I have always been a fan of stories about how Vin joined the ATF team. There are several that I read and reread on a regular basis because I love them. So I know we don't really need another one, and yet here it is. I'm also a fan of anything incorporating Native Americans into Vin's history and that's what I've done here. And thanks to Rosalee for being my encourager, my beta, and my friend.
Publishing this story makes me nervous for a variety of reasons. Although I spent many hours researching for it, I was unable to find a lot of the information I needed. I ended up having to just go with what I wanted for the story and hope that it was close enough to right that I did not offend anyone. I am also now painfully aware of how little I know about Native American culture and language and I pray that you will have patience with my ignorance.
It is set in Whiteriver, AZ. In some places it says it's the Ft. Apache Indian Reservation and others it says White Mountain Indian Reservation – so I'm not sure how that works. I do know it is home to the White Mountain Apache. I wanted to set the story on a real reservation, but I didn't think ahead to the part where I couldn't find certain information and had to just make stuff up. So the city and reservation are real, but the specific businesses and people are not. There is a Whiteriver Police department, but I'm sure none of them are bad guys like a couple of characters in my story. I was unable to find out if the BIA has an agent assigned to the area or how he would work with the local police force, so forgive me for taking liberties with that part.
I also had some trouble finding the Apache words I wanted to use in the story, but I did find a few. The translations are at the end of the story. I apologize for not doing justice to the Native American aspect of the story – it was not for a lack of trying. Hopefully you can see past that to enjoy the story anyway.
Although the knock on his office door had startled him, Chris Larabee hoped his resulting jerk was small enough it hadn't been noticed by the person causing it. Bringing his eyes up to meet those of JD Dunne through the open doorway, he knew by the smirk on the young man's face that his unplanned movement had been seen. With a gentle sigh, he motioned the agent into the room. "It's Ezra's fault."
JD's eyebrows rose as he handed a folder to his boss. "Ezra?"
"Yeah," Chris answered, setting the folder on his desk. "If his reports didn't read like a mystery novel, it'd be a lot easier to keep up with my surroundings and not let people sneak up on me. What have you got?"
JD grinned and dipped his head toward the folder he'd just handed off. "I think I may have solved one of our ongoing mysteries. I think I found David McPherson."
Chris straightened, staring at the young agent. "McPherson, really?" David McPherson had appeared almost a year ago, selling large quantities of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Ezra had been working undercover to snag Lance Schmidt as he was buying up guns for an extremist group operating somewhere north of Denver. Luck had placed him in the right position to broker a sale between the two, setting the ATF up to catch two criminals with one sting.
Lady Luck abandoned them when the FBI, conducting their own operation to shut down Schmidt and his cult-like following, had swooped in and arrested the man the day before the ATF sting was scheduled. McPherson had promptly disappeared.
JD, grinning almost literally from ear to ear, began to explain. "I've been tracking down all the names we've heard about him using and one of them paid off. He used to go by David Kamin. When I tracked that name back, it led to a legitimate person that fits with McPherson. His parents were Henry and Diane Kamin. His mother's maiden name was Altaha and she grew up on the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona. One David Altaha has recently moved there, taking possession of his mother's house and land and opened a car restoration business."
Chris frowned, opening the folder to look at the papers inside. "So you think he moved back to the reservation and took his mother's maiden name to throw us off."
"Yep. David Altaha's mother died over a year ago, but he's just been paying someone to keep the place up for him. Six months ago, he moved into the house and about a month later, opened the Apache Restoration Service. Timing fits pretty well. Our bust that fell through was just a week before he took possession of the house."
A grin crept across Chris's face as he began figuring out how to get McPherson . . . or whatever his name was. The man's early sales had been to some of the street gangs and the bloodbath that followed still stuck in his craw. The loss of life hadn't been limited to the gangs. McPherson had a debt to pay to the citizens of Denver.
As his eyes scanned over the information about McPherson/Altaha living on the reservation, he frowned and glanced up at JD. "Will him being on the reservation affect us apprehending him?"
JD shrugged. "I'm not sure what the protocol for that is, so I called their police office. I just told the secretary that we had a case that might end up on their land and asked who we needed to talk to about it." He reached down and closed the folder, pointing to a blue post-it stuck to the front. "That's who we need to talk to, but he wasn't in the office right then. Vin Tanner is their BIA agent and he deals with all the federal stuff."
"He actually works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is considered a federal officer, so he deals with all the federal cases on reservation land. He's out in the field today, so she said you're better off calling him on his cell than trying to play phone tag with the office."
Chris nodded. "Got it. Thanks, JD. Good work. Why don't you and the guys take an early lunch."
"Sure, thanks Chris." JD practically bounced out of the office, making Chris grin again. Oh to be young and have that much energy. He rubbed his chin a moment and then shook his head. Actually, he was pretty sure being younger wouldn't help. He didn't ever remember having that much energy.
Opening the folder, he began reading over the information. He wanted to make a plan for what he was going to tell Tanner. He didn't want to spill too many beans too early. McPherson had a habit of having a local or two in his pocket to watch his back and he needed to figure out which side this Tanner was on before giving him all the facts.
Vin Tanner shifted the binoculars and focused on the boxes being unloaded from a truck backed up to a warehouse door. The view was good enough he could tell that the building used to be a barn and had been modified to use for storage. He tried to see the markings on top of the crates, but the angle was all wrong. "Car parts my ass," he muttered to himself. As the last box was carried into the building, the man he'd been watching for walked out to stand beside the truck.
David Altaha was tall and relatively lean with a bit of a belly bulge just beginning to develop. He was in his late forties with graying hair he kept cut short. His dark skin made it impossible to deny his Native American heritage. He spoke briefly to the truck driver before watching him drive away and turning to meet another man coming out of the warehouse.
Vin sucked in a breath and focused in on the new guy. "Eli Joe, what a surprise," he said sarcastically. "I knew you were up to no good, you yellow-bellied slimeball." He watched as Altaha walked Eli Joe to his car.
The cell phone in Vin's back pocket picked that moment to vibrate. Lying on his belly at the top of a hill to the side and slightly behind the warehouse he'd been observing, Vin scooted himself back down the opposite side of the slope and rolled over in the dirt, small rocks stabbing him in the side and hip. He slid the phone out and bent over it, trying to shade the screen. He could only make out part of the number, but it wasn't local and he didn't recognize it. He almost didn't answer it, but as it buzzed him again, he felt an urgency that he couldn't ignore.
"Tanner," he said in a voice just a shade above a whisper. He didn't think anyone could hear him this far away, but he wasn't taking any chances.
"Agent Tanner, this is Chris Larabee, the supervising agent in charge of Team 7, ATF out of Denver. I wondered if I could talk to you about a case."
Vin didn't recognize the name or the voice, so he didn't think he'd ever worked with this guy before. He twisted around to peek between the clumps of desert sage at the top of the hill. Eli Joe was gone and Altaha had apparently gone back inside. Everything seemed calm and normal, so he was pretty sure he hadn't been seen. He slowly began sliding himself down the hill to where his horse waited as he talked with the ATF agent.
"Yeah, sorry. I'm here. Can you tell me a little more about this case? I'm assumin' it either has to do with one of our citizens or it crosses onto our land." His foot slid away from him and hit the side of a large rock, rolling his ankle. He swore softly as he regained his footing in time to plow into the side of his horse and get knocked on his behind. Larabee had started talking, but Vin lost what he said during his fall and now the connection was breaking up.
" . . . Tan . . . you . . .maybe we . . . . tomorrow."
Vin got up and began limping around in a circle, trying to find a place where he could understand what this guy was saying. "Hey, I lost ya. Our reception is crap out here. Can you hear me?"
After a moment of crackling, the voice came through loud and clear. " . . . Tanner, I think I've lost you. Are you all right out there?"
Vin froze in place. "Hey, yeah, I'm fine. Look, we have terrible reception out here. How about if I call you back on a landline?"
"Actually, if it's okay with you, I'd like to take a run down there and meet you tomorrow. I don't really want to discuss the particulars on the phone."
Vin's curiosity peaked and he glanced at the hill he'd just descended, wondering if this had anything to do with their newest criminal element. "Sounds good. I might have some idea of what this is about . . . or at least who. When can you be here?"
"We can . . . . before noon. That okay?"
Vin sighed and raised his arm up where he'd allowed it to droop. Stupid cell phones. "Yeah, that sounds good. I'll text you my address and work out of the office tomorrow."
"Good. I'm . . . you."
Vin was trying to figure out how to respond to that partial sentence when the connection dropped. He still hadn't decided if cell phones were a blessing or a curse. It was probably more of a blessing if you lived somewhere you could count on them working. He limped over to where he'd dropped the binoculars, checked them over, and packed them in his saddle bags. The throbbing in his ankle was already beginning to subside, so at least he hadn't done any real damage. He quickly texted the office address and phone number before he forgot.
"Sorry about plowin' into you like that, Peso." He pulled a bag of apple quarters from the saddle bag and gave two of them to the horse. "See, you knew I'd make it up to you. Let's head back." Mounting the horse, he pulled his battered cavalry slouch hat back up on his head. "It's hotter ‘an a lava pit today. Let's go find us some shade and somethin' to drink." With one last look around at the desolate landscape, he nudged Peso toward home.
Vin was pretty sure Altaha had chosen this land because it was out in the middle of nowhere and there were no roads anywhere near it except the one in front. The land behind the two buildings was so rough, it would be near impossible to get a vehicle up there. Horses, however, were a different story.
A little less than 24 hours later, Vin pulled into the parking lot of the Cactus Mountain Bar and Grill and parked along the side of the building. He locked his white Chevy Tahoe with the BIA emblem on the back door connected by a blue ribbon to the word "Police" on the front door. Walking past a White Mountain patrol car in the alley behind the bar, he found Eli Joe squatting next to a body crumpled at the base of a dumpster. Vin grit his teeth when he realized he was going to have to deal with the dirty officer. Eli Joe stood as he approached, looking a little too smug in Vin's opinion.
Lt. Eli Joe Martinez was the product of an Apache mother and a Hispanic father. His skin and hair were dark, as were his beady eyes. He had a long narrow face framed by straight, thin hair that hung past his shoulders. He'd always reminded Vin of a weasel. Eli Joe smirked as Vin reached him and the body. "Looky here," he called to John Mescal, the officer keeping watch at the other end of the alley. "The mighty BIA is here. Our work is done."
"Cut the crap, Eli Joe," Vin snapped.
"Pardon me, oh federal one." Eli Joe widened his smirk as he motioned toward the body. "Mandy found him when she was opening up. Came out to empty some trash and found human trash already out here."
Vin winced at Eli Joe's insensitive reference. The body was obviously a man, dressed in faded jeans and a threadbare gray t-shirt. Long, dark hair covered his face, which lay in a pool of dark, dry blood. "Do we know who it is yet?"
"Nope. Even stupid bastards like me know not to move the body before our resident fed gets here."
Vin moved his eyes up to meet those of Eli Joe. "Glad we're on the same page," he said evenly. Eli Joe rolled his eyes and walked toward the other uniformed officer. Vin let out a breath, glad for a minute of not having to deal with the scum of the earth. He stared down at the body. It was familiar, but he wasn't sure how. So someone he knew probably, but not anyone he was close to.
A loud backfire let him know that the reservation medical examiner and forensics expert had arrived. The old van he drove prevented the physician from sneaking into the crime scene. Sure enough, a few minutes later a man about Vin's height with long hair in a braid down his back rounded the corner carrying a variety of cases. Jim Nighthawk grinned when he spotted Vin heading his way, handing off a heavy case as soon as he was close enough. "Here, make yourself useful."
Vin pretended to almost drop the heavy case. "You investigatin' crimes with bricks these days?"
"Yes, sacred bricks," Jim deadpanned. "The spirits reveal what has happened through them."
"Guess that saves you a lot of work."
Jim sighed and shook his head. "I have no idea why I put up with you."
"Must be my good looks and rapier wit." Vin looked at Jim and they both burst out laughing.
Arriving at the body, they found Eli Joe staring at them with his arms crossed and a sour look on his face. "If you two are through goofing off, maybe we could speed this up. Some of us have things to do."
Jim shook his head as he bent over the body to take his first look. "Anyone ever tell you that you have no sense of humor, Eli?"
"Anyone ever tell you or your pale-face friend that you waste too much time?"
Vin winced at the remark even as Jim stood back up to defend him. "Vin can't help genetics. He may have fairer skin than you, but he's got as much Apache blood as you do. More importantly, he has a double-dose of Apache spirit whereas I fail to see much of that in you."
Eli's eyes narrowed and he leaned closer to Jim. "Look here, Nighthawk, I know you embrace all that ancient customs and culture hooey and ole Tanner over there likes to flaunt his heritage on this land, but that don't make either of you better than me. I spend my time cultivating the future, not trying to revive the past. You two just do your job so we can all go home." He whipped around and stomped off, rounding the far corner and disappearing from sight.
After a moment, Vin looked at Jim. "I think you might have upset him." With a big grin, he slapped the man on the back. "Good job. You just made my day."
Jim shrugged. "I try." He grabbed Vin by the arm. "I meant what I said. I know your heritage is mixed white and Indian, but your heart is Apache. I know this because I have seen it. Do not let Eli Joe make you doubt that."
Vin let out a deep breath and gave a quick nod. "Thanks."
Jim returned the nod and then looked down at the body. "I guess now we work. Let me get a few pictures and then we can see what we're dealing with."
Vin stood back and watched Jim work for a while. He took pictures of the body from every conceivable angle, some close up and some farther away. Another officer arrived and Jim put her to work gathering evidence from the perimeter of the alley. Once he had set that in motion, he returned to the body and Vin joined him. They rolled the man onto his back and brushed the hair from his face.
"Tommy Shanta," said Vin. "Dang, I thought he was gettin' himself together."
Jim squatted next to the body and began checking it over. A single bullet hole was almost perfectly centered in the forehead. "The cause of death is pretty obvious, but we'll do an autopsy to see what else we can find. From the residue and stippling, I'm guessing the gun was less than a foot away. Bruising around the face and a split lip indicate he was beaten before being shot."
Vin stared at the tiny dots Jim had pointed to around the wound called stippling or tattooing. If he remembered correctly, they were caused by burning gunpowder coming from the gun as it was fired. "Think they were trying to get information out of him before they killed him?" Vin's mind was in overdrive thinking about what Tommy could possibly know that someone would kill him for.
"He was working at that new place the last few weeks, right?" asked Jim. "That car service out at Kurak's old place."
Vin's heart nearly went into overdrive. "Wait, you mean the car restoration place? Tommy was working there?"
"Yeah, that's the place. I was talking to Tommy's father last week. Ran into him and his wife at the market and he was real happy. Said Tommy was off drugs and had a steady job hauling and cleaning up at that new place where they restore old cars and trucks." Jim sighed and shook his head. "This is going to tear them up."
Vin barely heard what Jim was saying. It made sense. If Altaha was up to something illegal, which Vin was certain he was, and Tommy saw something he shouldn't have . . . He looked down at the poor man. If he remembered correctly, Tommy was barely 20. The last bad element on the rez had gotten him and a lot of others hooked on drugs. And now this. The building rage was knocked off course by his phone buzzing in his pocket.
"Hey, Agent Tanner, this is Chris Larabee."
Vin snapped his arm up to look at the time. Crap. "Shoot, I just realized how late it was. Where are you?"
"We're just rolling into town and I thought I'd check in with you. Something going on?"
"Yeah, I'm sorry, I've got a DB out behind the local saloon so I'm not at the office. Uh . . . shoot," he said, looking around as if the answer he needed would pop up somewhere. He didn't want to talk to them here with Eli Joe creeping around and he wasn't sure how many office people he trusted right now. "Can you come here for a minute and we'll figure out what to do next?"
"Sure, just tell me where to go."
"I assume you've got GPS in your vehicle or on your phone. Plug in the Cactus Mountain Bar and Grill on Columbine Road. I'm around back in the alley."
"Okay, my navigator plugged that in and he says we're good. It's telling me we're about five minutes away."
"Good, I'll see you in a few." He turned his phone off and turned to find Jim standing there staring at him.
"What's going on?"
Vin shrugged. "Not sure. Some ATF guy out of Denver wants to talk to me about a case that might land in our backyard. I was supposed to meet him at the office in a few, but I diverted him here."
"You can go if you need to."
Vin shook his head. "No, I want to be an extra pair of eyes keeping watch on things. There's something going on here and I don't want to miss anything."
Jim narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. "You know something?"
"No, not really. But I've got this bad feelin' in my gut and an idea about where this might be headed. I don't want to be wishin' I'd been more careful down the road."
Jim nodded. "I have learned to trust your gut." They both turned at the sound of clacking wheels to find two men pushing a gurney across the uneven pavement. Vin stood back as they loaded the body into a body bag, but was distracted by something rolling away. Eli Joe had arrived with the gurney and he hurried over to pick the object up. Vin planted himself in the way, pushing Eli Joe's outstretched hand away.
"What are you doing?" Eli Joe growled at him, balling his fists up.
Vin stood between the man and the object. "Trying to keep you from contaminatin' evidence. Now back off." Jim handed Vin an evidence bag and a glove, which he used to nudge a gold, metal button into the bag. Sealing it, he stood and held the bag up so he and Jim could look at it. Vin couldn't help himself. He glanced at Eli Joe and said, "Missing any buttons?"
Eli Joe stomped off, pushing past strangers at the end of the alley. "Crap, I think that's my ATF guys." He handed the bag to Jim. "Keep a close eye on that. I want it tested for fingerprints and anything else you can think of. The report goes only to me, no one else."
Jim looked at Vin, glanced toward where Eli Joe had disappeared and then back at Vin. He sighed and took the bag. "I hope you're wrong in what you are thinking."
Vin stared at the bag. "At this point, I'm almost certain I'm not. Just . . . keep an eye on the evidence . . . and watch your back."
Jim nodded. "And you watch yours, my friend."
Vin dipped his head and then began walking towards the two men at the end of the alley. One of them was tall with a mustache and friendly blue eyes. The other man was slightly shorter, dressed in black jeans and a black shirt that seemed to go with the glare he was aiming down the alley. Vin was wondering what had pissed the man off before he'd even had a chance to meet him when his eyes locked onto the man's green ones.
A chill of familiarity ran down his spine and he instinctively knew that the glare was not for him, but for Eli Joe. In the short time the ATF agent had been there, he'd picked up on what was happening. Vin knew he should be concerned about that, but for some reason he found it comforting instead of annoying.
Vin held out his hand as he reached the men. "Vin Tanner, BIA."
The tall man with the mustache grabbed his hand with a firm grip. "Buck Wilmington, ATF. Sorry about intrudin' on your crime scene."
Vin shrugged one shoulder. "Can't be helped. Sorry about making you meet me here." He turned to the man in black and their grip automatically went to the other's forearms, a brotherhood grip. He was surprised and yet he wasn't.
"Chris Larabee." They continued to stare at one another even after releasing their grip. Chris frowned and rubbed his jaw. "Have we met before?"
Vin was a little relieved at the question because he was having the same thoughts. "I don't think so, not that I can remember. But you sure do seem familiar for some reason."
Buck was staring at the two of them like they'd each grown a new head, so Vin decided to move this show along. "I guess we can compare notes later. I know I said we'd meet at the office, but I want to go with a plan B if that's all right with ya'll."
Chris nodded, his gaze going over Vin's shoulder to where Eli Joe now stood watching them from the other end of the alley. "I understand."
"Have you guys had lunch yet?"
Buck snorted. "Not with Mr. we-can't-stop-for-anything driving."
Chris scowled, which made Vin grin. "Good, I'm going to feed you boys up right, but I can't leave just yet and I don't want an audience when we talk. If'n your willin', I'll let you guys pick up the food and meet me at my house. By the time you get there, I should be finished here and can head that way."
Chris dipped his head in a nod. "Sounds good. Just tell us where to go and I'll be happy to buy. Looks like you could use a bit of a break today."
"Thanks, I surely could. I'm going to send you to the Yucca Blossom Café to get three orders of Indian stew and fry bread. When that's ready, take it out to my place. You can plug the café into your GPS, but I'd better draw you a map to my place." Vin grinned. "GPS directions tend to lead you out in the middle o' nowhere and tell ya that you've arrived."
The two men exchanged a glance and a grin. Buck said, "Yeah, I think we've been down that road a time or two. I thought we'd stumbled into a Deliverance remake one time."
Vin chuckled as he pulled a small notebook from his shirt pocket. He spent a couple of minutes drawing and labeling the map and then tore it off and handed it to Chris. "I hope you can read this mess. I really need a bigger piece of paper." He proceeded to explain the map, which contained directions from the café to his house at the end of a dead end road almost ten miles outside of the city.
Chris frowned and squinted at the map during the explanation, but in the end he nodded. Vin decided he looked like he got it. "Worse comes to worse, you can always call me if you get lost."
Buck looked horrified. "You think Chris is goin' to admit being lost?"
Vin shook his head. "Nah, but I figure you might be willing to call and nudge some extra directions out of me since I got some cold beers waiting in the frig. And you're gonna want some honey to go with that fry bread. Mmmm, ain't nothing like warm fry bread and honey."
