sparky. And Vin's and Trent's and John Ross's."
Chris tossed the phone down in disgust. "Figures. The first time this happened, I wrecked a brand-new turntable. Boy, was Buck's girl hot. The second time, I made CIC go haywire just by walkin' down the passageway outside. Some hotshot rookie Tomcat jock fresh out of Annapolis with his wings barely cool from bein' cast came lookin' for me, said I'd almost gotten him killed. He found out fast that what he'd learned in SERE wasn't goin' to stand up against a SEAL."
Olivia blinked. "You've been hit before?"
"Me and Buck skipped school to do some mountain climbin', up in the Maroon Bells, southwest of Aspen. I found out the hard way why their nickname is 'The Deadly Bells.' What got us both was that Buck had been above me when the lightnin' struck. Then when we were in the Navy, we were comin' back from a mission, and our extraction was an aircraft carrier, the USS Constellation. I wanted to go for a jog, but they were runnin' flight ops on deck, so I had to jog around the hangar deck. It was overcast and choppy, but they had the storm hatches open. There hadn't been a whisper of lightnin' in the forecast, either. I remember stoppin' by one of those storm hatch openin's, waitin' while they loaded a Tomcat on the elevator to take it up on deck. The next thing I remember was wakin' up in Sickbay, with Buck sittin' next to me." He let out a long breath at the ceiling, then chuckled as he looked at the two teenagers. "Damn, I hope I don't screw up the avionics on Buck's plane, I'd hate like Hell to have to walk home to Denver from here!"
Buck loomed in the doorway. "Bet ya can't make your phone work."
"You win. Call Casey and see what's doin'?" While Buck dialed, Chris explained that when he had to go out of town like this, J.D.'s wife and five-year-old daughter Rachel stayed at his Summit County ranch.
"Hey ... Rachel? Did you get to the phone before Mommy? Good for you, little darlin'! How ya doin'? Diablo and Charger okay? Oh, he did, huh? He knows he's not supposed to eat people food. You givin' Diablo his medicine? Good girl. What? Did he get bit? Oh, that's good. What did Mommy do with it? I'll make sure to tell Uncle Vin, so he can go up there and get it when we come back. Oh, I'm sorry, little darlin'. Uncle Chris is sleepin' right now. He's had a rough coupla days. Okay, Rachel, love ya lil bit, 'bye. Hey, Case. What's this about Charger and a rattlesnake? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. How long? How many rattles? Lord, that mutt's got more guts than he has good sense. Oh, ha-ha, very funny, young lady. Yeah, I'll tell Vin, he said somethin' about a new belt a month or so ago. Now, Casey, I don't want to worry you or anythin', I told Rachel he was asleep. But the truth is, Chris got hit by lightnin', yes, again. He was just tryin' to call you, can't make his phone work. Well, at least this time he didn't get fricasseed alone, Olivia took her licks, too. Yeah, that Olivia, how many Olivias do we know? Oh, you're just on a regular roll today, aren't ya? Come again? Oh, what'd that old crab say this time? Well, I hope to shout Nettie told him how the cow ate the cabbage! The best and worst thing that place ever did was make them two neighbors. Yeah, I'll tell him. Thanks, Case. See ya, darlin'." Buck folded his phone into his pocket, then collapsed crosswise over the foot of the bed, face down.
Chris chortled as Sarah came in to sit by his side. "Okay, let me see. Charger got to someone's supper, then tangled with a rattler, which Casey dispatched to the Great Rattlesnake Hereafter. Said rattler is now occupyin' space in one of my freezers. And to top the whole week off, Hank got into it with Nettie again."
Buck turned his head enough to speak. "That's pretty much the long and short of it, yeah. Casey said the snake was about four feet long, twelve rattles. Damn dog."
"Hey, I'd rather Charger found it than Rachel."
"Well, you got a point, there."
Dallas-Fort Worth Airport
Three days later
Adam stared at the plane that would be taking him back to Colorado. Ho-lee Toledo.
"Buck really owns that?" Olivia spoke behind and to his right.
"I guess so."
They were being separated again, but this time only temporarily. Adam was going home, Olivia back to Ella's estate in Northern Virginia to be reunited with her natural parents, and the rest of Ella's 'hostages.' Ella herself had been turned over to the custody of the federal government. Olivia also had high hopes of retrieving that blasted pocket watch, if Ella hadn't figured out her hiding place in the ensuing years.
Adam was trying not to think about the penalty for high treason, and how happy he was that Ella would soon be entirely and forever out of his life. Sarah had told Chris about Mark and Laureen, the twins she'd been pregnant with when she and Adam had been taken; about Faith, the daughter he'd given Ella when she went after him in 1999; about the five children she'd borne, from the men Ella had sent her out with. Chris's response had been, "They're my children now. I'm their father now." The exclusive New England boarding school Sarah's children had been sent away to had been contacted, and legal proceedings were grinding into action to bring them to their proper home in Colorado.
"Hey, this isn't forever, and we know where each other is, now. It's not like Before. This is the beginning of July, you'll be in Denver before baseball season ends, we can hit a Rockies game."