Buck's stomach grumbled. "I have no idea what that is, but it's soundin' better by the minute."
Vin laughed and it felt good to release some of the tension that had been building the last few days. "When you get to the café, tell ‘em Vin sent you and we'll probably get some extra fry bread." He gave them general directions to the café to go with the ones from the GPS and told them where to find his extra key since they'd probably arrive before him.
"I shouldn't be far behind you," Vin said, glancing down the alley at Jim collecting evidence and at Eli Joe dogging his every step. "I just need to keep an eye on things until the scene is cleared."
He turned to find both men watching Eli Joe with grim expressions. "Stay as long as you need," Chris said. "We'll be fine." He started to turn away, but came back around to face Vin. "Watch your back, Tanner."
Their eyes met again and the same chill of familiarity ran down Vin's back. "I will."
As soon as the two men cleared the alley, Eli Joe was at his shoulder. "Who are they? What are they doing here?" he asked abruptly.
Vin sighed and resisted the urge to tell him it was none of his business. Turning to Eli Joe, he said, "They're ATF, working on a case that might end up involving the reservation. They're lookin' to get some advice on proper protocol."
Eli Joe looked panicked for a moment before the mask of indifference slipped back in place. Interesting.
"ATF? They looking for guns?"
Vin was proud at the neutral expression he maintained, because inside his thoughts were whirling. Guns? Was that what they were dealing in? The size of the crates would fit with that. Eli Joe had possibly given him a piece of the puzzle, but now he needed to misdirect. "Guns? Nah, something to do with bootleggin' alcohol. I think they suspect we got some illegal stills runnin' out here and the alcohol is makin' its way up their direction. I figured I'd give ‘em a hand."
Vin could see the moment Eli Joe relaxed. It told him all sorts of things and he was thankful he'd misdirected the man. Not only did he now think they weren't on to their operation, he no doubt thought helping the ATF look for stills would keep Vin out of his hair. It was all Vin could do to look bored and not jump up and down with excitement.
Eli Joe looked around, staring for a moment at Jim. "I guess I'll get back to the office. Nothing more I can do here."
Vin nodded. "I think they're about done anyway."
Eli Joe continued to stare at Jim as the man approached them. "I'm headed back to the office. Want me to drop off the evidence bags?"
Jim smiled pleasantly and shook his head. "No thank you, Eli Joe. I'm going that way myself."
Eli Joe hesitated, like he wanted to say something else and then blurted out, "Fine, I was just trying to help," before stomping away.
The two men followed him with their eyes until he was out of sight and then looked at each other. "You keep that button and anythin' else you found that might be important locked up. I want the report as soon as you have it, but get it to me quietly and in person. No go-betweens."
Jim nodded, his jaw clenching for a moment. "This makes me sad. And angry."
Vin sighed. "I know, me too. But it is what it is. Are you done?"
"Yes, we are. Ellen is going to do another run through before she returns, just in case we missed something, but I believe we have everything."
"Did you find the round or is it still in Tommy's head?" Vin asked.
Jim shook his head. "Close range, so it blew out the back of his head. We searched the whole alley . . . nothing."
Vin sighed and ran one hand through his hair. "Eli was first on scene. He might be dirty, but sure as heck ain't stupid."
Jim's lips thinned out in a grimace and he gave a short nod.
"I'm goin' to follow your van back to the office to make sure you don't have an accidenton the way and then I'm goin' out to my place to meet those ATF agents. I have a strong feelin' we might be workin' the same case."
"Watch out for yourself, Nah-kah-yen."
Vin snorted. "Wish I had some keen evidence right now since keen sight isn't doing me much good. Don't worry, I'll keep an eye out for trouble."
Jim suddenly grinned. "Did you tell the ATF agents where to find your extra key?"
Vin smirked. "I did."
"Should be interesting."
Vin chuckled. "It would be if we were there to watch."
"Ya think that's it? It sure does look real."
Chris sighed, wishing he knew the answer to that question. "Maybe? I mean, he did say the key was under a statue that looked kind of like a rattlesnake."
Buck shifted his weight and rubbed his chin. "Pard, that don't look like no statue I ever saw. That thing looks like it's ready to take a piece outta anything that gets close."
Chris grunted in agreement. They were standing behind Vin Tanner's log cabin looking at the desert landscaping next to his back porch. The cabin was impressive. Part of it was obviously very old, although well maintained. They could see at least two places where the original small structure had been added onto. Their focus had quickly shifted, however, when they saw what appeared to be a very large rattlesnake coiled up in a shaded area in the midst of a ring of small bushes.
Chris sighed at their dilemma. Vin told them his key was under a rattlesnake statue, but he never said anything about it looking real. Of course, that would be the perfect place to hide the key. Most people would take one look at the thing and run the other direction. "It hasn't moved at all since we've been here. That's bound to be it."
Buck didn't say anything for a moment as he continued to stare. "I think you're right, but I'd rather be sure than snake-bit. Maybe we could poke it with a stick first."
Chris thought that sounded like a smart idea. How embarrassing would it be to get taken down by a snake you thought was a statue. He joined Buck in looking around, but the area around the house was obviously well taken care of. "I don't see any sticks." He looked up, widening his search area. There were trees several yards away, but he didn't see any loose sticks there either. A barn and corral area were adjacent to the trees with fenced pasture beyond. Forest butted up against the pasture.
"He's got a right nice place here," Buck said, coming up to stand beside him.
"Yeah, he does." He watched a pair of horses moving together, grazing in the pasture just beyond the barn. "Nice looking horses too."
"Too bad none of that gets us in the house." Buck glanced at the Jeep Wrangler parked next to their truck. "Don't reckon he'd have an extra key in his jeep, do ya?" he asked as he stepped closer and looked in the vehicle.
Chris snorted as he turned back to the house and walked over to the graveled area beside the structure. Staring at the snake once again, he picked up a rock and tossed it at the snake. It hit with a thump and bounced off, the snake never moving. Grinning, he glanced at Buck and stepped over to pull up the front part of the snake and slide the key below out, hoping Buck hadn't noticed the slight hesitation before he actually grabbed the statue.
"Pard, that's just creepy," Buck said with an exaggerated shiver.
"You're telling me," Chris said as he unlocked the door. "I'll put this back and we can just fail to mention how long it took us to retrieve the key."
Buck picked up the bags of food from the patio table. "All right by me," he said as he carried the bags in. Chris returned the key and moved the rocks around so the area didn't look disturbed. With one last look at the snake, he shivered and headed for the house.
The inside of the house was neat and left no doubt they were in the southwest. The patio door opened into one of the additions, a combination mudroom, laundry room, and pantry. They walked through to the kitchen, which ran along one wall with a bar separating it from the dining area.
The living room was adjacent to kitchen/dining room toward the front of the house. The table in the dining area as well as the coffee table and end tables were stained wood and looked like they'd been made by hand. The floor was hardwood with a large area rug in the center of the room. The couch and two recliners were plush, brown microfiber and each had a blanket with Native American designs thrown over the back. A large stone fireplace filled the front wall, with pictures and native pottery on the mantle above. A bow, a couple of arrows, and a spear hung above the mantle and all appeared to be very old.
Chris walked over to a bookcase in the corner where several Native American baskets, pottery, and other items were displayed, along with several framed pictures. It was all meticulously arranged and not a speck of dust anywhere, something that had to be difficult to maintain in this environment. Buck joined him, looking at the items over his shoulder.
"Looks like he's got quite the collection. He sure has a lot of Indian stuff for someone who doesn't look like an Indian."
Chris shrugged. "He may not be full-blooded, but he's got some Indian in him. You look closely enough, you can tell."
"If you say so."
Chris was reaching for a framed family photo when they both turned at the sound of a vehicle driving up. Buck looked out the window. "It's the BIA car we saw at the bar. Yeah, Tanner's gettin' out."
Dropping his hand, Chris walked back to the table where they had placed the food bags as Vin came in through the mudroom. "See you guys got in okay. Any trouble?" The question was accompanied by a smirk and raised eyebrows.
"No, none at all," Chris said evenly. "Why do you ask?"
Vin chuckled as he opened the refrigerator and pulled out three beers. It was well past two now, he was hot and thirsty, and he had no intentions of returning to the office. "Some folks have trouble getting the key, but I see you guys handled it." He grinned at each of them as he handed them a bottle. "I'm starved. Let's eat."
Half an hour later, they all sat licking honey off their fingers. With a sigh of contentment, Vin pushed his plate away. "Now that was good eatin'. Thanks for picking it up, the food and the check."
Chris patted his belly and dipped his head in a nod. "I have to say, it was well worth it. Best food I've had in a while."
They sat in silence for a moment and then Vin leaned back in his chair, resting his clasped hands across his chest. "Why don't you tell me about this case you're concerned with and what it has to do with the reservation?"
Chris exchanged a look with Buck and then rubbed his chin. "Six months ago we had a meet set up with a gun runner named David McPherson. He was supposed to be selling automatic weapons to the head of an extremist group through a broker that was one of my guys working undercover. The day before the bust, the FBI went after the extremist group, grabbed our buyer and spooked our gun runner. McPherson disappeared."
Vin narrowed his eyes, the sudden appearance of David Altaha making sense. "But he's turned up again, my guess is as David Altaha."
Both ATF agents straightened, their eyebrows rising as their eyes widened. Vin would have laughed if the situation wasn't so maddening. Chris suddenly nodded. "He's been on your radar."
Vin rubbed the back of his neck as several pieces of the puzzle clicked into place. "I knew from the get-go somethin' wasn't right about him. When you called me yesterday, I was perched on a hill behind his place watching his men unload crates into a warehouse and trying to figure out what was goin' on. Guns would fit perfectly with what I saw."
Dropping his arm, Vin looked at the two men. He decided he was going to have to trust someone and these guys seemed like his best bet. Something about Larabee just seemed . . . right. "Altaha moved here about the time you lost this McPherson guy. His mom was a member of the tribe and she had registered him when he was born. They lived off in California or somewhere most of his life, but his mom moved back here into their old family home about three years back."
Buck nodded. "JD, our tech guy, traced one of his aliases down as his real name and followed it back here. He figured he'd gone to using his mother's maiden name in order to operate off our radar. He probably figured workin' from the reservation would give him another layer of protection. JD told us McPherson's mother died last year, leaving the house to her son."
"She did," Vin said. "He also bought an old horse farm outside of town. The creek that used to supply the area with water dried up a few years ago and horse farm went under. It had two old barns on it that he immediately remodeled. The one in front is supposedly a restoration business for old vehicles and the one in back is a warehouse for future projects and car parts." Vin snorted. "I don't know of any car parts that come in crates like I saw them unloadin'."
Chris looked at Vin, his expression unreadable. "I have to ask. What was that business with the murder in the alley? Is that connected to this?"
Vin sighed and glanced around the room, trying to gather his thoughts. He wasn't sure how much of his unconfirmed suspicions he needed to share.
"It's all right, Junior," said Buck. "We're here to get help and also to provide it if we can. Say whatever you want and it'll stay here if that's what you prefer. Sometimes just sayin' things out loud can help clarify the situation."
Vin frowned. He'd just met these men, but he already felt a connection, a trust like he'd rarely found in his life outside of family. He saw sincerity in their eyes and decided he'd just go with his gut. "All right. Altaha has two separate crews. One crew works in the car restoring business. Most of them are local boys from the reservation along with a couple of white guys from the area. The crew that works in the warehouse is mostly folks we've never seen before, like he brought them in from out of town."
Chris held up a hand. "Wait, do you not have to be a member of the tribe to work on the reservation?"
Buck chuckled. "Well obviously not. Does he look like an Indian to you?"
Vin winced, reminding himself that Buck hadn't meant anything by it. The glare Chris sent to his friend told him that Larabee had noticed his reaction. "You don't have to be Native American to work on the reservation, although they are given preference when hiring."
He looked at Chris and then Buck. "I'm what you would call the alley cat variety. My father descended from the original Vin Tanner, who was a white man. But great, great, great grandpa Vin married a full-blooded Apache woman and most of my relatives between them and my dad were Apache. Grandma was actually a Kiowa from Oklahoma, but that's another story. Dad met and married a white woman while he was in the Rangers. Apparently there were enough recessive white genes that when combined with my blonde, blue-eyed mother's genes, they got a white-looking son." Vin quickly looked away. He hadn't meant that last part to come out sounding so bitter.
"I'm guessing that made for hard times growing up on a reservation," said Chris.
"Yeah, you could say that." Vin tucked his emotions back into their little box and turned back to face the ATF agents. "I am a registered member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and my family has owned this land for generations," he said, waving his hand around the room. He nodded at the weapons hung over the fireplace. "Those belonged to my great, great grandfather."
Vin got up and walked over to the shelves beside the fireplace, picking up a framed photograph of his family. He returned to the table and handed the picture to Buck. "That's my mom and dad and me before mom died. I think I was four in that picture."
"Nice lookin' folks you got there," said Buck as he handed the photo over to Chris. Vin looked down at his father's strong features and big smile, his skin much darker than that of his mother. He stared at the blue eyes, perfect nose, and oval face of the angel that was his mother. He'd always thought she was beautiful, and that feeling grew stronger as he got older.
Chris frowned and touched the image of Vin sitting on his mother's lap. "This is you?" At Vin's nod, he looked back down at the picture. "I can see both of them in you." Looking up, he returned the photo to Vin. "And I think that both of them would be proud."
Swallowing around the tightness in his throat, Vin gave a short nod as he took the photo. "Thank you." He stared a moment more at his parents, thinking of how much he wished he could see them again before pushing it all down and returning the frame to the shelf.
"There's a lot of history in this room, isn't there?" Chris said, his eyes traveling over the Native American things on display.
"Yes, there is," Vin said as he sat back down.
Buck turned from looking at the weapons on the wall to facing Vin. "I'm real sorry, Vin. I didn't mean anything by what I said. I have a bad habit of stickin' my big ole size fourteen foot into my mouth."
Seeing the regret in the big man's eyes, Vin relaxed and smiled. "I know. I didn't mean to go defensive on you. It's kind of a sore spot sometimes. And some people like to poke at it every chance they get."
Chris looked at Vin and narrowed his eyes. "Like that officer this morning?"
"Yeah. That was Eli Joe. He and I have been at odds since about the fifth grade." Vin suddenly stood up. "I'll make some coffee." While he did want some coffee, mostly he needed a few minutes to pull his thoughts together. He could almost sense the two ATF agents behind him having a wordless conversation about the messed up BIA agent they were saddled with.
"Whoa, pardner, how much coffee are you puttin' in there? I want to be able to at least pour it, even if it's too strong to drink." Vin's hand stilled at Buck's voice and he stared at the filter almost completely filled with grounds. Growling under his breath, he dipped part of it out before setting the pot to brewing and returned to the table with a sheepish grin.
"Guess I let myself get a mite distracted. I thank ya for keepin' me from makin' a huge mess."
Buck grinned and leaned back in his chair. "Hey, it ain't nothin'. We've all got our crosses to bear and it sounds like this Eli Joe fella might be yours."
Chuckling, Vin rubbed the side of his face. "Yeah, I reckon he's a cross all right." He took a deep breath and let his eyes move up the men across the table. He saw understanding a bit of curiosity there. He could live with that.
"Eli Joe was bully back in the day. Heck, in a way he still is. Him and a couple of his friends went around threatenin' and shovin' and takin' what they wanted. If you crossed them, they jumped you after school and beat the livin' tar out'a ya." He grinned. "Then I moved here to live with my grandparents."
Seeing their look of confusion, Vin explained. "My dad was killed in a car wreck two weeks before my tenth birthday. Grandpa came and got me to come live here with them. I was hurt in the accident, so grandma taught me here for the last month of school while I was recoverin' and I started up new in the fall. Two days in, Eli Joe and his buddies announced they wanted my lunch money. I know it sounds cliché, but I kid you not."
"I'm guessing you told him what he could do with his . . . request," said Chris.
Vin grinned. "Oh, yeah. My dad was an Army Ranger and then a Texas Ranger. No skinny, greasy-haired punk was takin' my money."
"So what happened?" asked Buck, leaning forward in his chair to put his arms on the table.
Vin shrugged. "The three of them jumped me after school and beat the snot out of me." A smirk slowly spread across his face. "But I got a few good licks in on ‘em. This went on for another couple a days. Grandpa went up to the school and they called all of us in – boys, parents, and such to meet with the principal and a school counselor. Eli Joe put on a hurt, pitiful act and said I had attacked them all for no reason."
Chris's eyebrows went up. "Wait, what? He said you . . . all by yourself . . . just randomly attacked three boys . . . several times?"
"Crazy, ain't it?" Vin said with his eyes wide. The whole scenario still confused him. "You wanna know somethin' crazier? They took his side. I got suspended and the three of them walked free."
Buck had clenched his fists and looked for all the world like he wanted to hurt someone. "You have got to be kidding me. How? Why?" he sputtered.
Vin began counting off on his fingers. "One, his parents were both attorneys and were probably threatening to sue the school. Two, his grandfather was on the tribal council." He sighed as he put up the last finger. "Three, even though Eli Joe wasn't full-blooded either, he looked like he belonged and he'd lived here his whole life. I was new and didn't look I belonged."
"That's crap," Buck said, shaking his head. "I don't know why people do that . . . judge you by stuff that's got nothin' to do with your character. I been on the receivin' end of that kind of stuff myself and it makes my blood boil."
Vin was surprised at the anger in Buck, especially since most of it was directed at how Vin had been treated. They had only known each other a few hours, and yet it spoke to that weird trust and familiarity that had existed almost since the moment he'd laid eyes on the two men. He could not explain what was going on, but he decided maybe it was just something he should gratefully accept.
"I appreciate that," Vin said. Struggling for where to go from there, he decided getting coffee sounded like a good distraction. "I think our coffee's done," he said as he got up. Returning a few minutes later with three filled mugs, he set them on the table and fetched the carton of cream, the sugar bowl, and a couple of spoons. He sipped the brew, almost humming in contentment. He did love a good cup of coffee.
Buck sipped from his cup, pursing his lips out as he swallowed. "Wow, this is . . . kinda stout."
Vin grinned. "I might should have warned ya that I like it strong." He met Chris's eyes as Buck went to the sink and added a little water to his cup.
"Dang, Vin, this stuff could almost get up and walk off by itself," Buck said as he returned to the table. He took another sip, rolled his eyes around as if thinking, and then gave a nod of approval. "Now that's more like it."
"Grandpa always made it strong, so that's how I learned to drink it. I'm so used to it that most anything else tastes all watered down now." He glanced to a picture on the wall of him and his grandfather, taken just about a year ago. The two of them were standing on either side of a young mare they had sold for a hefty profit.
"That your grandfather?" asked Chris, following his gaze.
Vin swallowed and glanced back down to his coffee. "Yeah. He died a couple of months ago. I still miss him. Still expect to see him standing here when I come in from work . . . or wavin' at me from the barn." He shook off the memories, pushed back the grief, and looked at the two agents sitting across from him.
"I came back to reservation about three years ago after I got out of the Army, mostly to help Grandpa. He had a minor stroke and was havin' some trouble gettin' around and takin' care of the horses. Shortly after I got here, a BIA position opened up and he encouraged me to apply for it. Eli Joe was already an officer in the reservation police force. He and I both applied for the job. I got it. It was a federal position and none of the local folks had any say-so in who got the position."
Chris cocked his head a little. "I think it says a lot about you that you got a law enforcement position over someone who already had law enforcement experience. You must have been pretty impressive to beat him out."
Vin shrugged and looked at the table. He could feel the heat creeping up his neck to his face. "I think it's more of a comment on how sad Eli Joe is."
"Don't sell yourself short, Junior. Even if Eli Joe wasn't all that great, for you to beat out his experience and training in law enforcement, you'd have to have made an impression on someone," said Buck.
Vin frowned slightly at the man. "That's the second time you've called me Junior."
Shrugging one shoulder, Buck said, "Don't mean nothin' disrespectful by it." He grinned at Vin and winked. "Your glare is almost as good as big dog's over here but you're a little younger, so . . . Junior."
Chris turned the glare Buck had been discussing on his oldest friend, making Buck laugh and Vin chuckle. Vin realized the name was one of endearment, which both surprised and pleased him. "I doubt I can match that glare, but it's definitely somethin' to strive for."
"You too?" Chris said, his tone sounding annoyed even as his eyes danced. "Surrounded by traitors." Turning back to Vin, he gave him a tiny nod. "So Eli Joe wants your job."
Vin's brow furrowed as he shook his head once. "It's not about the job really, it's more what he could do with it. About eighteen months ago, we developed a really bad drug problem in a short period of time. After doin' some askin' around and followin' up on a couple of leads, I figured out this new guy just outside the reservation was the source. He was the source for a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables coming in to restaurants and markets and he used that to smuggle the drugs in. Every time I'd get close to nailing him with enough evidence to get it stopped, something would go wrong."
"Eli Joe?" asked Chris.
"Yeah. I was trying not to focus on him because I figured our history was cloudin' my judgement, but everything kept leadin' back to him. I finally got things rollin' without Eli Joe knowin' ahead of time and we corned the guy with a load of meth." Vin sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, the suppressed anger giving him a headache. "Eli Joe still ended up there for the take-down and he shot the guy dead, claimed he was defendin' himself. No witnesses to dispute his story, so he got a heap o' praise for taking the guy down and savin' the reservation folks from drugs."
Chris and Buck sat staring at him with their mouths open. It might have been funny if it wasn't so infuriating. "Welcome to life as the nemesis of Eli Joe. Most of the time, I can't win for losin'." The only thing that made Vin feel better was the look of building fury and determination on Larabee's face.
After a moment, Chris straightened and leaned his arms on the table. "Looks like our problems are intertwined. I say let's work together, come up with a plan to help us both get rid of the trash cluttering up our lives."
Buck grinned and wiggled his eyebrows up and down. "When he gets that look in his eye, he's got a plan."
"Tell me about what was going on this morning and what you have on McPherson . . . or whatever his name is, and the connection to Eli Joe. I'll tell what we know from our research and our undercover man. We'll go from there," Chris said.
Vin let out a deep breath and gave a quick nod. "I'm game." For the first time in a long while, Vin felt like just maybe he could finally come out on top.
The three men stood side by side, leaning against the wooden fence as they watched several horses graze in the pasture. The grass wasn't nearly as thick or green as what the horses in Chris's pasture were treated to, but these seemed content with the offering.
While the main part of the house was obviously very old, the barn was only a few years old at best. Chris was pondering that when Vin began to speak.
"We had to replace the old barn right after I got back from the Army. Storm took out a tree, which took out the barn. Sad thing is, I'll probably have to sell off most of the stock pretty soon. I don't have the time to keep everythin' up and continue the breeding program by myself while workin'."
The disappointment and dread in Vin's voice touched Chris because he knew how much he would hate to have to sell off his horses. "Maybe you could hire someone?"
Vin shook his head. "Thought of that. I had to put the breedin' program on the back burner for now, so it's not bringin' in any revenue. I don't make enough on my salary to pay anyone very much and to be honest, there are very few people I'd trust with ‘em. All the ones I know would do right by them, I can't afford."
Chris nodded, knowing he'd be in much the same jam if it weren't for a couple of really close neighbors that helped him out when he was on a case and couldn't get home. One of them was retired and loved anything to do with horses, so was always eager to pitch in. One call and old man Jenkins would be out there treating them like they were his own.
One of the horses looked up at the conversation and slowly sidled over to nuzzle Vin's shoulder. Vin scratched the black horse up around his ears. Buck started to reach over and pet the animal until it snapped at him.
"Whoa, there, buddy, I wasn't gonna hurt ya none," said Buck, rubbing his hand.
"Did he get you?" asked Vin, his brow furrowed.
"Nah, just bumped me and gave me a startle."
Vin nodded, his expression relaxing. "This here's Peso. He don't care for people in general. I think maybe he had some bad experiences with folks when he was younger, but me and him have an understandin', don't we boy?" Vin and the horse looked at each other a moment before the horse shook his head and returned to the group still grazing several yards away. "Whatever happens, Peso'll be stayin' with me."
Chris turned and leaned back against the fence, looking at the house. The main room that had contained the living room, dining area, and kitchen was certainly the oldest, a true log cabin. It had been repaired over the years and well cared for, but it had a rustic quality that only came with time. As they looked at the back of the dwelling, the big mudroom/laundry room/pantry was on the right, a combination of rock and wood. A similar addition extended the house on the left. He'd seen a hallway going that way and assumed it was bedrooms.
Vin turned around and followed Chris's gaze. "The main living area we were in all afternoon was the original cabin, built by my great, great grandfather. It was all one room and the privy was out back. My great grandfather added the bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms and then grandpa added the room over there with the washer and dryer and such."
"You have such a rich history here, one you don't see very often. I don't think I've ever actually known anyone with family land stretching back that far," said Chris with just a little bit of wonder.
Vin grinned, a sense of pride showing through as he looked at the house. "One day I hope to have a Tanner to leave it to."
"No brothers or sisters in the mix?" asked Buck.
Vin shook his head. "Nope, just me. Dad has a sister somewhere, but she couldn't get out of here fast enough he said. She didn't want nothin' to do with the reservation. Grandma was always real sad about that. She went for a visit right after I first started living with them. She was real upset when she came back and she never mentioned Aunt Mary again. I've never even met the woman and after what she put my grandparents through, I don't really want to. Grandpa had a couple of brothers, but both of them were killed . . . Korea maybe, or Vietnam. Not sure, but it's all recorded in the family albums. They were career Army."
Vin shrugged. "There are probably other Tanners out there, but none that I know about. There's usually only one kid interested in stayin' on the reservation, so who gets the house and land has never been a problem."
"In a way, that's ashamed," said Buck. "But I guess it makes things easier to not have a fight over it. I remember when my mom's mom died and her sisters argued and fought over who got what. Mom just wanted somethin' to remember her mother by. I was real young, but I still remember bein' surprised at how hateful everyone was, like things were more important than family. It shouldn't be that way."
Vin and Chris nodded in agreement. After a few minutes, Vin straightened, pulling away from the fence. "Gettin' late. I got some steaks in the refrigerator if you'd join me for dinner. I'd offer to put the two of you up for the night, but I don't want Eli Joe to find out and think we're getting friendly since I'm just supposed to be helpin' you guys find some bootleggers."
"It's fine," Chris said as they walked in the house. "ATF is paying and we've already got a room booked. I talked to the rest of the team while you were taking care of the horses. Ezra is gun ho to continue his role as Ethan Sanderson. He'd apparently built up quite a relationship with Mc . . . uh, Altaha." He rubbed his face. "That' going to drive me crazy."
Vin looked up from seasoning the steaks. "Call him McPherson if you want. I'll know who you're talkin' about."
Chris nodded. "You said he goes to the Yucca Blossom Café every Wednesday for their special, right?"
Vin nodded. "Yeah, the Apache Plate. It's a variety of popular traditional foods. He apparently loves it."
"Good. Ezra's going to just happen to stop there for lunch and bump into him. Hopefully that will lead to a business deal we can be an unexpected part of. Josiah will be here in the morning, supposedly working with Kojay to expand his spiritual awareness, or something like that."
Vin laughed as he moved some twice baked potatoes from the freezer to the microwave. "When I told Kojay an ATF agent would be calling him and what it was for, he was very . . . interested. I almost said excited, but Kojay doesn't get excited. In addition to being the equivalent of the old time medicine man, he loves a good mystery. I expect he'll be grillin' your agent on the hows and whats and wherefores of the job, along with his usual talking in riddles."
Buck snorted. "He'll have to get a word in edgewise cause I'm pretty sure ole Josiah plans on havin' this guy teach him some stuff while we're waitin' on everythin' to get set up."
"Could definitely get interestin'," said Vin as he heated up a cast iron skillet.
"You aren't grilling those?" asked Chris.
"Nah, not this time. Cookin' ‘em like this is somethin' I learned from Alton Brown."
"Who?" the two ATF agents said in synch.
Vin glanced over his shoulder. "Alton Brown. Good Eats?" When they shook their heads, he sighed. "Man, you guys need to expand your horizons a little. Prepare to be amazed."
Chris looked at Buck and saw the same skepticism he felt mirrored in his friend's eyes. He figured since they were guests, it would be rude to complain, so he let the matter drop. "We've got Nathan coming in tomorrow to work with your forensic guy. He's the team medic and our forensic specialist. He's supposedly here to work with your guy on identifying special characteristics of the illegal alcohol and provide backup if we need it."
"Yeah, I need to call Jim after we eat and bring him up to date. Don't let me forget. I also need to see if he got anything off that button we found under the body."
Chris momentarily clenched his jaw when he thought about Eli Joe's obvious attempt to get his hands on evidence. "You think it's important or Eli Joe wouldn't have been so eager to get his hands on it."
Vin turned around to face the two men, his expression grim. "I wouldn't say this to just anyone, but for some reason I feel I can trust the two of you." He took a deep breath and looked away for a second before returning his eyes to theirs. "I think Eli Joe is the one who killed Tommy. I think that button is his." After dropping his bombshell, he turned back to the stove.
Looking at Buck, Chris knew his expression was grim. This was going to get very nasty. While they were contemplating that bit of news, Vin said, "What about your other guy? The tech wizard?"
"JD," Buck said automatically. "It just so happens his big hobby is rebuilding motorcycles. He's going to drop by the restoration shop looking for a job."
Vin stilled and then turned back around. "Thought you said he was kind of young. Workin' for Altaha is dangerous. I'm pretty sure Tommy got himself killed by seein' somethin' he wasn't supposed to. You want to send your man in there knowing that?"
Buck's jawline tightened and he looked at Chris, who could see the worry in his blue eyes. Chris turned back to Vin. "JD is young, but he's the only one we have that can pull anything like that off. He's got some experience under his belt now and I think he can handle himself. I've told him not to take unnecessary chances, just to keep his eyes and ears open."
Vin held his eyes for a moment before giving a slight nod. "Okay, I trust ya to know your men." He put the last of the steaks on a plate, added a pat of butter, and then covered it with a tent of aluminum foil. After setting out steak knives and forks, he took the plate of potatoes out of the microwave and set them on the bar.
"Meat should be rested enough now, so grab a plate and a potato and let's head for the table." While they were doing that, he set out three beers and fixed his own plate. They all settled in to eat and for several minutes, all you could hear was the clank of silverware against plates.
"Whoo-ee," said Buck, smacking his lips. "You were right. Those are amazing."
Vin grinned and lifted his bottle up a moment before taking a sip. "Told ya. You can't wrong with Alton. Plus, he's just entertainin' to watch. A little loco, if ya know what I mean."
"I don't know about that, but I have to admit, I've never had a stove-cooked steak this good," said Chris. "Do you keep cattle?"
"Nah, I got me a deal with the Hawkins down the road. It's the last house before you get to mine. He raises cattle, so I board his horses and he keeps me supplied in meat. His three are in the far pasture, so we didn't see them earlier. Peso doesn't like the palomino and keeps nippin' at him, so I keep his separated from mine."
Buck snorted. "Does Peso like anyone?"
Vin broke out into a huge grin. "Yeah, he likes me."
Vin arrived early the next morning to find Jim waiting on him just inside the door. "Hey, you have something for me?"
Coming up beside him, Jim matched his stride down the quiet hallway and began speaking softly. "I was hoping you would come in early so I could catch you before it got crowded." He handed Vin a folder as they arrived at his office.
Stopping beside his desk, Vin opened it and began skimming over it. "You found a partial print on the button?"
Jim nodded, closing the door before coming to stand beside Vin. "I did. I ran it through the system and nothing so far. But on a hunch, I pulled Eli Joe's prints and took a look."
Vin jerked his head up to stare at Jim, trying to read the man's expression. "And?"
Jim took in a deep breath and sighed. "It's a four point match, but that's not enough to stand up in court. It just wasn't big enough for any more."
Vin felt the moment of excitement crash and burn. "Right. With anyone else we could probably get a search warrant on that to look for the shirt, but not with Eli Joe."
Jim shook his head, looking disgusted. "It might not matter. He knows we have the button. He's probably destroyed the shirt by now. I haven't put the partial match in the records yet. I wanted to check with you first. Cause of death was just what it looked like. Single gunshot to the front of the head, passed through the brain and out the back of his skull." Jim paused and his brows furrowing before he looked up at Vin.
Jim sighed heavily and shook his head. "The angle of the bullet was down . . . I think . . . I think Tommy was on his knees looking up at the killer."
Anger swept through Vin like a storm and he cursed under his breath as he paced a tight circle around the room. He stopped, closed his eyes, and tried to center himself as Kojay had taught him. Losing his temper wasn't going to help Tommy Shanta. He struggled to banish the image of the kid on knees looking into the barrel of a gun. It was several minutes before he opened his eyes and took a cleansing breath, his heart rate finally back to normal.
"Sorry about that," he said, now embarrassed at his show of emotion.
Jim walked over and placed one hand on his shoulder, their eyes meeting. Vin saw pain there, pain like he felt for Tommy. "I had much the same reaction as you, so there is no need to apologize. What we must do is avenge his killing."
Vin gave a single nod of agreement. "Defensive wounds?"
"Not much. He was beaten soundly before being killed. Contusions and abrasions, couple of cracked ribs, the usual signs. Nothing on his hands to indicate he tried to fight back, but some bruises on his arm suggest he tried to block a few blows."
Vin stared at the floor for several seconds, putting the pieces together. "So if he saw something at work that he wasn't supposed to see, they might have been trying to find out how much he saw or who he told."
"Makes sense. Tommy was young and inexperienced in the world of such things, so he would have answered their questions."
Vin tightened his hands into fists as the anger crept in again. "And then he or they executed him."
"Yes." Jim looked at Vin, waiting until Vin locked his eyes on Jim's. "We will get him and whoever else is involved, but we'll have to be careful."
Vin let out a shaky breath and nodded. "Right. If Eli asks, you can tell him there was a partial print, but it didn't get a match because it was too small. That's the truth and it'll make him feel safe." He turned to look at Jim. "Was there anything else?"
"Yeah, a partial footprint in the dirt, but it won't do us much good. It's the heel and back part of a boot, but it would probably match quite a few people around here. Looks to be a size 11 and fairly new, so no discernable wear pattern on the part we got."
Vin nodded. "That's probably Eli Joe's size and he got new boots just two weeks ago. It might not convict him, but if we can get enough hard evidence, this circumstantial stuff could put the nail in his coffin. If we could get a search warrant, he might even have some blood spatter on ‘em."
"That's what I'm thinking." The sound of people talking drifted down the hallway, garnering a look from both men. "I'm going to make myself scarce before Eli gets here. I'll let you know if we find anything else."
"Okay. My AFT guys will be here soon so we can try to throw Eli even farther off course."
Jim nodded. "Agent Jackson is supposed to be here after lunch and we can put our heads together to see what we can find. I look forward to working with him." Jim took a step toward the door and then paused and turned around. "Watch your back, Vin."
Vin gave him a two-fingered salute and a grin. "You too."
Vin skimmed through the rest of the file for a few minutes and then opened the bottom desk drawer. Checking to make sure no one was in the hall, he pulled out two reams of paper and then pried up the false bottom on the drawer. Once the file was securely inside the hidden compartment, he placed the paper back in the drawer and closed it. Satisfied that the file was secure, he headed for the breakroom for a much needed cup of coffee.
An hour and a half later, he was staring blankly at his computer screen while he tried to figure out the best way to snag Eli Joe when a knock at his door startled him. He looked up to find the two ATF agents entering his office, so he stood and they all shook hands. Showtime.
"Agent Larabee, Agent Wilmington," he said, nodding toward the chairs in front of his desk. "Thank you for meeting with me this morning." With a glance at the hall, he went over and closed the door. He could see Eli Joe at the end of hallway watching, but he ignored him and returned to his seat.
The all stared at one another for a moment, the situation awkward and uncomfortable for everyone. Vin could see Eli Joe peering around the windows to his office in his peripheral vision, so he decided to begin their plan of misdirection. He pushed some papers aside and pulled out a folder. "I came up with some possible still locations we can check out. Some are pretty far out, so it might take us a couple of days to check on them all."
Part of their meeting the day before had involved creating a false bootlegging case to distract Eli Joe from what they were actually working on. He could see from their expressions that they were prepared to do their part. Chris nodded. "That's fine. We need to find out where this alcohol is coming from. It's already sent three people to the hospital and we need to get a handle on this before someone ends up dead from poisoned moonshine."
Eli Joe's head disappeared. "I understand and I can assure that I'll do everything I can to help. If it's coming from the reservation, we'll find it." With no more sign of Eli Joe, Vin held up his finger. After a moment, he slid from his chair and over to the window. When he was sure Eli Joe was gone, he returned to his seat.
Buck leaned forward and quietly said, "Is he gone?"
"Yeah, it seems so. Jim came by this morning. He got a partial print off that button we found under the body. No hits through AFIS, but he did an unofficial comparison to Eli Joe and it matched four points. Not enough to say it's a match, but it'll add to the circumstantial evidence. Also found part of a boot print, but it's too common to help us much."
The two ATF agents shared a look. "Everything is set for the rest of the team. Everyone should be in place by this evening. The questions are will Altaha hire JD and will he work a deal with Ezra."
"Well, while we're waiting, I want to take another look at the crime scene and check around for any possible witnesses."
Chris nodded. "Any way we could take a peek at Altaha's property?"
Vin grinned. "Want to go for a ride?" He spotted a shadow moving closer on the wall across from his office and cleared his throat. "If you guys ride horses, we could look for your moonshiners in some less conventional locations. Might have more luck there."
He saw Larabee's jaw tighten momentarily before he relaxed and replied. "We both have horses that I keep out at my ranch, so we're good with that. You got some we could borrow?"
Vin nodded. "I can fix you up." He stood up and pushed his chair back. "Might as well get on that before it gets too hot. We can check the locations we can get to in the car this afternoon." As the other men stood, he headed for his office door. Eli Joe stepped away from the wall, trying to look like he'd been walking down the hallway. Vin pretended he hadn't known the officer was there as he opened the door.
"Oh, hey, Eli Joe, these are the two ATF agents I told you about. Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington," he said, nodded at each as he introduced them. "This is Eli Joe Martinez, an officer with the White Mountain Police Department." The three men shook hands.
"ATF, huh," said Eli Joe. "Vin here said you were looking for some bootleggers?"
Chris nodded and rubbed his jaw. "We've had some illegal alcohol flowing into central Colorado for a while now. Some of it is making people sick. We've been tasked with tracking down the source and shutting it down before someone dies. One of our informants said he heard it was coming from the reservation, so we were sent to check it out."
Vin nodded his head, scowling a bit as if the information troubled him. "I hate to think of anyone here sellin' bad moonshine and makin' folks sick. I don't guess any of your people have said anything?" he asked, looking up at Eli Joe.
Eli Joe pursed his lips a moment and shook his head. "I haven't heard anything about any illegal alcohol, but I'll keep my ears open."
Vin nodded. "Thanks. I'm takin' ‘em around to some of the remote areas where someone could'a been operatin' a still under the radar. Probably be out all day, so give a yell if you need me for anything." He looked around like he was making sure no one was within earshot and then leaned over to whisper, "We're wondering if that murder has anything to do with this. Maybe ole Tommy was involved or stumbled into somethin' he wasn't supposed to see."
The corner of Eli Joe's mouth twitched and Vin knew he was trying to keep from smiling. His eyes widened, probably in wonder at his good fortune. "You get anything off that button?"
Vin shrugged and put on his disappointed look. "Partial print, but not enough to do anything with." He sighed and shook his head. "We'll just have to hope something else turns up."
Eli Joe nodded, wiping his hand across his face. "Well, buddy, I wish you good luck out there. Let me know if you need help."
"I will. Mostly I figure we'll just get hot and dirty. See you later." With that, Vin lead the way out to his SUV. When they were safely ensconced in the vehicle, he began to laugh. Chris and Buck joined in as he backed out of the parking place. "Man, that was just too easy. Good job on the snow job, by the way."
Chris grinned. "Just following rule number 7."
Vin nodded as he shifted and began driving away from the station. "Always be specific when you lie." After a moment, he realized what Chris had said and glanced over to find the agent staring at him.
"Not you too," said Buck from the back seat. "One person spouting Gibb's rules is more than enough."
"You leave Jethro Gibbs out of this," said Vin. After a moment, he chuckled. "Ya know, now that I think of it, you do kinda remind me of Gibbs."
Chris snorted. "I'll take that as a complement."
Buck groaned and slapped his hand over his face. "That's all we need."
JD Dunne let out a deep breath as he slowed his motorcycle to turn into a long driveway. He noted two large buildings as he drove in, the one in front styled to show it was a converted barn while the one in back looked more like a warehouse. He parked in the paved lot beside the front building since it was the one with a sign declaring it to be Apache Restoration Services.
JD studied the building as he hung his helmet over the handlebars. Taking a deep breath and mentally going over his cover in his head, he walked toward the building. Two men came out, one of them handing the other a piece of paper as he talked. The man talking was Native American, tall and thin with dark hair just below his shoulders pulled back with a band. His nose was bit crooked, probably having been broken at some point. The other man was slightly shorter and stouter, his hair and complexion not quite as dark.
"And be sure you call me if they don't have something so I can figure out a suitable alternative. We need that stuff today," said the taller man. The other nodded and jogged over to a white truck.
The tall man started to turn back to the building, but paused and walked toward JD, a grin breaking out on his face as he stared at JD's bike. "Harley Davidson FXR3 . . . 1999?"
JD stopped and nodded, moving to stand beside the man as he squatted down to study the machine. "This is in fine shape," he said as he stood back up. "You looking to sell her, because you obviously aren't here to have her restored."
JD smiled so hard he thought his face might split, his chest swelling with pride. "No, sir. I worked too hard and for too long to ever sell her."
The man's head whirled around, his eyes wide as he took in JD, no doubt focusing in on his age. "You restored her?"