She simply turned into him, wrapping her arms around him and holding on tight. "We came so close, Adam. We came so damn close."
"I know, Sparkler, I know. But that's all behind us, now, and we're never going back there again. We've got the whole rest of our lives to look forward to, now."
"Yeah," but she held on tight again. She just didn't want to let him out of her sight.
"They are eighteen and going-on-fifteen, Mr. Larabee. Two months is the other side of forever to them right now." Ezra would be taking Team 7 back to Denver, then boarding a hated commercial flight to Washington, D.C. Olivia would be traveling straight from Dallas to Washington, in the company and temporary care of Walker, Alex and John Ross. Walker had dredged up a few old contacts, pulled a few strings, and called in a few favors incurred during the Johnson administration. They were to be met upon arrival in Washington by what Walker had been assured were the two best lawyers the Navy and Marine Corps had to offer. He had utmost faith in the Marine lawyer, sight entirely unseen; he would reserve judgment on the Navy lawyer, even after they met.
"Olivia was a cute little kid," Chris replied quietly. "But she's growin' up to be a real beautiful young lady."
Buck jogged over to the young couple, and Olivia reluctantly untangled herself from Adam, to be engulfed in a Buck bear hug.
"I promise I'll take better care of him this time, darlin'. Sometimes I do need to learn the hard way, but if you beat on my hard head long enough, eventually even I get the idea."
She giggled and reached around to try for his wallet. He let her think she almost had it, then reached back quick as a striking cobra to snag her wrist.
"Fool me once, fool me twice, darlin'." Giggling again, Olivia let go and stepped back. "You take care of you, too. Be careful."
"I always am, darlin'." He moved just far enough away to give them a few minutes more of privacy, but still close enough to remind them it was time for Adam to be going
The chorus of one of the songs that had played in John Ross's truck passed through Adam's mind, and he smiled at Olivia, even though the song was far older than both of them."They say I don't need no doctor now,
No medicine of any kind.
No nurse's hand on my fevered brow,
No, I just need your hand in mine.
They say I need some attention from you,
And some help from the stars above.
No, I don't have anything too serious,
It's just a bad case of love."11
Tears in her eyes, Olivia slanted a quick look over at Buck, grateful beyond words to see only his back. Bracing her hands on Adam's shoulders, she went up on her toes as his hands came up to catch and frame her waist.
It was a chaste kiss, and over quickly. Chris only saw the tail end of it, Olivia settling back on her feet, smiling up at Adam. She blushed prettily, fiddling with the collar of the Broncos-blue polo shirt Adam wore. He felt a sharp pang in the region of his heart. His little man wasn't little anymore, and neither was Olivia. It had happened so suddenly. At a slight remove, yeah, but he'd been able to watch Billy grow up on schedule, turning from that serious little boy into a scrappy, gangly kid and on into that awkward adolescent monster, no longer a child but not quite an adult, fitting in nowhere and expected to be all things, both and neither at once and exactly whatever others thought he 'should' be, according to how they saw fit. He'd extended Billy an open invitation, and more than once his phone had rung at odd hours, Billy needing to pour out frustrations he could barely put words to. They were mostly over that stage now, Billy was fifteen himself, those nightmarish years of early teenagedom fading into the background as he began to get a stronger-every-day grip on the man he was working on becoming.
Those steps and stages hadn't happened with Adam. Ella had robbed them of that time, and Adam had gone from child to man in the blink of an eye, and mostly on his own, unless Chris counted the other kids around Adam's age that had been hostages for no other crime than Ella and her father before her had gotten to their parents first. Adam had hesitantly asked permission for Olivia to pass along to "the guys," his new Colorado phone number. Chris had a feeling his phone would again be ringing off the hook, and nobody was going to remember the two-hour time difference between Virginia and Colorado. He nodded reluctantly to Buck.
"Time, you two. C'mere, darlin'."
One final round of hugs, and then the XRS's engines skirled up and the sleek jet was nosing up into the cloudy Texas sky. John Ross carried Olivia to his Silverado; he'd won a rare coin toss against Walker, and Olivia would be staying at Southfork until they left for Washington.
If he heard his Mom exclaim "That wasn't there twelve years ago!" one more time, he was going to crack up laughing. Coors Field looked okay in passing, Invesco Field was the ugliest football stadium he'd ever seen, and he'd been too busy trying to untangle the loops in the roller coasters at Six Flags to take much notice of Pepsi Center. They were on I-70, out of the city and heading into the mountains now. Adam had just noticed a sign for 'Floyd's Hill' when Chris spoke over the stereo. "Adam, you still have that bogus ID?"
"Nobody's taken it away from me, yet, why?"
Chris looked across the truck at Sarah. "Want to stop in Black Hawk, feed the slot machines?"
She gave him an indulgent smile. "Another day. What I want right now, Chris, is to be home."
Chris shifted the truck into gear. "As the lady requests."
Adam sat forward as the buildings came into view. "Okay, I almost want to think I remember this place. I remember the house and the barn, I know I remember that."
"I put in a few other things over the years," Chris admitted as he swung the truck around the barn. "Expanded the house."