JD nodded. "Sure did. I didn't have much money, so I had to do it in small increments. Took me almost three years but she was worth every penny and every minute."
"You did a fine job," he said with nod of approval. Extending his hand, he said, "I'm Jishnu White."
"John Davidson, but most people just call me JD," he said as they shook hands. "I was actually coming to apply for a job."
Jishnu frowned, cocking his head. "And what brings a white man who is barely a man to the middle of nowhere on an Indian reservation looking for a job?"
JD scratched his head and looked sheepishly at the ground. "I was traveling across country because . . . well, it goes back to my mom and . . . " He closed his eyes, trying to pull his thoughts together and hoped that his age would be blamed for his stuttering rambles."
Jishnu chuckled and put his hand on JD's shoulder. "How about you come in out of this heat and tell me your story?"
JD nodded and didn't have to fake the relief he felt. "Yeah, thanks." He followed the man into the building, scolding himself silently the whole way. The inside was huge. Several cars were scattered at various stations having work done on them. He could see four different men working, three Native Americans and one white guy. None of them seemed to notice JD and Jishnu entering his office in the corner by the door.
The office was cooler than the work area, with a window unit blowing in the corner. The room was a good size, with plenty of space for the large desk, a table with a printer, two filing cabinets and a bookshelf filled with automobile books, and two chairs for customers. Jishnu motioned toward the chairs while he grabbed two bottles of water from a small refrigerator in the back corner, just under the air conditioner.
"Okay, JD," Jishnu said as he handed JD one of the bottles and sat down. "Tell me what brought you here and why I should give you a job."
JD chugged about half the bottle of water and then nodded. "I'm from Boston. I was going to college and working part time when my mom died. I was living with her and just taking a couple of classes at a time because that was all we could afford. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford to keep our apartment after she died. It took most of our savings to pay the medical bills and bury her, so it was just me and the bike and the little bit that was left after everything was paid off. I just . . . "
JD shook his head and drank another quarter of the water, sighing as he screwed the lid back on. "I guess I ran. I couldn't afford college anymore and I just . . . I didn't want to be there by myself. So I took off driving cross country, working odd jobs here and there for gas and food money, trying to figure out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to live. I stopped in town for gas and something to eat and was asking about getting some work. A guy told me this place was out here and you might have something I could do. I took shop in high school and I used to spend extra time helping the teacher with projects. I helped him restore a 1930 Model A, free labor just for the learning experience and then I rebuilt the Harley by myself. Like I said, I had to go slow, so between work times I'd study up on how to do the next part."
JD ran a hand through his hair, knowing that he wasn't doing a good job of selling his skills. "Look, I'm not going to say I'm an expert or anything. I've done one project on my own and worked part-time at a local garage for three years, but this stuff makes sense to me." He held out his hands, staring at them. "I can feel whether it's working or not when I put it back together. I can see how it all fits in my mind and I know at any given time where I am and what needs to be done next."
With a small sigh, he dropped his hands back in his lap, shrugged, and looked at Jishnu. "I'm a really good, dependable worker and I really need this job."
The older man studied him for a minute, his expression neutral. The corner of his mouth twitched. "You're in luck. A position just opened up and I really need someone quickly to fill it. So I guess you're hired." He held up his hand as JD jumped up and opened his mouth to thank the man. "Trial basis. Work the rest of the week and if I like what I see, you're hired full time."
JD nodded and grinned, holding out his hand. Jishnu stood and they shook. "Thank you, you won't regret it. I can start whenever you want."
"How about now?"
"Now is good," JD said, still nodding his head. It was easy to look excited about getting the job because he was excited that he'd been successful in establishing his cover.
"Come on out here and I'll introduce you around and give you the grand tour. It just so happens we have a bike the guy I lost was working on. That'll be your new project."
"That's awesome. I love working on bikes. Did he up and quit on you?"
Jishnu shook his head, his expression still neutral. "Nope. Went and got himself murdered."
JD's grin faded. "Oh." He'd known going in that that was the case, but he figured John Davidson would be pretty horrified.
"You got a place to stay?"
"Yeah, I'm going to stay with an old friend of the family until I make enough to get my own place," said JD. He couldn't wait to tell Josiah that he had gotten a job working for McPherson/Altaha.
Chris wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve, trying to keep from smearing dirt across his face. He scowled at Tanner, who seemed to be struggling not to smile. He and Buck had accompanied the BIA agent on horseback to their current location, which was perched on a hilltop looking down at Altaha's place. At least he was finally getting the guy's current name right.
The landscape surrounding them was very different from Tanner's place. While the agent's ranch had been dryer than what Chris was used to, it still had some scrubby grass with bushes and trees. There were a few small trees below, but most of the land this side of Altaha's buildings was desert . . . a whole lot of dirt and rocks with a few dried-out bushes. They were currently lying in said dirt, sweating out every bit of moisture in their bodies while studying the two buildings below. Chris was thinking they were more likely to have a heat stroke than see anything interesting.
"Looks like JD got in," said Buck, handing Chris the binoculars. "I see his Harley in the parking lot."
Vin's head picked up as he squinted to the property below. "That Harley belongs to your guy?"
"Yep," said Buck proudly. "Rebuilt it himself."
Vin gave a low whistle. "I'm impressed. That's a nice ride. No wonder you sent him in. Jishnu White runs the restoration business. He's a good man. I'd be surprised if he knew what was coming out of that back warehouse."
Chris shared a look with Buck and then turned back to the buildings below. "Looks like it would be kind of hard for him not to know."
Vin flinched, looked at the ground, and sighed. "Jishnu's family is pretty strong in their beliefs and it doesn't involve runnin' guns. That bein' said . . . he's got a lot of medical bills from one of his kids." He looked at Chris, his brows slightly furrowed. "I don't think he's involved. But he needs that job and . . . I can see him turnin' a blind eye to stuff he'd otherwise be questionin'."
They stared at each other for several seconds before Chris dipped his head once. "I can understand that. A man has to protect his family." He looked away, looking off in the distance while seeing nothing but the past. Like you should have protected yours.
Shaking off the memories, Chris turned to Vin. "If he's not directly involved, we can cut him some slack."
Vin nodded, frowning at the agent. "I'd appreciate that." He continued to hold Chris's eyes, his expression full of questions that Chris wasn't ready to answer.
"I think we've seen enough for now," said Chris.
Vin suddenly grabbed his arm and ducked. "Wait a second." Chris and Buck instinctively followed his lead and ducked their heads down as well. They all watched as a patrol car drove to the warehouse and parked. Eli Joe got out, looked around, and walked in.
"Well, speak of the devil," whispered Buck. They watched for several minutes before Eli Joe came back out and drove away.
"Guess he was reportin' the good news that I'm haulin' you guys all over nowhere lookin' for bootleggers," said Vin.
"I'm surprised he'd risk coming out here," said Chris.
"Nah," said Vin with a shake of his head. "Not likely to be seen way out here and even if he is, this is well within Eli Joe's patrol route, so can say he was checkin' in to make sure there were no problems. They try to keep a good relationship with the business owners. The captain ‘d just give him another big ole pat on the back."
Chris gave a tight nod. If they didn't know what was going on, the visit would seem perfectly reasonable under those circumstances.
"I could use something to drink right now," said Buck, lifting his hat to wipe his head before plopping it back down again. "What do ya say let's find us somethin' cold and wet?"
"Sounds like a plan to me," said Vin, backing away from the crest of the hill. "Huh, you know when you called me the other day to talk about comin' up here?" Chris nodded. "This is where I was at, watching the two of them down there plannin' somethin'. I have to wonder if they were cookin' up a plan to get rid of Tommy."
"No way to know, pard," said Buck with a heavy sigh. "Best not to dwell on it too much since we can't do nothin' about it. Let's just make us a plan on how to stop any such activities in the future."
"I'm all about stoppin' those two, that's for sure." Vin flashed a grin at the two ATF agents as he started sliding down the hill. "Last one down buys the first round."
Ezra Standish locked his beloved Jag and stared forlornly at how out of place it looked in the cramped lot full of dusty trucks and old cars. As he turned away from his beauty, he spotted a shining silver Bentley in the far corner and smiled. Maybe luck would favor him today.
A few moments later, he stepped into the Yucca Blossom Café, squinting until his eyes adjusted to the severe reduction in light. The décor was simple, almost rustic, but definitely with a southwest flavor. A Native American blanket adorned one wall, while pictures of desert scenery and blooming cactuses were scattered across the others. Tables were spread out across the room in a pattern Ezra couldn't quite make out, except that it seemed to maximize the available space.
The place was crowded, as one would expect at the lunch hour. The sounds of multiple conversations mixed with clinking cutlery and scooting chairs. Although the place looked nothing like restaurants where Ezra chose to dine, he had to admit that it smelled wonderful, even prompting his empty stomach to gurgle. How embarrassing.
Ezra's head jerked around at the sound of his alias. Coming toward him was his target, David McPherson/Altaha. Ezra didn't even have to fake the look of surprise that came across his face. He was a little put off that McPherson had seen him first. He was going to have to work on that.
"Ah, Mr. McPherson," he drawled as he held out his hand. "What on earth are you doing in this quaint establishment?"
McPherson shook his hand, grinning broadly. "I could ask you the same thing, Sanderson."
Ezra huffed as he pulled his hand back and flicked a smudge of dirt from his sleeve. "I am afraid that is due to a rather irritable series of events. Things have been somewhat out-of-sorts after the fiasco in Denver."
McPherson's grin broadened. "Not for me. Come on and have lunch with me and we'll catch up, at least as much as we can," he said with a glance around the crowded room.
"I should be delighted. I must admit, I was considering driving on to find something a bit more upscale."
"No, no, come on and try it," McPherson said as he led the way to his table. "It doesn't look like much, but the food is surprisingly excellent." They sat down at a table along the back wall where a muscular man with dark hair and a goatee was already seated, his back against the wall. Ezra immediately recognized him as Carson Brown, McPherson's right hand man.
Ezra nodded his head at the stern-looking man. "Mr. Brown, nice to see you again."
Brown kept his expression neutral, staring at Ezra like he was a bug under a scope. "Mr. Sanderson."
David chuckled. "Don't mind him, Ethan. He's always grumpy these days. I don't think he appreciates reservation life."
Lifting one eyebrow, Ezra said, "I must admit that I can see his point. I feel certain this locale has enough dust to furnish the entire country."
"That may be, but the extreme conditions in some areas make it very secluded. And I do like my privacy. Makes conducting business so much easier."
A slender young woman with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail walked up to their table and set a glass of water in front of each of them. "Hey Mr. Altaha, you want your regular?"
Ezra raised his brows, but didn't say anything. Although he'd been informed of the name McPherson was going by, Ethan had not. David winked at him and turned back to the waitress. "Yes, Amy, and bring one for my friend as well," he said, waving toward Ezra. "Carson?"
"I'll have the double burger and fries again," he said, handing her the menu.
"Your usual drinks?" she said as she took the menus.
Carson nodded and McPherson said, "Yes, the usual. For my friend as well." As she left, he leaned toward Ezra. "They have a really good local beer on tap. It goes well with the food."
Ezra let his brows furrow a bit. "And exactly what type of feast will we be partaking of?"
"The Apache plate. It's an assortment of local foods, but it's really good. Topped off with the best frybread around."
Ezra couldn't help looking distressed. "Did you say frybread? Are we speaking of bread that is fried?"
McPherson's smile faded a bit and his eyes took on a hard glint. "Yes, and it is excellent. You aren't too good to try some . . . are you?"
The last part sounded almost like a warning and Carson had straightened, his boredom apparently relieved for the moment. Ezra showed no outward reaction to the change in tone. "Of course not. I was merely surprised. I do not believe I have ever had the pleasure."
"You will. We have very similar tastes and we both appreciate the finer things in life. I must admit, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the local cuisine as much as I do. So, what brings you to Whiteriver? An Apache reservation doesn't seem like your typical bailiwick."
Ezra took in a deep breath and let it out as a drawn-out sigh. "After the debacle in Denver, I chose to lay low as they say. I was unsure if the authorities were looking for me or not. Fortunately, I am always prepared in case the need arises. After a few months, I decided it was safe to resume business. I am actually returning from what was a fruitless meeting near Phoenix. A compatriot of mine suggested I come here to eat if I had a chance. The timing worked out for me to heed their advice."
"Why didn't you fly?" asked Carson, scrutinizing the undercover man.
Ezra lifted one corner of his mouth. "I was feeling a bit hemmed in from the months of sequestering in my humble abode. I felt the need to exercise the Jag, give us both some breathing room. I must admit that it felt rather good."
McPherson/Altaha nodded. "I can imagine. I was never a huge fan of the reservation because I like city life. Fancy restaurants, theater, art galleries, and such. But there is something about the open land that really makes you feel free. I came here initially as a place to stay under the radar for a while. Then I realized it was the perfect place to operate from."
"How did you end up on an Indian reservation of all places? It's an ingenious idea, I'm just not sure I would have ever thought of it."
Altaha grinned. "I'm a registered member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, through my mother. She grew up here and moved back several years ago. I inherited her house and land, so it was sitting here waiting on me when I needed it."
Ezra nodded. "And the name change?"
"Altaha was my mother's maiden name. It was just an extra layer of protection to keep those FBI clowns and anyone else wanting a piece of the action off my back."
"Very clever," Ezra said, trying to look and sound impressed. "I applaud your change of location and name."
Conversation paused as their food was delivered. A platter with several each of two kinds of flattened bread was placed in the center of the table. McPherson hummed in pleasure at the sight of the food. Ezra had to admit that it smelled delicious. McPherson thanked Amy profusely and then began to explain.
"The lighter bread is frybread and the other is acorn cakes. They only have those every once in a while. They can be eaten with the meal or smothered with honey or elderberry jam for dessert. I like both. The meat on your plate is a small buffalo steak. The bowl is Apache acorn stew with fresh roasted corn. The roasted vegetables include locally grown squash and some kind of wild roots I think. Bon Appetit."
Ezra watched McPherson for a few moments before taking a piece of the frybread, tearing off a corner, and dipping it into the stew. Carefully biting off the edge, he chewed a few moments and then smiled. "This is excellent."
McPherson grinned, bobbing his head up and down as he chewed. "Told you, Ethan. You should know to trust me by now."
Ezra simply nodded as he continued to eat. When they finished the meal and indulged in soaking some frybread in honey, he wondered if his mother would ever forgive him for loving something so messy. Who would ever have thought he'd enjoy something called frybread of all things. It sounded so . . . mundane.
Ezra sat back in his chair, confident that his digestive system was incapable of holding any more. "That was an amazing meal, Mr. . . . uh, David."
Altaha slid his eyes around the room. "I'm glad you enjoyed it. You mentioned earlier that your meeting was fruitless. Were you looking for a client . . . or someone to fill the needs of a client?"
"The latter," Ezra said. "I have someone with a rather large materials need and I am having trouble finding anyone with the connections to fill his order."
McPherson grinned in a way that Ezra thought made him look like a predator finding an easy kill. "I may be able to help you."
"Is that so? Where might we discuss the terms of our possible exchange?"
"If you would care to follow me back to my warehouse, we can discuss details in the privacy of my office. I believe we could work out something very profitable for both of us."
Ezra grinned. "A good meal followed by a profitable business deal. This might turn out to be my lucky day after all." Lucky for me, not so lucky for you.
Vin held the door to the Cactus Mountain Bar and Grill open for the two ATF agents. Booths lined most of three walls with the bar at the far end of the room. Tables were scattered across the floor. It was mid-afternoon, so only a handful of patrons occupied the modern-day saloon.
"Nice décor," Chris said with a smirk, nodding at a fake cactus in the middle of a table.
Vin grinned and glanced at the two men. "Mandy started with real small cactuses at the center of all the tables, but drunk folks kept fallin' into ‘em and not only crushin' her plants, but then threatenin' to sue cause they got stuck. She shifted to these fake things with fabric spines. No one gets hurt and they pop back up with a little encouragement."
"Cactuses in a bar. She thought that'd be a good idea why?" asked Buck.
Vin shrugged. "She's a woman. She was thinkin' design and not drunk Indians." Wincing, he added, "And if you tell her I said that, I'll make ya sorry in ways you can only imagine."
The two men chuckled. "Sounds like blackmail material to me," whispered Buck.
They had reached the bar by then, so Vin could only glare at the ATF agent. Turning back to Mandy, he smiled. Mandy was about ten years his senior. Pure Apache, she had long, dark hair she wore straight when she wasn't busy and pinned up when she was. Vin had always thought she was beautiful and might have harbored a bit of a crush. She was independent and could be gruff when she needed to. Then she would turn right around and coo to the nice but tipsy patron to convince him he'd had enough and he needed to go home.
"Hey, Mandy. This is Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington, ATF. Guys, this is Mandy Cosey, owner of the Cactus Mountain Bar and Grill." After greetings were exchanged, Vin got down to the reason for their visit. "I'd like to ask ya about discovering the body. I know you've already spoken to some officers, but we think this might play into a federal case we're investigatin'."
Mandy's eyes widened slightly at the statement, but she recovered quickly. "I'd be happy to tell you anything I know. Can I get you anything to eat or drink while we talk?"
Vin glanced back at the others and then nodded. "Yeah, we kind of missed lunch. I've been a terrible host today, dragging ‘em all over the back country on horses."
"Not Peso, I hope," she smirked.
"Hey, there ain't nothin' wrong with Peso that some TLC won't fix. I rode Peso and he was fine."
Vin saw Chris and Buck exchange a look in his peripheral vision before they laughed out loud. "Fine?" said Buck. "I seem to recall you callin' him a few choice names in what I assume was Apache when he was dancin' around tryin' to avoid the saddle."
Vin shrugged one shoulder. "Actually, for him that was pretty good. Either way, don't be dissin' my horse."
Chuckling, Mandy nodded. "Okay, we'll leave Peso alone. How about some frybread tacos and . . . beer or a soda?"
Vin sighed. "I guess we'd better hold off on the beer for now. I'll have a big ole ice tea."
"Sweet, I assume," she said. "What about you two?"
Chris glanced at Buck and then back to Mandy. "We'll have the same, but make my tea unsweet."
"You guys find yourselves a table and I'll get the food and drinks, then we can talk."
"We're gonna clean up a bit first," said Vin as he led the way to the men's room. Several minutes later, they were seated at a table that was now loaded with food and drinks. Mandy had brought herself a glass of tea as well.
Grinning at the three men diving into the food, Mandy said, "Wow, you guys were definitely hungry. I'm assuming you'll want to know about finding the body first, so I'll tell you everything I remember while you eat. And try not to choke yourselves. It's been a while since I've had to do the Heimlich on anyone."
Vin glared at her since his mouth was too full to respond verbally. Buck threw his hand over his mouth to keep from spewing food all over the table as he laughed. Glancing at Chris, he saw the ATF team leader was also glaring at Mandy, and now at Buck as well. It was all Vin could do to swallow his food without having it go down the wrong pipe or all over the table.
"You three are something, you know? You sure you just hooked up this week, cause it seems like you're already in some kind of sync," Mandy said with a chuckle. Sobering, she took a sip of her tea followed by a deep breath. "So, Monday I came in about ten a.m. to get things going. Around eleven, I had managed to fill up one of the garbage cans and went to take the bag out back to the dumpster. I got a couple of steps out the back door before I looked up and saw the body. It was crumpled up by the dumpster, like when you got here."
"You didn't touch anything, right?" said Vin.
Mandy shook her head. "No, I never got that close. I dropped the bag of garbage where I stood and I think I edged forward another step for a closer look. I knew from the way he was laying that he wasn't just sleeping, but I thought he might be alive. Then I saw all the blood . . . and I just knew no one could survive that." She shuddered, closing her eyes for a moment.
Vin reached over and lay his hand on her arm. "I'm sorry for puttin' you through this, Mandy."
She straightened a little and gave him a small smile. "It's okay. I want to help."
"What time did you close up?" asked Chris.
"One in the morning, same as usual," she said. "I took the kitchen garbage out last thing and the body wasn't there. That was probably about 1:30 or so, 1:45 at the absolute latest."
"Anyone hangin' around outside when you left?" asked Buck.
Mandy closed her eyes and frowned as she thought about her answer. After a few moments, her eyes popped open. "Yeah, Coyote was still out there. He got himself good and drunk Monday night and I had to chase him out at closing. He was checking out the trash can in front of the market a couple of doors down, probably hoping someone threw out a bottle that wasn't completely empty."
Vin nodded and turned to face Chris and Buck. "Coyote's an old drunk that meanders around town doin' odd jobs and collectin' handouts. I think he gets a disability check of some kind but he drinks most of it. I know where he tends to hole up durin' the day." He grinned. "We'll take him some food and coffee and see if we can sober him up some. Time of death was around three, so there's a decent chance he might have seen somethin'. "
"If he wasn't passed out drunk by then," said Chris.
Vin's expression sobered and he nodded. "Hope he wasn't. I'm runnin' clean out a straws to grasp at." Vin started pulling his billfold out, but Mandy grabbed his arm.
"It's on the house. Just find out who killed Tommy in my alley. His family lives next door to my parents and I've watched him grow up. He was mixed up, but he was a good kid, ya know? Nice and always respectful. He didn't deserve that. No one deserves that."
"Thanks. We'll figure this out, Mandy. Count on it. You take care of yourself."
Vin ground his teeth together all the way back to the car, his anger and frustration growing with each step. By the time he climbed into the SUV, he slammed the door shut so hard it rocked the vehicle. Wincing, he mumbled, "Sorry."
Chris sat in the front seat beside him, looking out the windshield. "I know you're angry and I understand why, but you've got to push that anger away."
Vin sighed and bowed his head. "I know," he said softly. And he did know. He focused on shutting the anger down and regaining control. Taking a couple of deep breaths, he centered himself and vowed to maintain control this time. Lifting his head, he glanced at Chris. "Let's go see what Coyote knows."
Forty-five minutes and two stops later, they drove through an older, run-down part of town to a closed building with the windows boarded up. Part of a faded sign proclaimed that building used to be a grocery store. Vin pulled around to a narrow alley and parked between the back of the building and an old wooden fence.
"Grab the bags if you don't mind," Vin said as he took the large Styrofoam cup of coffee and approached the back door.
Chris caught Buck's eye as he grabbed two paper bags with food that didn't require cooking or refrigeration. Vin had purchased bread, fruit, chips, crackers, cookies, and canned meat and beans.
"Yes, master," muttered Buck as he picked up the sack with hamburgers and French fries.
Chris frowned and shook his head, causing Buck to shrug a shoulder as they followed Vin. By the time they reached the building, Vin had gotten the door open. "Just stay behind me and don't make any sudden moves," Vin said quietly. He paused and glanced over his shoulder with a grin. "As long as you don't mind, Bucklin."
Chris rolled his upper lip under in an attempt not to laugh at Buck's shocked expression. As Vin disappeared into the building, Buck whispered, "No one told me he had bionic hearing."
They stepped into the dark building, moving slowly and silently. Vin was already several steps ahead of them. Shafts of light crossing the room from the few unbroken windows seemed to dance with swirling dust particles as the BIA agent stirred the air. "Coyote? It's Vin Tanner," called the man's soft, raspy voice. Then he followed it with a few words in Apache.
The sound of someone bumping into something from the corner garnered everyone's attention. "Coyote, I ain't come to hassle you. I brought you some food and a cup of fresh coffee. Got a couple of Martin's big ole cheeseburgers and a big batch of fries with your name on it."
A tall man with long graying hair and a long, narrow beard unfolded himself from the corner. He was rail thin and his clothes looked they had seen much better times. They hung loosely on his thin frame, almost like a kid wearing his older brother's clothing.
Vin straightened and gave the man a nod as he approached. "Hey, Coyote. These are my friends, Chris and Buck. We need your help. We brought you a meal and some groceries to keep ya goin' a bit."
The older man stood staring at the two newcomers for a minute before sighing and giving Vin a nod. Vin tilted his head from Chris to Coyote and Chris took that to mean he was to turn over the groceries. The old man took them over to the corner and covered them with a thread-bare blanket before returning. Buck stepped forward slowly and offered the sack with the burgers and fries. Vin handed over the coffee.
Coyote took them and gave a quick nod. "Aheeiyeh." His voice was soft and scratchy, as if he didn't use it very often. Buck tipped his head and stood back.
"Coyote said thank you. He's always very polite," said Vin. "Coyote, we need to ask you some questions if we could. We have a problem and I think you might be able to help us."
The old man looked at the sack for a few moments, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, then sighed and motioned toward the corner of the room. "I will answer your questions." He walked back to the corner he'd emerged from and sank down to the floor. Vin followed, crouching down in front of the man. Chris and Buck stayed a few feet behind Vin, not wanting to spook their witness.
"Did you hear about what happened to Tommy Shanta behind the Cactus Mountain Bar and Grill?" asked Vin.
Coyote had been sipping the coffee, but he froze at Vin's question. After a moment, he continued drinking and then set the cup on the floor. Heaving out a sigh, he nodded. "I heard. He was a good boy, didn't deserve that."
Vin nodded. "I agree. We talked to Mandy and she said you didn't leave until closing time. Tommy was killed shortly after that. We were wonderin' if you might'a seen somethin'."
Coyote seemed to shudder and tightened his grip on the sack of food. He shook his bowed head causing his hair to whip back and forth. Vin reached out and gripped his forearm, softly speaking Apache in soothing tones. The old man slowly stilled. Chris glanced at Buck, who shrugged.
When Vin stopped talking, Coyote looked up at him. From Chris's position, it looked like the old man and Vin locked eyes for several seconds before he nodded. Vin let out a breath and released his grip on the old man's arm.
The old man's voice was so soft that Chris had to strain to make out the words. "Didn't see much. It was dark and I was drunk. Thought it was a dream ‘til I heard about ‘em finding Tommy's body."
"It's okay, just tell us what you remember."
"I was passed out on one side of the dumpster next door to Mandy's place. There was a loud voice. Woke me up. Some guy yelling stuff about Tommy sticking his nose in where it didn't belong and seeing something he wasn't supposed to see." Coyote pushed his hair back and frowned as he closed his eyes.
"Tommy was on his knees . . . I ain't gonna tell anyone, he said . . . begging him not to kill him." Dropping his hand, he opened his eyes and shook his head once. "Guy shot him in the face. I didn't realize until he fell cause it sounded funny, kind of muffled like I was under water or something. Then I knew. I pulled back behind the dumpster and hoped the bad man hadn't seen me. Just about peed myself."
Vin glanced around at Chris, making eye contact before turning back to Coyote. "Can't say as I blame ya. I think anyone would'a been scared at that point. Did ya happen to see who shot Tommy?"
Coyote shook his head. "Too dark and I was too far away. He seemed familiar . . . the voice and the way he stood, but I'm not sure. I remember long hair in a braid, but that's half the reservation. Something shiny . . . " He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before suddenly looking at Vin. "Tips of his boots was shiny." He pointed to Vin. "He said something right before he shot him . . . uh, he said ‘Sorry, buddy, but the boss says this is the way it has to be'."
Vin's head shot up. "Wait, he said buddy? You're sure he called him buddy?"
Coyote nodded, a grin breaking out on his face. "I'm sure. Did that help?"
"Yeah," Vin breathed out. "That helped a lot. Thanks, Coyote, I owe you one."
"Bottle of my favorite and we'll be even," the old man said, staring at Vin.
Vin stood. "Oh, I think I can do better than that. I'll be back in a couple of days with somethin' special. Until then, you take care."
Coyote squinted up at the BIA agent. "You're a good man, Vin. Your shichoo would be proud."
Chris could see the distressed look that passed quickly across the man's face before he smiled. "Thanks, Coyote." He said something else Chris couldn't understand and then turned, nodding back to the way they came in. They were silent until they were back in the jeep.
"I'm guessing the buddy thing meant something to you from your reaction," said Chris.
Vin nodded as he turned to face the ATF agents. "Eli Joe calls everyone buddy. And his new boots have metal tips. Sounds like he must have used a suppressor of some kind to keep the noise down."
Buck leaned forward into the space between the two front seats. "And if I remember correctly, Ezra said McPherson, AKA Altaha, likes his employees to call him Boss."
"Yeah, I think maybe I heard that about him," said Vin.
Chris frowned and sighed. "Well, I hate to be the naysayer here, but the word of someone who witnessed a crime in the dark while he was falling down drunk against that of a police officer probably isn't going to go very far in court."
"I know," said Vin. "But now that I know for sure it was Eli Joe working on Altaha's behalf, I know where to concentrate the search for evidence. Eli Joe ain't stupid, but he ain't as smart as he thinks he is. If he hasn't already, he'll slip up, and when he does, I'll be waitin' right there."
"We'll be waiting right there," said Chris. "We put our minds together on this and we watch each other's backs. Agreed?" he asked, holding out his hand.
Vin looked at him with such intensity he could swear the man was reading his soul. After a moment, he nodded and gripped Chris's forearm like he had before. After releasing Chris, he turned to Buck and offered his hand through the gap in the two front seats. Buck broke into a huge grin and grabbed hold of Vin so hard he almost pulled him over as they shook.
"Watch it, Bucklin, I need that arm."
"Just glad to have you on board, Junior. Ole Eli Joe and Altaha won't know what hit ‘em when we get through with ‘em."
With a small nod, Vin turned and started the car. Chris took a deep breath, thinking about the information they had and the evidence they didn't. Letting his eyes slide to the side, he took in the tense expression on Vin's face and the tight grip he had on the steering wheel. Something about the younger man brought out a protective streak that Chris was finding impossible to ignore. He grinned, suspecting Buck was having the same problem. Agent Tanner would just have to accept that they had his back, whether he wanted them to or not.
JD was pushing the motorcycle he'd been working on all day out the large side door when he saw Ezra and Altaha leaving the warehouse out back. He parked the cycle and crouched down to make the final adjustments while watching the two men in his peripheral vision. When they shook hands and Ezra got in his Jag to leave, he grinned to himself at their success. Hopefully, they could put the man in jail soon and shut down his operation.
"How's it looking, JD?"
JD was extremely proud of himself for hiding the way he jumped at the voice from behind him by using the movement to come to his feet. "Good, I think. I was just about to take a spin around the lot to see how it sounds."
Jishnu nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. "Mind if I listen? I wasn't expecting you to get it straightened out this soon."
"Well, don't be impressed just yet. This is going to tell me if I have it fixed or not. And I'd appreciate a second set of ears to help me decide." The motorcycle started right up and JD rode it slowly around the lot once and then faster for the second loop. He pulled up beside his boss, happy with the way the vehicle had performed.
"That sounds great, JD," said Jishnu with a huge grin.
JD beamed at the praise. "Thanks."
"Think you can have the cosmetic work done by tomorrow?"
JD studied the bike and nodded. "Yes, sir. I'm going to have to touch up the paint in some places though."
"That's fine. I just wanted to be sure they could pick it up next week as scheduled." Jishnu patted JD on the shoulder. "Good work, JD. I'm real proud to have you working here."
JD grinned as he watched Jishnu go back in the building. As soon as the man closed the door, he pumped his fist in the air. "Yes," he said quietly. He was about to push the motorcycle back into the building when Altaha came out of the warehouse with a large man with a goatee. He crouched down on the opposite side of the bike and pretended to fiddle with it, hoping they wouldn't notice them.
He could hear them talking, but not make out what they were saying until they moved closer as they walked toward the parking lot. Concentrating, he was finally beginning to make out what Altaha was saying.
" . . . be a gold mine. Ethan's client not only needs automatic weapons, but could use explosives as well. I told him that would be no problem. That's not a problem, right?"
"No problem at all, boss. We've got some C4 in the back-up warehouse. I don't like to keep it here with the other stuff."
"Good. Once we get tomorrow's delivery cleared out, I'll need you to compare his wish list with what we have so I can come up with a quote." Altaha chuckled as he rubbed his hands together. "We're going to make a fortune off those stolen weapons. I can't wait to . . . "
JD sighed as the voices trailed off. Once the two men disappeared around a large truck, JD got up and pushed the bike toward the shop. He grinned when he thought about reporting to Chris tonight. Today had been successful beyond his wildest dreams.
Josiah studied the simple frame house before him as he stepped out of his car. A blue Ford truck he recognized as being twelve to fifteen years old sat in the carport. It was in almost perfect condition and the interior looked spotless. With a nod of approval, he stepped up to the front porch that ran the length of the building and raised his hand to knock on the door.
"You the ATF guy?" a voice said from the end of the house.
Josiah dropped his arm and turned to find an older Native American with shoulder-length gray hair staring at him. "Uh, yes. I'm Josiah Sanchez. Are you Kojay?"
"I am. Vin has told me of your request. Come."
Josiah wasn't sure he'd even seen the man move, but suddenly he was gone. With a sigh, he followed the man around to the back of the house. Kojay was holding a board in place as a younger man hammered the last piece of railing on the steps leading down from the back porch. The two men moved back to stand beside him as all three stared at the finished product.
"Josiah from the ATF, this is Chanu, my grandson. He has put a rail up so that I will not fall down the steps like a feeble old man."
Chanu snorted and shook his head. "I never said you were a feeble old man. I just think having the rail to steady yourself is not a bad thing. Humor me, okay? I worry. This makes me worry less."
Kojay shrugged. "I know. That is why I let you build it."
Chanu sighed and stepped around to face Josiah. "Hi, it's nice to meet you. Vin told us a little of what's going on. Enough to get us to help," he said with a smirk as he held out his hand.
Josiah took it, noting the firm grip as they shook. Chanu looked to be in his mid to late twenties, with long dark hair that hung down his back in a braid. "I'm happy to meet you, Chanu. Chris, my team leader who's working with Vin, told me very little of the two of you. Just that Kojay was kind of like a medicine man and that he liked to share the old ways and often had people stay with him to learn. We thought this would be a way for me to be close so I could pitch in and help when needed."
"We are happy to help," said Kojay. "Vin's grandfather and I were good friends. Vin and Chanu went to school together since they were boys and also became close. I believe they were blood brothers at one time," he said with a grin, looking at Chanu.
Chanu rolled his eyes. "You're never going to let us live that down, are you?"
Kojay rubbed his chin a moment. "It is doubtful." His expression sobered as he put a hand on Chanu's shoulder. "Although Kevin and I laughed, we were also pleased." Lifting one shoulder a bit, he said, "We may have done something similar when we were boys."
Chanu's left eyebrow arched. "You never bothered to mention that while the two of you were laughing at us."
"It must have slipped my mind. My old feeble mind."
Chanu snorted and looked at Josiah. "Good luck with this one. I hope you brought your patience with you."
Josiah laughed. "I've been told my team has to practice their patience with me, so perhaps we'll be a good match."
"I'm just glad I'm not going to be here," the young man said as he began to gather his tools. "If you don't need anything else, I'm going to put this stuff up and head home. Claire's making roast with potatoes and carrots tonight and I'm starved."
"We are good. And thank you for the rail. I am not saying I need it, but it will be of use when I am carrying things in and out, so that I do not stray off the side of the steps."
Chanu nodded. "You're welcome, Shichoo. Thanks for letting me do this. It really does make me feel better. Try not to confuse your guest too much," he said with a chuckle as he walked into the house.
Josiah looked around, having already seen that this wasn't your typical back yard. There was a clearing going for around sixty or seventy feet behind the house and then some trees which seemed to grade into more dense forest. In the middle of the clearing were two structures about fifteen feet apart, a teepee and a wikiup. A fire ring was midway between them and surrounded by a couple of large logs and several vertical logs that had been cut down to make seats.
While Josiah had seen teepees before, he'd never seen an actual wikiup. The structure was dome shaped, about seven feet tall in the middle and probably eight or ten feet in diameter. It appeared to be constructed of long sticks placed closely together and bent to meet in the middle overlaid with sticks and dried grasses.
Josiah didn't realize he'd moved closer to the wikiup until Kojay came up beside him. "You have seen a wikiup before?"
Josiah shook his head. "No, just pictures. It's really quite amazing. Did you build this?"
"Yes, with the help of Chanu, his wife Claire, and Vin. We built it a few weeks ago. I try to keep one at all times, since it helps me to feel closer to my ancestors and to the forest around us, but they must be replaced regularly. Our ancestors have used both the wikiup and the teepee at times, so I make use of the one that feels most like it will serve my needs. Sometimes I meditate, sometimes I cook or sleep there. It depends."
Josiah nodded. "Brother, I think that is truly amazing."
Kojay nodded. "We can go inside later after it has cooled. For now, get your things and meet me at the front door. I will show you your room and then we can talk."
Ten minutes later, they were settled at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. "Tell me about yourself, Josiah."
Josiah rolled his lower lip in and scratched the stubble on his chin. "Mine is a long and stumbling path I'm afraid. My father was a missionary. He was a hard man with limited patience for anyone who thought differently. I have a younger sister, Hannah, with . . . mental health issues. He never understood why she couldn't just snap out of it and make herself get better." He sighed and shook his head at the memory of his father screaming at his sister while she cowered in the corner, sobbing.
"His lack of compassion troubled you."
Josiah nodded. "Still does, I guess. When I came of age, I took her to a mental health clinic. She was able to take meds and function for a few years, but left on her own, she just wouldn't stick with it . . . didn't seem to be able to stick with it. I tried having her live with me, but she kept running away. I'd find her living on the streets, so thin you could almost see through her and babbling incessantly about nothing."
Kojay nodded, his head bowed as he looked in his cup. "One of the most difficult things in life is not being able to help those that we love."
"Amen to that, brother," Josiah whispered. He sipped his coffee, thankful for a few moments of silence as he replayed life with Hannah through his head. He allowed himself a smile as he remembered her face during his last visit. "I eventually had her committed. One of the hardest things I've ever done, but probably one of the best. It's a private hospital run by the Catholic Church and most of the nurses and therapists are nuns. She thrives there. They are patient to a fault. Much of her therapy involves art and she truly is at peace when she's painting."
"She is happy?"
The tension of remembering began to ease as Josiah considered the question. "Yes. I've never really thought of it in those terms, but I think she is happy. I was there a couple of weeks ago and she was so excited to show me all her paintings. I'm not sure she really knew who I was, but she seemed genuinely happy."
Kojay looked up at Josiah and cocked his head. "Is that not what most seek, to be genuinely happy? How could you have done better for her?"
Josiah shrugged. "I couldn't. I've been so busy feeling guilty for not being able to make her better and feeling like I abandoned her by having her committed, I guess I never stopped to think that she might be happier where she is than with anything else I could have done."
"I have found that it is better to let our loved ones go if that is what they seek. Sometimes their fate is not to stay with us, but to seek their own path without us. It is a hard trail to follow."
"Yes, it is." Josiah looked across the table. "Are you speaking from experience?"
"Mmm, you have met my grandson, Chanu."
"His father left the reservation shortly after he graduated from high school. Joined the Army and then decided to make it a career. For many years, I wondered what I had done wrong that he would not want to stay with his people. I had always expected to pass down the old ways to him, but it was not to be." Kojay thinned his lips and shook his head, obviously still disappointed.
"Jintu was friends with Michael Tanner, Vin's father. They went off to boot camp together. They came back to the reservation before shipping out the first time and he married his high school sweetheart. She stayed here until they got back and then went to live on base with him. A year later, Michael met a woman working at the local bank he used and ended up marrying her."
Kojay grinned. "They would come back to reservation to visit when they had leave. Once, when they both shipped out together, their wives came back to live on the reservation for the year they were gone. They were both pregnant. Jintu's wife, Marial stayed with us and Michael's wife, Rachel, stayed with his parents. They had become best friends since the two couples did a lot together."
Josiah got up and refilled their cups. He was enjoying listening to Kojay's family history and learning about the BIA agent they would be working with. He found himself increasingly eager to meet the young man.
"By the time Jintu and Michael came back, they were both fathers. Chanu and Vin were born just three weeks apart. When the boys were almost two, time for reenlistment came up. Jintu decided to stay with the Army, but Michael decided he'd already missed too much of his son's life. A teammate had left the service a year before to join the Texas Rangers and sent Michael information about an opening. He was a natural fit and got the position easily, so they moved to Texas. Over the years, we all kept in touch. They would come visit. I would visit Jintu and Kevin, Vin's grandfather, would visit Michael. Sometimes Michael and Jintu would get their families together." Kojay sighed and stared into his cup.
"I take it their good fortune did not continue," said Josiah, reading sadness in the older man's expression.
"No, it did not. When Vin was five, Rachel died. She had been having chemotherapy for cancer and caught a particularly resistant strain of pneumonia. It was all the sadder because the chemotherapy had been working and her prognosis was good."
Josiah nodded, frowning. "Her immune system was down because of the chemotherapy."
"Yes. Michael was devastated, as were Jintu and Marial. And poor Vin. They came here to bury her in the family plot and the child looked . . . lost. Kevin went back to Texas with them for a few weeks. Over the next few years, Vin would spend his summers here. Chanu would make extended visits during the summer as well, and the boys would spend much time either working with Kevin's horses or here learning about the old ways with me."
"Was Vin's father, uh, Michael . . . was Michael as against the old ways as Jintu?"
"No. Michael appreciated why we wanted to keep our traditions alive, although he was not as invested as his grandfather or his son. He loved being a Texas Ranger, but had planned on retiring early enough to come back to the reservation and help with the horse ranch before his father was too old to handle it by himself. But as plans tend to do, they went unfulfilled. Michael was killed just before Vin turned ten. He had been investigating a prominent businessman and city council member that he suspected of bringing drugs into the city from Mexico. Someone rammed his truck, sent it into a ravine. He was killed and Vin was seriously injured. After that, Vin came here to live with Kevin."
Josiah's head had snapped up at the mention of the wreck and he felt the awakening of anger toward the injustice heaped upon a family he'd never actually met. "I take it the man Michael was investigating was behind the wreck."
Kojay shrugged, looking out the window toward the structures visible in the back yard. "We never knew for sure. One of the men Michael worked with seemed pretty sure he was behind it, but could never prove anything. Shortly after the accident, they tracked down the man who rammed him, but by then he had met with an accident of his own. It seems he accidently shot himself cleaning his gun."