Like a heated swimming pool and a hot tub, enclosed in a glass pool house. The greenhouse was attached to that, with the garden beyond. Down from the garden was a huge wooden playground that would have been the envy of any three grade schools. The backyard between the house and the pool had been bricked over to create a patio, which was dominated on one end by a weathered cedar lean-to the size of the truck. Inside the lean-to was a massive barbecue grill/rotisserie, built into the patio and tied into the same gas line that fed the house. "No chance of runnin' out of gas with a grill full of half-cooked chicken, that way."
Next to the barn, several horses stood around a large corral. Sprawled across a chaise lounge on the patio was a huge, outrageously shaggy pile of Black-and-Tan fur, who Chris introduced as Charger. He greeted Adam and Sarah with caution, and Chris explained that Charger's former 'owners' had left him chained to a tree when they'd moved away, and Vin had found the big mixed-breed at the Dumb Friends' League shelter.
Casey poked her head out the door, then emerged carrying her cell phone and iPod and grinning wickedly. "Speaking of chargers, hold still, you, because that's what I need to do with these."
"Cute. Casey Dunne, I'd like you to meet somebody."
Casey was stunned, to say the least. She'd just spoken to J.D. not an hour ago, and he hadn't said one word! She was just about to say just wait until the next time she got her hands on Buck Wilmington when there was a loud thump and a childish wail from inside the house.
"MOMMY! Diablo got out!"
And the doggie door cut into the mud room exploded outward as a black Sidewinder missile rocketed across the yard, scent-locked onto the teenager who crumpled more than crouched to absorb the impact. The collision flattened Adam onto his back, with one hundred pounds of cantankerous black Labrador standing over him, whining. He snuffled at his master's face for a moment, then commenced to wash it with a sloppy tongue.
"Aw, man! Dude, you reek! What has Dad been feeding you?"
"Me?" Chris queried. "When do I have time to feed that dog?"
"Oh, yeah, he's just starving to death," Casey shot back. "He's just bones and a fur coat."
"I'll tell you one thing," Sarah declared. "The next time either of these dogs tells me not to leave the house, I'm locking myself in a closet until Chris gets home." Whining, Diablo came to her side, slopping his tongue obediently over the hand she held out. He shuddered and groaned deep in his barrel chest when she stroked his head and scratched his ears. She bit her lip when she saw the grizzle-gray on his face. Some dogs 'went gray' just like humans did, and Diablo was apparently one of them. They had gotten Diablo as a ten-week-old puppy when Adam was six months. Now Adam was 18 and strong. Diablo was also 18 - 'And my Heavens, he's 126 in dog years!' - and elderly. Charger - who now sniffed at Sarah's hand and lapped at her fingers - was the primary guard dog now.
"Diablo tried to keep us from going outside that day," Adam clarified for Chris. "Snarling, growling, showing his teeth. Getting between us and the door, getting me by my jacket and trying to drag me away from the door, the whole thing. Mom ended up dragging him upstairs and closing him in the guest room."
No small feat, Chris reasoned, given Diablo's hundred pounds versus Sarah's one-fifteen. "Explains the teeth marks in the back of the guest room door. He literally tried chewin' his way out to keep you from leavin'."
Within the hour, Casey and Rachel had taken their leave, and the core of the Larabee family was finally alone. Diablo Velcroed himself to Adam's side. They had a simple meal of steaks and potatoes, and watched the Rockies lose 3-0 to the Washington Nationals. For the twelfth straight year in their fourteen-year existence, it looked strongly like the terminally-mediocre-on-a-good-day-and-they-didn't-have-too-many-good-days Rockies would be playing golf and not baseball in October.
Adam claimed one of the guest rooms for the time being, until something more permanent could be sorted out. He was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, with Diablo flopped crosswise across the bed at his feet.
Chris' room was still downstairs, at the end of the long hall. The solid oak furniture and warm ivory walls were accented with pine green drapes, bedding and carpet. The enormous four-poster bed was canopied and draped. Sarah took one look at that and felt her cheeks heat up. Chris was holding her as if she were something very precious and fragile, that he was only allowed to hold for a moment, but never to keep.
"Sarah, sweet Sarah. I don't want to make you shy of me. After what she put you through ..."
"I could never be shy of you, Chris. And perhaps I'm a mind for another green-eyed Hell-raiser." She began to unbutton his shirt, then smiled. "When you untie those drapes, do they close in the entire bed?"
1 'Ride Like The Wind' - Christopher Cross
2 'Uneasy Rider' - The Charlie Daniels Band
3 'A Headache Tomorrow (Or A Heartache Tonight)' - Mickey Gilley
4 'What Am I Gonna Do (With The Rest Of My Life)' - Merle Haggard
5 'If You're Thinking You Want A Stranger (There's One Coming Home)' - George Strait
6 'Happy Birthday Darlin'' - Conway Twitty
7 'She Believes In Me' - Kenny Rogers
8 'Tryin' To Outrun The Wind'
9 'It's A Short Walk From Heaven To Hell' - John Schneider
10 'Lotta Man (In That Little Boy) - Craig Morgan
11 'Bad Case Of Love' - John Schneider