Josiah frowned and shook his head. "One of those things everyone knows isn't right, but no way to prove differently."
"Yes, so it would seem."
"Is the man who most likely caused this still around?"
Kojay turned to look at Josiah, his face expressionless. "Texas state representative Bill Harland."
Josiah sighed and scowled at his coffee. "A man of great wealth and power." He vowed that when the case was over, he'd take a closer look at the congressman. Most people who preyed on others for an extended period of time eventually left some kind of trail. And the ones with a lot of prestige usually got so impressed with themselves that they began to make mistakes. Just because the man had covered his tracks back then didn't mean he was doing as good a job of covering up in the present. If he was actually guilty of anything. Josiah had to take care to remember that innocent until proven guilty applied to everyone equally.
Josiah cleared his head of the mess with Vin's father and turned back to the old Indian. "So how did Chanu come to live on the reservation?" He knew the change of subject was a good one when Kojay smiled.
"Chanu spent most of his summers and vacation time here, often with his mother if Jintu was deployed. As he got older, he spent some of his time here shadowing one of our forest rangers and decided that was what he wanted to do. He met Claire in college and married her, went to work for the park service in Colorado until a position opened up here. They have a house just a few hundred yards down the road."
"Yes. The land has been in my family for several generations, although the original home was destroyed long ago." Kojay smiled. "I think I always knew he would come home. I could see the love for his heritage shine in his eyes when he was here."
"I'm glad," said Josiah with a nod. "Maintaining a link to the past is important. It is only by looking at our past that we can see where we're going."
"I agree," said Kojay. After a moment of silence, he looked at Josiah and arched an eyebrow. "My history tells me that if I do not get supper started, we will not eat tonight, and we have guests coming."
Chuckling, Josiah slapped his leg. "We can't have that. Tell me what I can do."
Chris pulled in behind Vin's Jeep to park. "Looks like he beat us here."
"Yeah, but then he knew where he was goin'. It's not easy to drive around makin' sure you aren't being followed and then still find your way to where you're goin' when you don't know your way around," said Buck as he got out of the truck.
"Looks like Josiah made it okay," said Chris, nodding towards Josiah's car. They stood looking at the tan and brown framed house. "It's . . . not what I expected."
Buck snorted. "You thought he lived in a teepee?"
"No," Chris snapped, although the thought had crossed his mind. Something about the way Vin had described the older man had him half expecting to find a scene from an old cowboy and Indian movie.
"Right," Buck drawled.
"Come on, let's make sure Josiah hasn't talked Vin and Kojay to death," Chris said, climbing the front steps. Before he could knock, Josiah opened the door.
"Hey, brothers. I thought I heard a car drive up. Come on in. Supper will be ready in about twenty minutes."
"Josiah," said Buck with a nod.
"Vin and Kojay are out back," said Josiah as he closed the door. They followed him to the kitchen where they saw Vin and an older man standing out back in front of a teepee and a strange, dome-shaped structure made of sticks.
"How are you and Kojay getting along?" asked Chris.
Josiah tilted his head as he stared out the window. "Kojay is an unusual man. I think he and I will have many thought-provoking discussions."
"You get much of a chance to meet Vin?"
Josiah frowned and glanced at Chris. "Vin is an interesting young man. He's got a lot on his shoulders, much of it placed there by himself. His expectations of himself are pretty lofty." Glancing at Chris, he grinned as he added, "Kind of like someone else I know."
Chris snorted, uncomfortable with the sideways complement. "Tanner's definitely complicated . . . at least his cases are."
"Aw, that boy ain't complicated," said Buck. "He's just in need of some good help, which we are here to provide. Anyone seen JD yet?"
The conversation faded into the background as Chris watched Vin talk to Kojay, bowing his head at one point when the older Indian grasped his shoulder. Kojay talked for a couple of minutes and Vin nodded. A moment later, he grinned and rolled his eyes as Kojay laughed and pointed toward the house. As the two began walking toward the house, Buck announced that JD had arrived.
Kojay and Vin came in the back door as Buck let JD in through the front. Chris had to smile at Vin and Kojay's wide-eyed expressions when a chattering JD followed Buck into the kitchen. Vin leaned over toward Chris and softly said, "Does he always talk that fast?"
Chris chuckled. "Only when he's excited. Which is actually quite a bit come to think of it."
"He talks more than all three of us put together," Vin said.
"Perhaps he has a lot to say," said Kojay as he passed them. "I am Kojay."
Vin ducked his head as Josiah stepped into the loose circle they had formed. "Kojay, this is our team leader, Chris Larabee. That's Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne. JD, this is Vin Tanner of the BIA." As they finished shaking hands, JD stared at Kojay for a few moments and then moved his eyes over to Vin.
Buck apparently noticed, because after several seconds, he elbowed the young agent in the side. "Ow, Buck, what'd ya do that for?"
"Cause, JD, it ain't nice to stare," Buck whispered just loud enough for everyone to hear.
Vin grinned at JD. "You got somethin' you wanta ask me?"
JD blushed and shook his head. "No. Sorry, I didn't mean to stare. I was . . . I mean . . . uh, never mind, it's nothin'."
"I'm of mixed heritage, JD. My dad was Apache, but my mom was white, so I don't look like your standard Native American. Is that what you wanted to know?"
The color in the kid's face darkened, if that was possible. After a few seconds, he finally gave a quick, almost jerky nod. "Sorry, I really didn't mean to stare."
Vin shrugged. "It's okay, kid, I'm used to it."
Kojay spoke softly to Vin in Apache and was answered in kind. He then turned to JD. "Vin may not be full-blooded Apache according to the way man measures it, but in his heart, he is of the People."
JD nodded. "I know."
"You know?" said Chris, furrowing his brow.
"Yeah," said JD, shrugging a shoulder. "I was working at Altaha's renovation place all day and I overheard one of the guys say the name Tanner. I knew that's who we were working with, so I tried to hear what they were saying. I missed what Mason said, other than the name, but then Canyon laid him low. He was kind of worked up, so it was easy to hear what he said. He said Tanner did more to honor the heritage of the People than almost anyone else he knew and that Mason needed to complain about something besides Tanner."
Vin smiled and grinned. "That figures. Mason and Eli used to be friends. They don't really hang in the same circles any more, but they tend to think alike."
"It probably did not help that you ended the fight he started in the bar last year and then made him and the others help with cleanup and repairs."
Chris chuckled when Vin ignored Kojay and asked, "Is the rest of your crew comin'?"
Chris shook his head. "Ezra called and said he got a last minute dinner invitation from Altaha. Nathan is working late with your buddy, Nighthawk. Apparently they've really hit it off."
"I figured they would, from what you guys said about Nathan. Jim can be pretty intense about his forensics."
Chris watched the rest of his team grin and nod their heads, while confirming that Nathan could be the same way. "So when do we eat?"
"Yeah, I'm starved," said JD.
"Son, you're always starved," said Buck, ruffling the young agent's hair. "I'd say it's because you're a growin' boy, but there don't seem to be much growin' goin' on." The big man turned to the side, evading the hit JD tried to deliver to his arm.
"Boys," said Chris sternly.
"We apologize for our unruly team members," said Josiah. "We've tried teaching them some manners, but it doesn't seem to have taken."
"Well, then, they should fit right in," said Vin with a relaxed grin. "Let's eat."
Chris watched as everyone headed for the kitchen. Normally, he hated working with other agencies. He'd had bad experiences with FBI, DEA, and had even managed one run-in with NCIS. Somehow it usually turned out to be an ego-fest, with everyone trying to elbow everyone else down the ladder. This had been so different. Of course they'd only been here two days, but he had a feeling that things weren't going to change.
"You're doin' some awful powerful ponderin' there, cowboy."
Chris wasn't sure where Vin had materialized from. One moment the door to the kitchen was empty and the next moment Vin stood there. Chris hadn't even been aware of any motion in that direction. "How do you do that?"
Vin smirked. "What, talk? Learned when I was a young-un, like most folks I reckon."
Chris snorted as he moved toward the kitchen. "You're a real riot, Tanner." He stopped when he was next to Vin, their shoulders touching. "And don't call me cowboy," he said as he pushed past the agent. He stifled the grin that threatened to break out when he heard the chuckle from behind him.
Once they were all seated at the rough-hewn wooden table, Josiah waved his hand over the food. "We thank you Kojay for providing this delicious feast."
Chris's mouth was almost watering at the sight of two racks of ribs, a giant platter of grilled corn, and a huge bowl of potato salad.
For the next half hour, the main sounds were those of clinking ice or silverware and a bunch of hungry men chewing. Once they were all full, Kojay made coffee while Vin and Josiah cleared off the table and put away the small amount of leftover food. Eventually they were all settled back in their seats with a cup of coffee before them.
"Report time," said Chris. He told them about their visit to the Altaha's and the Cactus Mountain Bar and Grill as well as their subsequent talk with Coyote. "So it looks pretty certain that this Eli Joe character is tied up with Altaha and with the murder." He glanced to his youngest agent. "JD, good job getting hired on with Altaha. See or hear anything else interesting?"
JD nodded, a grin splitting his face. "I sure did. I was outside to test drive a bike I'd been working on when Altaha came out of the warehouse with this other guy. I think I recognized the other guy from Denver. Anyway, they were real happy with the deal Ezra had proposed and they said something about having a shipment going out tomorrow."
"I don't suppose they just happened to mention what time?" asked Buck.
JD shook his head. "Nope, just that it was tomorrow. But since we know they've got stuff in the warehouse to move, can't we just get a search warrant?"
"It's not that simple, JD," said Vin. He looked up from staring at this coffee and sighed. "Eli Joe's family is pretty important. His grandpa used to be on the tribal council and his parents are lawyers, very skilled at turnin' truth into fiction and fiction into truth."
"What?" JD said with a frown.
Josiah's lips thinned for a moment, making him look disgusted. "He said they can take facts and the things that you say, twist them around to mean what they want them to." He brought his eyes up to meet Vin's. "Kojay told me a little about them, about your history."
Vin nodded his acceptance. "Eli's grandpa, Tillman, he's not a bad man. Him and grandpa knew each other, were friends at one time. But his wife was obsessed with having power and pushed him to be on the council. Between workin' and the council, she did most of the raisin' o' their daughter and she ended up bein' a lot like her mom. Tillman, he just tended to let her have her way about stuff."
"Sounds like she wore the pants in that family," said Buck.
Vin dipped his head once. "One time in high school, I caught Eli Joe all pressed up against a freshman girl under a stairwell. I started to pass ‘em by, figurin' it was none of my business. Then I heard her beggin' him to let her go, so I grabbed his arm and jerked him off her. Eli and his buddies jumped me after school and beat the snot out ‘o me."
"Sounds like they got themselves a bad trend goin' there," said Buck.
"I'm guessing you gave as good as you got," said Chris.
The corner of the BIA agent's mouth twitched. "Like before, they didn't leave unmarked." After draining his coffee cup, he looked around the table, settling on Chris. "Tillman came to talk to Grandpa that night and I hid out in the hallway. He sounded so sad, so ashamed that the likes of Eli was his legacy. I just remember feelin' bad for him."
They sat in silence for a while, the quiet ultimately broken by the gurgling of the coffee maker. Kojay leaned forward, making eye contact with Vin. "Kevin told me of this. Did you hear the rest of what was said?"
"Nah, I snuck back to my room after that."
Kojay nodded. "Tillman said he wished he had spent more time raising his daughter to be the kind of person Kevin had raised his son to be. And then maybe he could be as proud of Eli as your grandfather was of you. Then perhaps his legacy would be one of integrity and honor instead of violence and corruption."
Vin swallowed, staring the older man for a moment before dipping his head. "Grandpa was the best." He grinned as he nodded toward Kojay. "Kind of like you."
Kojay reached over to grip Vin's forearm. "I am also very proud of the man you have become. I feel as though I have enough time invested in you to claim you for my own, at least in part. I know I have had enough trouble from and you Chanu over the years to claim you both."
Everyone chuckled as Josiah got the coffee pot and began filling cups. "Aw, Kojay, we just kept life interestin'," said Vin, his face flushing as he avoided the eyes of the men around the table.
"Interesting? Is that what the two of you call it?"
Vin shrugged as Josiah filled his cup. "Thanks, Josiah." He looked over at JD. "Eli's gonna block any attempt to get a warrant and he's got the connections to do it. Since his parents are lawyers, he knows all the judges and such. And while we know he's a murderin' bully, he has this way of turnin' on the charm for the right people and convincin' them he's ain't some ornery varmint. Beats all I ever saw."
"So JD calls us as soon as that load of weapons leaves Altaha's place," said Chris, looking steadily at the young agent, who nodded. He moved his eyes over to Vin, who picked up with the next part of the plan.
"We stop the truck and search it, find the weapons, trace it back to Altaha. Between driver testimony, JD's information, and paperwork showin' the truck belongs to Altaha, we should have enough for a search warrant. Eli'll throw him under the bus with that much evidence against him. One thing about ole Eli you can count on is a lack of loyalty."
"What do you need me to do?" asked Josiah.
Chris rubbed his chin a moment. "Nothing right now, Josiah. If tomorrow's plan runs into problems and we have to come up with a plan B, we'll probably make use of you then. Just stay ready in case we call you."
Josiah gave a mock salute. "I'll be ready. Now who wants dessert?"
Vin grabbed his cup of dark roast coffee from Casey's Coffee Shop and made his way into the station. It was barely seven a.m., but he needed to compile everything he had on the murder and on Altaha before the ATF boys arrived. The impending call from their Agent Dunne had him too wound up to sleep. He needed to make sure they dotted every i and crossed every t in just the right way so could make sure the evidence stuck.
He paused at the end of the hall, the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. He continued toward his office, moving slowly and quietly to the doorway. Eli Joe was sitting in his chair, ransacking his drawers, totally unaware he was being observed. Vin could tell when he came across the dummy file he'd partially hidden in the bottom drawer.
Eli Joe pulled it into his lap and squinted at the papers inside. Vin smirked a moment and then said in a slow, exaggerated drawl, "If ya turn on the light, you could prob'ly see it a mite better."
Eli jumped and jerked his arm toward his weapon, dropping the file in the process. When he saw Vin standing there watching him, he growled under his breath, his eyes flashing. "Tanner! You just scared ten years off my life." He bent over and began picking up the papers.
Vin strolled in and set his coffee down. "Find anything interesting?"
Eli set the file on the desk and stood up. "I got here early and thought I'd see how you and those ATF guys were doing on finding the moonshiners. I was just looking for the file."
Vin nodded toward the file. "Well, you found it. We ain't had much luck so far so you're welcome to take it, see if you have any ideas of where we should be lookin'."
"Nah, that's okay. I haven't heard anything about it, so I wouldn't know what to suggest." Eli rubbed the back of his neck a moment. "Hey, how's the murder investigation going? You got any suspects yet?"
Vin gave a dramatic sigh, knowing that was the file Eli had been searching for. "No, nothing yet. I've asked around between working with those ATF guys, but no one seems to know anything."
Eli nodded and crossed his arms, frowning at Vin. "You don't think maybe he interrupted someone about to rob Mandy's place, do you? Maybe they shot him, got scared, and ran off before they had a chance to get into the building."
Man, you are really layin' on the hooey today. Vin pushed the thought aside and tried to act interested. "I hadn't thought of that. It's a possibility. Unfortunately that doesn't get me any closer to the shooter."
"How about I take a look at the file and maybe I can come up with some ideas for you." Eli looked so hopeful, it was all Vin could do not to laugh. "Let me make sure it's up to date and I'll bring it down to you. I'm afraid I've been a bit busy, what with these ATF guys droppin' in needin' help. Anything you can come up with would be appreciated."
Eli grinned. "You got it, buddy. I'll be at my desk."
"Okay." When Eli got to the door, Vin called out to him. "Oh, and Eli Joe? Next time you want somethin' from my desk, ask me."
Eli's grin broadened, but it looked more predatory than joyful. "Sure, Tanner. Whatever you say."
Vin watched him practically bop down the hallway and a shiver ran down his spine. That boy surely did give him the creeps. Sitting down, he had to grin at the fake file he'd put together about the nonexistent moonshiners. He had planted it knowing at some point, Eli Joe would come looking. Shaking his head, he thought about the pitiful attempt. How did he think he wouldn't get caught? Vin wished he'd been just as careless about the murder he'd committed so he could have him in jail instead of roaming the streets causing more trouble.
Eli Joe jerked when a file folder landed on his desk, right in front of him. He wasn't surprised when he looked up to see Tanner smirking down at him. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you."
"You didn't," said Eli, unwilling to admit that Tanner had caught him off guard. That guy was just spooky the way he could appear and disappear almost at will. Sometimes Eli wondered if maybe there was something to the whole spirit animal thing because Tanner seemed to be a cross between a chameleon, a hawk, and some kind of cat.
"Good. That's everything we've got on Tommy's murder. Unfortunately, it ain't much. I'm hoping a fresh set of eyes will pick up on somethin' I've missed."
Eli grinned at the thought of showing Tanner up, except since he was the killer, this wasn't the time. "I'll see what I can dig up." Maybe he could find a scapegoat.
Eli looked up at the other agent and noted with some satisfaction that he looked tired. "You entertaining ATF agents again today?"
Vin shrugged one shoulder. "We're meeting for breakfast down at Molly's Diner to talk about what to do next. I think I'm gonna ask for more details about this information they have indicating their bootleggers are on the reservation. We've looked in all the really good places to set up a still and asked around and all I get are crickets. I think we might be chasin' our tails here."
Eli chuckled. "Better you than me, buddy. You know I don't have the patience. I'd have shot one of them by now." What Tanner didn't know was that he was serious. Of course, what Tanner didn't know could fill up the Grand Canyon. That boy thought he was so much better than everyone else when he was dumb as dirt.
"Yeah, well, I'd better get down there. Maybe we can clear this up today and I can get back to my murder."
"Good luck," said Eli as Tanner headed out the door. You'll need it. Eli spent the next fifteen minutes looking through the folder. By the time he was done, he wanted to laugh. Instead, he grabbed his cell phone and slipped out to his car so he could call Altaha. It was about time to start his patrol, so he knew his leaving wouldn't attract any attention.
"Boss, this is Eli. It's just like I said, Tanner doesn't have the first clue about the murder or what's going on under his nose. He's spending all his time looking for bootleggers and I just read his whole file on Tommy. They know he was shot and about when, but they don't have witnesses or prints or a motive. I've heard a couple of people speculating that he got back into drugs and a buy went bad. Tanner wants my help on it, so I think I'll develop that drug rumor just a little bit more."
"Good, that sounds like a viable option. Keep an eye on him over the next few days. Once this latest deal is complete, we can take a break and let things settle down a bit."
"He's on his way to a meeting about the bootleggers, so that'll keep him busy for a while."
"Perfect. I have a big delivery going out after while and I don't need him snooping around. I've got to oversee the final count on the goods, so I'll talk to you later."
Eli opened his mouth to respond, but Altaha had already hung up. He started his patrol car and decided he wouldn't mind finding himself some breakfast and a decent cup of coffee. He was in the mood to celebrate Tanner's ignorance and the fact that it was going to help Eli make a whole lot of money.
JD took a deep breath and nodded as he blew it out. The bike looked great, if he did say so himself. He had always enjoyed fixing up old vehicles, but bikes made him especially happy for some reason. The fact that others were impressed by his work was just icing on the cake. The cherry on top was that it allowed him to be successful working under cover.
"Looks good, kid," said Jishnu, patting him on the shoulder and startling him. Okay, so obviously he needed to pay a lot more attention to his surroundings. He was thankful none of the guys had been here to see that little slip.
"Thanks. It's an awesome bike."
"That it is. Why don't you take a break for a few and then we'll get you started on your next project."
JD nodded as his boss walked off. Wiping the sweat from his face with his shirt tail, he decided a cold drink was in order. After retrieving a water, he decided the break made a good excuse to walk around outside and see if he could see Altaha. The guy had been invisible all day, making it impossible for him to figure out when the shipment was due to leave.
Walking slowly around the building, he stopped in a shady spot to study the warehouse behind the main building. Just as he was about to give up and go back inside, a truck came up the driveway and backed up to the warehouse. Altaha and his right hand man emerged from the building and went straight for the driver. Bingo. JD, threw his empty water bottle in the trash and pulled out his phone.
"JD, come here." JD turned to see Jishnu motioning him from the doorway. "The owner of your new project just arrived and he needs to talk to you."
Crap. "Coming." As soon as Jishnu turned around, JD took a quick picture of the truck before following the man inside. It would take a while to load the truck, so JD could meet with the new customer and then call Chris. He sure hoped this guy wasn't long-winded.
Unfortunately, long-winded was an understatement. The new customer turned out to be an older man and his grandson wanting a 1941 Indian Chief restored. Apparently it had been languishing away in the old man's storage shed for decades so it needed a lot of work. JD had been hard put not to laugh when he realized he was going to be working on an Indian Chief on an Indian reservation. Talk about irony.
His joy was short-lived however as the man proceeded to gift them with his life story while the grandson played on his cell phone and JD tried not to have a meltdown about not being able to call Chris. Finally, when he was on his last nerve, the pair left and Jishnu went back to his office. When the coast seemed clear, JD slid over to the door and slipped out. The truck was gone. Crap, crap, and double crap. He quickly pulled out his phone, sent the picture to Chris, and then called. Chris picked up almost before the first ring stopped.
"Chris, the truck got here almost an hour ago. I was just about to call you when Jishnu came and got me to meet some new customers. I just now got through with them and the truck is gone. I sent you a picture of it, but I didn't see them leave so I don't know which direction they went or what time they left. I'm real sorry. Man, if I just hadn't –"
"JD, it's fine. They can't have been gone long and we've been hanging around in the area waiting on your call, so it won't take long to find him. The picture will help. Relax, we've got this."
JD sighed, his shoulders slumping. "I just feel so bad for not letting you guys know sooner."
"No, you did right. Keeping your cover intact is more important than letting me know about the truck. Just keep doing what you're doing and we'll talk tonight."
The tension rolled out of his shoulders and back for the first time in an hour, making him ache at the release. "Thanks. Okay, I'll talk to you later."
"Who ya talking to, JD?"
JD looked back over his shoulder to see Canyon pulling the top on a can of soda. "Just a friend of my family that I'm staying with. I was letting them know I might be late tonight. That bike's going to take forever so I wanted to get in a full analysis of what it's going to take to fix it before I left."
Canyon nodded and then took a big, long swig of his drink. "Yeah, I saw that piece of crap. Looked more like something that belonged in a junk heap."
"Nah, I wouldn't go that far. When she's fixed up, she'll be a real beauty."
"If you say so, man."
JD tucked his phone back in his pocket. "Well, I better get to it. I don't think it's going to fix itself." He slid back into the building and made it over to the bike without anyone paying attention to him. He stood staring at the bike, wishing he was out there with Buck and Chris checking on the truck.
"Do you know where you're going?" asked Buck.
"Highway 73 is the main road in and out of town and I didn't see no truck pass us by," said Vin as he accelerated.
"Which means they must have gone north," Chris said with a grin. He held his phone out so Buck could see the truck JD had photographed. "This is what we're looking for." He waited until Vin had a chance to glance at it before putting it away.
"I know a short cut that'll probably put us pretty close to ‘em," said Vin. "Dependin' on how much stuff they had to load, they can't be more than fifteen minutes ahead of us and I'm gonna shorten that lead just a bit. I want to catch up to them before they leave the reservation."
Chris braced his legs as they flew around a curve onto an old country road. "What are we going to stop the truck on? We can't use JD's information on this."
Vin shrugged. "I'm sure we'll think of somethin'."
Almost twenty minutes later, they pulled out onto the highway behind a white eighteen wheeler with green trim, just like the one in JD's picture. Chris pulled the photo up and compared as they got closer. "This is it. Oh, look," he deadpanned. "I think they have a tail light out."
Vin shook his head. "That's a safety issue. I guess we should pull him over and check it out." Vin hit the siren while Chris turned on the flashing light to signal they were the police. After a couple of minutes, the truck slowed and pulled over on the shoulder of the road. Vin slowly approached the cab while Chris and Buck hung back a few feet, one on each side of the truck to cover him.
The driver was a balding man in his late thirties or early forties. He sat with his hands on the top of the steering wheel in full view. "Sir, can I see your license and registration please," said Vin.
"Sure," the guy said, handing him the requested items.
Vin studied the documents for a moment. "Mr. Warner, this looks to be in order. May I see your log books and the manifest for your cargo?"
The man narrowed his eyes for a moment, his whole body going tense. Checking the side mirrors, Vin saw the moment he realized back-up was covering both sides of the truck. With a slump of his shoulders, he dug around beside him for a minutes before handing the items over to Vin. "What's this about? I wasn't speeding," he said.
Vin took his time checking the paperwork, his face expressionless. Warner was getting restless by the time he answered his question. "You have a light out."
"That's impossible," Warner snapped.
Vin calmly stared at the man. "Really? Is it?" He looked back down at the paperwork while Warner rubbed the side of his reddening face. "It says here you're carryin' car parts. Mind if we take a look?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact I do mind. I've got deadlines to make. I know all my lights are fine because I checked them before I left and I know I didn't do anything wrong. You have no right to stop me and you certainly don't have the right to search my truck. Now get out of my way." By the time he finished, he was yelling at the men.
Vin frowned at Chris. "I think he just threatened us."
Chris sauntered forward to stand beside Vin. "It sounded like a threat to me. Protocol dictates we have to search the vehicle if we think it's a threat to anyone's safety."
Vin nodded. "I agree Agent Larabee." He looked up at Warner's angry face. "Sir, you'll need to get out of the truck now. Move slowly please."
Warner let out a string of curses, hesitating just long enough for Vin to rest his hand on the butt of his gun. Muttering under his breath, he got out of the truck and headed for the back. He hesitated at the door and turned to Vin. "Look, I'm just paid to drive a truck. That's it. I didn't have anything to do with whatever got loaded. All I know for sure, is that you don't want to mess with these people." He sighed and ran a hand over his bald head, frowning when he looked back to the truck. "Please," he said, turning to look first at Vin and then to Chris. "Don't do this."
Vin almost felt sorry for the guy, as he seemed to be genuinely afraid. But that didn't change the fact that he obviously knew whatever was in the back of the truck was illegal, which made him an accessory at best. "Open the truck. It's only going to get hotter the longer we stand here."
With a look of resignation and slumped shoulders, the man unlocked the door and swung it open. Vin looked over to Buck, who had come up behind the man. "You keep an eye on him for us?"
"Sure will, pard. Me and Mr. Warner here will keep each other company." Buck winked at Warner, who just looked down at his feet.
Vin climbed up in the back, followed by Chris. He pushed open the other door, which increased the light enough they could see fairly well. Stacks of crates were spaced out and tied down with straps. They worked together to release one of the stacks and pry open the lid of the top crate. Carefully packed inside were 9mm handguns. Vin picked one up and went over to stand on the edge of the truck floor.
"Car parts, huh. Does this look like a car part to you?" Warner just stared at him, his face expressionless. "Where was this load headed?"
When Warner refused to answer, Vin pulled the paperwork he'd stuffed in his pocket out and studied it. "Says here you were headed to Chicago. Is that right?"
Warner stared at the gun a moment, then shrugged one shoulder and nodded. "Probably selling to gangs or to a middleman who's selling to gangs," said Chris.
Vin nodded and returned to the crate, placing the gun back inside. Looking around the truck, he noted at least three different sized crates. They would need to do an inventory, but that would have to be back at headquarters. He left the truck and walked around to the front of the vehicle, nodding to Chris to follow him.
"I'm gonna call someone to come get him and arrange for the truck to be taken back to headquarters so we can get on over to Altaha's place. The paperwork clearly says this came from his place, so this gives us cause to go question him. If we can get in the door before he realizes why we're there and see some crates like these out in plain sight, then we have cause to search."
Chris frowned. "Wouldn't it be better to get a search warrant so we can just march in nice and legal and look anywhere we want."
Vin cringed. "Yeah, in a perfect world, that's just what we'd do. The problem is that Altaha obviously has people in his pocket and I don't know how many or how far up it goes. The only person I truly trust right now is Jim Nighthawk and he can't get me a search warrant."
Chris rubbed his chin, his frown deepening. Vin couldn't help but think that the man looked deeply troubled. "What are you thinkin'?"
Dropping his hand, Chris met Vin's eyes. "I'm thinking how hard this would be. I'm so used to having this group of people I trust, that I rely on. My team will do whatever I ask, without question if that's what I want. My direct supervisor, Orin Travis, is a good man that can be trusted to have our back. He's a former judge, so he knows which ones can be trusted in sensitive matters like this. I've gotten so used to having that, I can't imagine having to operate like this."
Vin clamped his jaw for a moment, jealous of the situation of the man before him before sweeping those emotions to the side. "Well, I don't have any reliable backup, so we're going to have to wing it. Sorry things here aren't up to your standards."
"Vin, I –"
"No," Vin snapped, running his hand through his hair. "I'm sorry, that was uncalled for." He let out a deep breath to center himself and smirked at the troubled ATF agent. "Guess I'm just a little jealous is all. Let me see if I can get this ball rolling without tippin' Eli or Altaha off."
Reaching for his phone, he dialed and waited. "Nosie."
"Nick, Vin Tanner here. We've got a truck pulled over on Highway 73, about a half mile north of its junction with Mesa. I need you to come pick up the driver and arrange for the truck to be taken to the forensics garage."
"Okay, I'll be there in about fifteen minutes. Jim just went through here with that guy shadowing him. I think they were looking for you. Anyway, I'll grab him on the way out. He's going to want to see the truck before we move it."
Vin nodded, not thinking about the fact that Nick couldn't see him. "Good, that's good. Is Eli there?"
"Uh, I'm not sure. He wasn't earlier, but he may have come back in. You want me to get him?"
"No, definitely not. If you see him, don't mention what you're doing."
"Oh, I got it. You don't want him horning in on your bust and taking credit."
Vin winced. Nick was young, like barely twenty-two, and relatively new to the department. He was infinitely positive, but tended to take everything to heart. Vin didn't want to tell Nick his suspicions until they had evidence to support them or he'd just rush to Eli's defense. "Yeah, something like that." Apparently the kid had already picked up on the way Eli liked to take credit for work that wasn't his, so he wasn't totally naïve.
"We'll be there as quickly as we can."
"Thanks, Nick." Vin ended the call and looked up at Chris. "Nick Nosie had only been with the department around six months. He's young, but he's eager to learn and to work. He's gonna grab Jim and Nathan and come take Warner off our hands. I figure as soon as they get here and we bring everyone up to speed, we'll head for Altaha's."
"Might be faster if we leave Buck here with Warner while we go hit Altaha," said Chris.
Vin thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. "I want as many sets of eyes in that warehouse as we can get. Plus, I don't know how many men he has right now. We can wait the fifteen minutes."
"Okay, your territory, your call."
Vin grinned. "Your version of rule number 38?"
Chris narrowed his eyes a moment. "Thirty-eight? Oh, yeah, your case, you're the lead."
Vin nodded and then sobered. "Thanks, Chris. Thanks for trusting me." As soon as the words left his mouth, he realized how true they were. Some days he felt like he was invading in a space that wasn't his. He was an outsider that had never been completely accepted by some and it made his job awkward and harder than it needed to be sometimes. Like now.
He glanced at Chris, noting the concern in his face. It startled him so that it took a minute for him to recover enough to answer. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just thinkin' about our next step."
Chris nodded, reaching out to grip his shoulder. "We've got your back, pard. We'll get this guy."
Vin dipped his head once. "Yeah, we will. Thanks." And the funny thing was that he believed the man. He trusted this man . . . these men . . . more than anyone else he knew with the exception of Jim. But he'd known Jim for years and he'd just met them. It was so weird.
"Any time. What do you say we go see what we can get out of Warner before your man gets here. Maybe he can give us a hint as to which direction to look."
Thirty minutes later they were on their way to Altaha's warehouse. Warner had not given them any additional information. The man had clamped his jaw shut and refused to say another word. Vin didn't think it was loyalty. More than likely it was fear. The driver winced every time Altaha's name was mentioned.
Nick had been right on time, bringing Jim and Nathan with him. Jim had introduced Nathan to all of them as if the three didn't work together. While the two-man forensics team had started securing the truck for transport, Vin had given Nick instructions to take the driver back to the station and park him in the interrogation room nearest Vin's office. Nick was to secure the man to the table and give him some water, but to make sure no one else went in there, particularly Eli Joe. Eli wasn't at the station when Nick had left and Vin was hoping it stayed that way.
It felt like every muscle in Vin's body was pulled as tight as it could go. This could make or break the case. He was taking a chance by not seeking a search warrant first, but he didn't feel he could risk Altaha being warned before they got there. He sure hoped there was something visible that would give them just cause to look around.
He slowed to pull in the driveway and drove past the restoration service building in the front to park by the warehouse in the back. The three got out of the car and were met at the door by Carson Brown.
"What do want? Mr. Altaha is busy," Carson growled, his brows furrowed until they were almost touching.
Vin pushed past Carson, followed by Chris and Buck. "We have urgent business with Mr. Altaha." The office door was open, so he headed that way, his eyes roaming the large space. The building was about a third empty. Altaha wasn't a fool. Every crate Vin could see was clearly marked as some sort of vehicle part. He pulled the papers from his pocket as he stepped into the office door, while Chris and Buck remained just outside.
"What's the meaning of this Agent Tanner?" Altaha asked as he stood.
"We stopped a truck not far from here and when we checked the back, it was full of illegal weapons." Vin looked at the papers in his hand before turning them over to Altaha. "You'll notice the manifest says he was hauling car parts and not weapons and that the truck was loaded here."
Altaha looked over the paperwork, his brow creasing as he studied it. "This is the manifest for the car parts I'm shipping to Chicago. I wouldn't know how weapons got into the truck. Perhaps you should question the driver more thoroughly."
Vin snorted. "Well, first of all Mr. Altaha, the boxes in that truck looked just like most of the crates you've got stacked out there," he said, waving his arm toward the main part of the building. "And since you're building . . . or rather rebuilding cars here, why would you be shipping a truck load of parts across the country. I can see a business like this bringin' a bunch in, but not shippin' ‘em out. I'm pretty sure you don't have the set up to manufacture somethin' like that here and I know you don't have a permit to."
Vin leaned across the desk so he could get closer to the weapons dealer. "And third, the driver and the paperwork say he got those boxes right here. Looks to me like you've been runnin' more through here than car parts."
Altaha stared at Vin a moment before letting a sleazy grin slide across his face. He turned and pulled a paper from the filing cabinet against the wall, handing it to Vin. "This is my copy of the paperwork, Agent Tanner." He pointed to a number in the upper right hand corner. He then picked up the paper they had taken from the driver and pointed to the same place. "You'll notice the numbers on the two papers do not match."
Vin took the two papers and studied them, aware of Chris coming up to look over his shoulder. The two sheets were identical, except for that number, which was two digits off. "What is this?"
Altaha chuckled. "That, Agent Tanner, is your explanation. The truck is the same one that left here with my car parts, but the trailer attached to it is different. Our driver, Mr. Warner, has apparently changed trailers on us so he could transport guns instead of car parts." He sighed dramatically, but the action did match the look of sheer joy on the man's face. He had played them and he was loving it. "I can't help but wonder what happened to my poor car parts. Oh, dear, I fear we shall never recover them."
Vin was pretty sure his blood was boiling in his veins as he stood there debating whether to beat the man to a bloody pulp or just shoot him between his beady little eyes. Chris took the papers from his hands and he let him. "You don't think anyone here actually believes that nonsense, do you?"
Altaha shrugged. "It doesn't really matter what you believe. I have the evidence of my innocence right here. You'll note that Warner signed that, indicating he was taking car parts in a different trailer. Obviously he had a copy of the paperwork made, but changed the number to match the trailer he was hauling."
"And five'll get'cha ten that this is the form you gave him but he didn't check it close enough to catch the number change. You're a real piece o' work, you know that?"
Chris handed Vin the papers back and smiled at Altaha. It was what Buck called his I could gut you right now and enjoy doing it smile. Altaha's smile faltered a little and he instinctively stepped back. "Since you're so innocent in all this, I'm sure you won't mind letting us look around a little, right?"
The gun runner appeared to regain his confidence as he straightened. "I don't believe we've met, Mr . . . "
"Agent Chris Larabee with the ATF. We're here helping Agent Tanner with a couple of matters."
Altaha came around the desk. "I'm afraid I do mind, Agent Larabee. The only thing I am guilty of is getting a good deal on buying some parts in bulk and selling off what I did not need. I have done nothing wrong and I am getting tired of being harassed. Agent Tanner, you can be sure I'll be contacting the captain and members of the council over this unjust treatment. I am simply a businessman trying to provide jobs and a source of revenue for the reservation and I'm sure they will be unhappy at the way I'm being treated."
"Oh, I'm sure they will," Vin said and even surprised himself and how bitter that came out. "You've won for now, Mr. Altaha. But you'd better watch your back, because I'll be there waiting on you to make mistake."
Vin didn't wait on the man to respond, but turned and marched out of the building and back to the car. He was slamming the door when Chris and Buck joined him. They sat there for a moment while he tried to get himself calmed down enough he could drive. "Sanctimonious, egotistical son of a . . . " Vin smacked the steering wheel so hard he knew he'd feel it later.
"I know, pard, but there's nothing we can do at this point. We'll have to regroup and come up with new plan," said Chris.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid. I should have taken the chance and gone after the search warrant. I'll never get one now."
Buck sighed from behind him. "Twenty-twenty hindsight. It was a chance either way and I can sure see why you did it the way you did. There's no guarantee the other way would'a worked. Just as likely he'd a gotten tipped off and you'd a found an empty warehouse."
Vin pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I know, it's just . . . we were so close. I'd bet a year's pay that behind those marked crates we could see were a bunch filled with illegal weapons."
Altaha and Brown stepped out of the warehouse to stare at the three men. Altaha has his cell phone to his ear and was talking and smirking. Vin started the car. "We better get outta here. If I have to look at his ugly, smirking mug any longer I'm either gonna puke or shoot him."
There had been little talk on the way back to the station. Chris was pretty sure that if Tanner clenched his jaw any tighter, he was going to be breaking teeth. He couldn't think of anything he could say that would make the man feel better. He'd been in these situations before, where he knew who the bad guys were but couldn't seem to find evidence against them that would stick. It was frustrating and infuriating in ways nothing else could be.
The car jerked to stop so suddenly that Chris flew forward against the seat belt, startling him.
"Sorry about that," Vin said sheepishly from beside him. "Guess I'd better pull in my temper some before I go in there and make a fool of myself."
Buck leaned forward and gripped the BIA agent's shoulder. "We understand, pard. We've been where you are and I know it ain't easy, believe me. But we've just gotta stick together and stay calm and together we'll figure this out. We ain't gonna leave you danglin' out there by yourself."
Vin seemed to study Buck's reflection in his rearview mirror for several seconds before letting out a breath and giving a short nod. "I thank you for that. It's been a while since I had anyone coverin' my back. Since the Army I guess." He looked over at Chris as Buck removed his hand. "You guys are right. Stay focused and work together and we'll shut ole Eli Joe and Altaha down for good."
Chris grinned, glad to see the agent had calmed down some. "Let's go question us a driver. Between the three of us, I'll bet we can get him to talk."
With the atmosphere lifted somewhat, the three men got out and entered the building with Vin leading the way. A heavy set man with dark eyes, short dark hair, and a dark expression to match came out of an office and headed straight for Vin. Chris sighed. This couldn't be good.
Vin stopped when the man reached them, his shoulders slumping. "Captain." The dismay in his voice confirmed that he thought things were about to get messy as well.
"Tanner, I need to see you in my office," the man barked.
"Sir, I've got a suspect waiting on me in interrogation. Let me take care of him and I'll be right there."
The captain narrowed his eyes, glaring at the agent. "Now, Tanner."
Vin straightened and pulled his shoulders back. "Captain Goseyun, I just told you I have a suspect waiting and he's been waiting a while. No disrespect intended, sir, but I'm a federal officer and as such, not actually under your direct supervision. I will interrogate my suspect and then report to your office for whatever chewing out I've earned this time."
The man's mouth twisted into an ugly grimace as he processed what the young agent had said. Obviously this guy didn't appreciate having his authority challenged. Movement past the captain caught Chris's attention and he refocused to see Eli Joe leaning back in his chair, arms crossed and grinning from ear to ear while he watched.
"Fine, you don't want to come to my office, I'll talk to you out here where everyone can hear. David Altaha, a respected member of our community and a businessman who contributes to our economy has filed a harassment complaint against you. I also got an earful from two council members about said harassment. You will cease investigating him for illegal activity and you will not set foot on his property again. Is that clear?"
Chris knew the guys joked about a vein throbbing in his forehead when he got angry, but this guy really had one near his temple. He was pretty sure he could count the guy's pulse from the way it was pulsing.
The captain stared at the agent for several seconds. "Make sure that you do. I get any more complaints, and federal officer or no, I'll put in a call to the BIA and have you removed."
Vin, his face expressionless, gave a mock two-fingered salute and then watched as the angry man stormed back to his office.
"Wow, that guy's madder than a pack of wild dogs on a three-legged cat."
Chris frowned at Vin and then they both looked at Buck. The big agent shrugged one shoulder. "Well, he is."
The corner of Vin's mouth twitched and Buck winked at Chris. Sometimes his best friend knew just what to do and now was one of those times. He'd have to thank his old friend later. They followed Vin down a short hallway and waited as he opened a door. Vin stopped, blocking entrance into the room. Chris looked over his shoulder.
"He's not here," Vin said. Chris and Buck backed up as the agent turned around, slamming the door behind him. "Crap," he muttered, his eyes flashing a look of panic to the men as he passed them, going to the other end of the hallway and stepping through an open door into what appeared to be a breakroom.
The room was relatively small. One wall had a counter, sink, refrigerator, and some cabinets. A coffee maker that looked like it had seen better days sat near the sink. A cart on the adjacent wall held a small microwave. A cheap table with six chairs around it sat at the other end of the room and a few extra chairs were scattered around the room. The room smelled of burnt coffee and popcorn. Officer Nick Nosie stood pouring cream into a cup of coffee.
"Officer Nosie, where is Warner? I told you to put him in interrogation room 2," said Vin. Chris could tell that Vin on edge and expecting some kind of disaster.
The young officer turned as he stirred his coffee. "Oh, hi Vin. He's in holding. Eli saw me bring him in and said you'd probably be a while, so I should put him in a holding cell."
Vin let out a series of what was probably Apache curses that had Nosie's eyes widening and his eyebrows moving up to almost join his hairline. He jerked around and practically ran from the room, Chris and Buck keeping pace behind him. The smirk on Eli's face earlier was giving Chris a very bad feeling.
They followed Vin as he rushed through a maze of corridors before coming to a heavy door. They barely caught it before it closed and went through, down another corridor to find Vin standing at the end, staring into a cell. The feeling of dread almost choked Chris as he joined the agent. Warner was lying in the middle of a giant puddle of blood on the concrete floor. His wrists had been slashed and a small knife lay near his right hand. His eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling.
"Stupid," Vin breathed out as he turned around in a circle, running his hand through his hair and then pulling on it for a moment. "Stupid, stupid, stupid. I should have stayed with him." He ended up facing the cell again and stood staring down at the body.
Chris was so shocked he didn't know what to say. The three of them stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at the gory scene in front of them. After several seconds, Buck said, "I searched him and he didn't have that knife. There's no way I missed that."
Vin nodded. "Oh, I'm sure you're right. This was staged and they didn't even do that good a job." Pulling his phone out, he swiped through a list and then stabbed his finger down on the screen. "Jim, it's Vin. I'm standing here lookin' at the dead body of my truck driver, an apparent suicide in a holdin' cell."
Chris watched as Vin listened, squatting down to take a closer look at the body. "Yeah, that's what I was thinkin'. Looks like he sliced his wrists open, only he didn't have a knife when we sent him back to the station. He was supposed to be put in an interrogation room, but Nosie let Eli talk him into parkin' him back here where there's a little more privacy."
Vin nodded, probably unaware of the action. "I'll wait ‘til you get here and make sure no one goes in the cell." He pecked on his phone another time or two and then took some pictures of the body and the cell before putting his phone in his pocket. "Jim and Nathan'll be here in a few minutes to work the scene and collect evidence."
"Man, this is ugly," said Buck softly. "And I do hate ugly."
Chris just nodded. "Me too, pard. Me too."
A sound from the end of the hall drew their attention. Eli Joe sauntered down the corridor, smirk firmly in place. Chris was standing close enough to Vin to pick up the way his body stiffened. When he looked, the anger he'd expected to see in the man's expression was not there. Instead he just looked . . . empty.
"Well, well, what have we here?" said Eli, looking down at the body. "Looks like your only witness just went belly-up." After a moment, he looked up at Vin and smiled. "Sure is ashamed you can't take better care of your prisoners . . . Agent Tanner." With a chuckle, he looked at Buck and Chris and said, "Agents." With a tip of his head, he whistled as he walked back down the corridor.
Chris had the feeling things had just gotten a lot more complicated.
Eli Joe tried to smother his smile as he stepped into the captain's office. Captain Goseyun looked up, scowling at the officer. "What?"
Eli leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms. "Looks like Tanner screwed up again. His prisoner slit his wrists and is lying dead in his cell."
The older man stood up so fast, he sent his chair rolling into the wall behind him. "What? How?"
Eli shrugged. "Supposedly him and his ATF buddies searched Warner at the scene. I guess they missed a knife." Eli made a tsking noise. "Sloppy work if you ask me. I guess federal agents ain't all they're cracked up to be these days."
Goseyun swore under his breath as he came around the desk. "I'd better get down there before they mess something else up. Tanner is going to be death of me."
Eli watched as the captain stomped down the hallway. "This is just too easy," he said under his breath. Once the man was out of sight, Eli made his way out the staff door and went to stand under a tree at the edge of the parking lot. He quickly dialed Altaha's number and waited until he'd answered.
"It's Eli. Warner is taken care of and I've already placed blame square on Tanner."
"I don't suppose you can get my merchandise back, can you? There was a lot of money in that truck. Plus now I have an unhappy customer."
Eli sighed. Some people you just couldn't make happy. "Truck's inside the forensic garage. There's no way to get that stuff back short of storming the place and I don't think you want to do that."
"Tanner is a continual thorn in my side and now he's costing me money. I'm pretty sure he can't be scared off and I know he can't be bought off. I need him gone. Now."
Eli grinned. This day just got better and better. "My pleasure, Boss. You think you've got some explosive material I could snag a little of?"
Laughter came from the other end of the line. "If it will help get rid of my problem, then you can have all you need."
"They're going to be too busy processing Warner to notice me right now, so I'll be right out." He hung up and pocketed his phone. Sometimes he really loved his job.
Vin sat at his desk with his face in his hands, wishing his head would just go ahead and explode and put him out of his misery. The back of his head and down his neck into his shoulders felt like it was all clamped in some kind of vise that was trying to squeeze his brains out his ears. He recognized the tension headache for what it was, but he didn't dare take a muscle relaxer until he got home. Of maybe he'd just enjoy some liquid muscle relaxer in the form a few beers and a couple of good, stiff shots.
Noise at the door made him look up to find Chris and Buck coming into his office with food sacks and drinks. Buck shut the door as Chris began unloading the drinks. "We figured you'd be starved by now."
Vin looked at the clock to see it was nearly two. "Food was the last thing on my mind."
The two men set out burgers, fries, and a healthy supply of napkins. "You need to eat something," Chris said.
"Yeah, I know." Vin pulled the wrapped burger a little closer and moved his paperwork over to the side. Then he took a big swig of the tea, which made him realize how thirsty he was. "Thanks."
"I'm guessing from the way the captain was acting that he tore you a new one," said Buck before taking a bite.
Vin nodded, fingering the paper around his burger. "That's one way of putting it. Basically, the death of the driver is all my fault and he thinks maybe charges should be brought against me for manslaughter or negligence or something. Between that and me harassing a fine, upstanding businessman, he's going to have a chat with the BIA District Commander in Phoenix. I have a day or three to nail Altaha before they fire me or he gets away scot-free."
"What if we have our own conversation with the commander? We can fill him in on what's really going on here."
Vin looked at Chris, surprised at the offer. "You'd do that?"
"Of course we would," said Buck.
Chris grinned at Buck before turning back to Vin. "Yes, we definitely would. You're obviously a good officer just trying to do his job. From what I overheard out there, Eli Joe wasted no time spreading around that you didn't search the suspect properly, letting him make it through with a knife. He apparently pointed out that if circumstances were different, the guy might have turned the knife on another officer and injured or killed one of them."
"Great," said Vin with a disgusted sigh. "Just what I need, another reason for these guys not to trust me. Eli does stuff like this ever' chance he gets, feedin' their opinion that I'm no good. He's got a couple of ‘em believin' I'm the one takin' stuff that's supposed to go into evidence to sell it on the side."
"Which means it's probably him doing the lifting," said Buck.
Vin nodded. "I have no proof, obviously, but him tryin' to pass the blame points the finger back at him, at least in my humble opinion. Ornery varmint. I just wish I could find somethin' solid on him or Altaha or both of ‘em before I get kicked outta here." He snorted. "Guess it's a good thing I didn't sell off the stock yet. Looks like I'm goin' back into raisin' horses."
"Nothing wrong with raising horses," Chris said as he ate a fry. "But you're too good not to be in law enforcement as well." He froze, a fry halfway to his mouth and then looked at Buck. Buck saw Chris looking at him and stopped chewing, raising his eyebrows. Vin almost laughed.
"You look like you're up to something', Larabee," said Vin.
Buck nodded and Chris continued eating his fries. Vin had no idea what had just happened, other some kind of silent communication. He was debating whether to ask or not when Jim and Nathan came down the hall and stopped at his door. Vin waved them in.
The two angry-looking men came in and shut the door. "Pull up a chair and I'll share my fries," Vin said.
They grabbed the two chairs next to the wall and pulled them up to sit next to Buck. Jim set a folder down beside Vin's food. "You're going to love what we found. And what we didn't find."
Vin furrowed his brow slightly and opened the folder, scanning the contents before looking up. "He was murdered."
Jim looked at Nathan and they both nodded. "It's only a preliminary report, but that is our opinion. I haven't done the autopsy yet, but the cause of death was pretty obvious. What wasn't obvious was the bump on the back of his head. Enough of a bump to either render him dazed or unconscious. His fingerprints were on the knife, but it would have been awkward for anyone to actually hold the knife that way, especially to cut your own wrists."
Nathan edged forward on his seat as he took over the explanation. "And get this, there were no prints on the door to the cell. It was wiped clean. And the knife only had the one set, when it should have had both a left and a right set. You can't hold a knife in your right hand and cut your right wrist."
"What about video?" asked Chris. "Are there cameras in that hallway or pointed toward the cells?"
Jim snorted. "All cameras in that area went down about ten minutes after Warner was placed in that cell. Weirdly convenient, huh."
"Isn't it just," muttered Vin, rubbing the back of his neck. "Some days I wonder what I'm doing here."
"You're trying to make a difference, Vin. And you do. Never doubt that," said Jim.
Vin nodded at his friend. "Yeah, thanks. I'm glad you're here. I don't know if I could do this without someone here I can trust."
"Me too, brother. I've included a list of what we found in the truck. The only prints on anything were Warner's. These guys are good at covering their tracks."
"What's next?" asked Chris.
Vin chewed on a fry as he thought about everything. His head hurt too bad to make any important decisions right now. He needed to clear his mind. "I've got to finish this report detailin' how I know Warner didn't have a knife on him when I sent him to the station and why I didn't accompany him before I leave. Why don't we meet at my place tonight. Let's just get everyone that feels safe comin' to eat dinner and go over absolutely everything we know. Maybe if we put our heads together, we can come up with a plan. I've just about reached the end o' my rope."
"I'll bring Nathan out with me," said Jim. "Everyone knows you and I are friends, so even if someone sees me heading out there, it won't raise any red flags. We can even pick up some beer on the way."
"I'm cookin'," said Buck, holding up his hand to stall Vin's upcoming protest. "No argument, pard. You look like five miles of bad road. I'll swing by the store and grab what I'll need." He looked at Chris and said, "You might want to stick with Vin. I ain't too sure about that Eli Joe character. That's two people we think he's murdered and there obviously ain't no love lost between them two."
"Don't need no babysitter," mumbled Vin.
"Good, because I'm not one," said Chris. He looked at Vin, meeting his eyes. "But I am a friend. And where I come from, friends back each other up."
They stared at each other a moment and then Vin dipped his head once.
"Good. What about Josiah, Kojay, and JD?" asked Chris.
Vin shrugged. "Two of ‘em belong to you."
Chris glanced at Buck, who nodded. "I'll call them and invite them. JD might have seen or heard something new this afternoon and Josiah often has some good insight into behavior and what people will do."
"Kojay's kinda like that," said Vin. "Good thing is my place is away from town so unless someone is followin' them, they ain't likely to be seen. Tell ‘em to park in back of the house just in case someone drives by lookin'."
"Well, hot dog, we've got us a plan," said Buck. "What time are we talkin' about?"
Vin looked at the clock and calculated how long it would take him to finish the report. He added in some extra time for his current brain fog and another butt-chewing when he turned the report in. "I should be there by 5:30 or so."
Jim stood and Nathan followed suit. "We'll see you around 5:30. We're going to go process some more of the evidence. I'll bring anything new we come up with out to the house." He stepped closer to put a hand on Vin's shoulder and told him to take it easy in Apache. After saying goodbye to the others, the two men left.
"Guess I'd better get started on that report," Vin said with a sigh.
"We'll help," said Buck.
"I'll help," said Chris, rolling his eyes. "I don't think embellishing this thing to make it more entertaining is going to help." He dug the keys out of his pocket and handed them to Buck. "Here, hit a store and figure out what you need for supper or go visit Josiah and Kojay. Vin needs to concentrate and I know how to be quiet when people are trying to think."
Buck put his hand over his heart. "You wound me." Recovering quickly, he snatched the keys and stood up. "I'll head on over to the supermarket and browse the aisles. You never know who you might meet." After waggling his eyebrows at them, he jingled the keys and left.
Chris sighed while Vin stared at the empty doorway. "Is he always like this?"
Chris pursed his lips a second before shaking his head. "Honestly? That was pretty tame."
"That's . . . scary." After considering that for a moment, he sobered. "Although not as scary as working with Eli Joe." He sighed again and looked at Chris. "I'm gonna need you to proofread this before I turn it in and make sure I didn't get carried away with what I really think."
Chris got up and dragged his chair around to sit beside Vin. "Here, I have plenty of practice trying make reports sound professional when all I want to do is rant about the stupidity of some people. I haven't been fired yet, so apparently I'm halfway decent at it."
"Well, all right then. Let's get this thing goin'. The sooner we get done, the sooner I can drown my sorrows in a beer."
The trip back to Vin's house was quiet. Chris had stood outside the captain's office, waiting while the agent turned in his report. He couldn't help but hear the second chewing out of the day for the man. He'd been impressed by the way Vin had calmly answered all the officer's questions and carefully explained what had happened. By the time he left, the captain wasn't happy, but seemed to have calmed down some.
"What's the deal with you and the captain?" Chris asked. There had to be more to the way Vin had been treated than just frustration over the case.
Vin winced at the question, remaining silent long enough that Chris thought he might ignore it. Then his face relaxed and he looked resigned as he began to explain. "When Goseyun was just startin' out, a shiny new gun-ho officer, he pulled my dad over. We were here visitin' Grandpa and were headin' home after dark and a deer ran out in front of us. Dad swerved to avoid it. Goseyun came out from a side road and pulled dad over. Apparently, he hadn't seen the deer, just the swerve, and thought dad was drunk."
Chris nodded. "Not too unreasonable."
Vin nodded. "I agree. I think I remember Dad sayin' the officer had probably seen him drivin' funny and thought he was drunk. It wasn't unusual to have that. Dad just pulled over, got his paperwork out, and rolled the window down. The next thing we know, he's shoutin' at Dad to get out of the truck with his hands out. I was in the back seat and I could see him standing out there in the road with his weapon drawn, pointin' toward Dad."
"Wait, what? He pulled his weapon for a traffic stop?"
Vin snorted. "Oh, wait, it gets worse. I was terrified, of course. Dad told me to stay down and keep quiet, no doubt thinkin' there was no tellin' if the guy would start shootin' or not. He carefully gets out of the truck. While I watched, he makes Dad lie down on his belly with his hands stretched out and he comes over and cuffs him behind his back. Dad never resisted anything he did, even though it was way over the top. Then he got dad to his feet and told him he was under arrest for driving under the influence."
Chris couldn't believe it. "Let me get this straight. He threatened him with a gun, handcuffed him, and put him under arrest without ever doing a sobriety test or even looking at his license?"
Vin nodded. "Yep. When he told him he was under arrest, Dad explained that he'd been swerving around a deer and that he hadn't had anything to drink. Asked for a field sobriety test or a breathalyzer or something to prove it. Goseyun yelled for him to stop telling him what to do and hit him. Dad didn't have any balance cause his hands were behind his back, so he fell and then Goseyun started kicking him and screaming about him thinking he was special since he was a big Texas Ranger and how this would show everyone how the mighty could fall or some such nonsense. I was terrified he was going to kill my dad by then, so got up in the window and yelled at him to stop kicking my dad."
Understanding kicked in as everything fell into place for Chris. "He didn't know you were there."
Vin shook his head. "When he ran my Dad's plates, he found out who he was. He knew Dad had been an Army Ranger and was now a Texas Ranger from living on the reservation. I think he was terrified of my dad, but figured if he could arrest him on DUI, it would be an impressive catch for a new officer. Take down a respected member of the tribe, who was the son of an old family with a strong reputation."
Chris nodded, having seen enough overly-eager young officers make stupid mistakes in his time for the situation to make perfect sense. "I'm guessing he wasn't happy to see you."
"That's an understatement. He called for back-up to come get me so he could take my Dad in. He was a lot nicer to Dad after that and tried to tell me he was just protecting me and society by arresting my father. I asked him why he hit and kicked him when my dad didn't do anything bad and he said it was my word against his and who did I think people were going to believe."
Vin chuckled. "And in full son attitude, I told him that everyone knew my dad was a good man and that he didn't lie, so I figured they would believe him. Back-up arrived in the form of two older officers who knew my family. One of them ran a breathalyzer on my dad to show that he hadn't been drinking and then they let him go. We could hear the other one lecturing Goseyun on police procedures and the problem with making assumptions."
"Did your dad file charges, because that would have been well within his rights?"
"No," Vin said with a small smile. "Dad was pretty chill about things. He was mostly mad because I had seen it and been scared. When everything was cleared up, he went over to Goseyun and offered his hand. Said everyone makes mistakes, but the trick is to learn from them and try not to make the same ones again. Goseyun shook his hand and said thanks, but you could tell he didn't mean it and was madder'n a wet hen. He got made fun of for a long while after that and instead of admitting he'd been a chump and takin' it, he blamed my dad."
Chris laughed, because it was either laugh or cry at this point. "He was mad at your dad for not being drunk."
"You got it. Go figure. Anyway, when I got hired by the BIA and stationed here, he about had a come-apart. He knew I remembered that night. Heck, it was impossible not to. The BIA agent that works over on the Navajo reservation was havin' trouble keepin' up cause he was runnin' back and forth between here and there all the time. So when the BIA offered to put an agent here, ole Goseyun offered to house him in the station so we could all work together. He was thinkin' Eli Joe was goin' to get it and then it went to me."
"So the two of them bonded over not wanting you here," Chris said. "Wow, so much of this makes sense now."
"Yep. Eli Joe goes along with Goseyun about everythin' he says, so the captain was thinkin' he'd have a federal yes man for when it came in handy and one he didn't have to pay. They were both surprised and equally unhappy when I got the assignment." Vin sighed. "I love the job and I love the people of the reservation. I even love most of the people I work with. But those two . . . " He shook his head. "Let's just say they make everythin' awkward and uncomfortable. And neither of them passes a chance to run me down to the other officers, so that situation is starting to get awkward as well."
Chris sighed and shook his head, unable to fathom such pitiful working conditions. Ezra would probably understand and sympathize when they got to meet. He wondered briefly if Vin would ever consider leaving the reservation.
"Sorry. I shouldn't'a told you about any of that. That was probably unprofessional o' me to air our dirty laundry like that."
"No, I asked and you just answered. And knowing helps put some things into perspective and might help us do things more efficiently down the road. I like to know exactly where things stand and now I do. By the way, your father sounds like he was an amazing man. I'm not sure I wouldn't have pressed charges."
Vin shrugged. "Sometimes I wonder if he should have, if maybe Goseyun would have learned a lesson." A smile spread across his face. "But you're right, Dad was special. I miss him every day . . . and Grandpa too. I was so lucky to have had them to guide me."
"I know I haven't known you long, but I can tell that they did a good job raising you. As to people like Goseyun . . . your dad probably did right. Some people don't know how to accept a second chance, they only know how to blame others and get even. If he'd been reprimanded or lost his job because your dad filed charges, he might have resorted to doing something worse than just making your life miserable when he has the chance."
"Yeah," Vin said under his breath. "Here we are." He took the car down the driveway and around to the back of the house. Buck was already there, standing out by the corral talking to the horses. "I'll get the door unlocked and then help ya'll carry the food in."
"Sounds like a plan." Chris began walking toward the Buck, who was now leaned back against the fence while Vin headed toward the house. "Hey, pard, you get something good for us to eat?"
Buck grinned. "Chris, I found some big, thick pork chops that are gonna make your mouth water. Oh, hey, here comes Nathan and Jim."
Chris turned to stand side-by-side with Buck as they watched Jim drive up and park next to the BIA SUV. The next few minutes were like something out of a dream sequence. Vin unlocked the door to the house and pushed it open as he turned back to them, taking several quick steps across the deck. He had paused on the first step to wave at the car with Jim and Nathan when the house behind him exploded, debris flying in all directions as he was picked up and tossed several feet away to land between the parked cars and the corral.
Chris and Buck both yelled, "Vin," as they rushed over to the fallen figure. Vin was lying face down, the back left side of his shirt and the lower half of his jeans on fire. They quickly smothered the flames and Chris was trying to find a pulse in Vin's neck when Nathan appeared at his side.
"Don't move him."
Chris nodded. "I know. He's got a pulse." He could hear Jim on his phone calling for fire trucks and an ambulance.
Vin groaned and began trying to roll over, prompting the three men to hold him in place as Jim crouched near his head. "Vin, be still. You need to stop moving until we make sure you're okay."
Vin threw his arm out, pushing the restraining forces away. "Get off me and let me up," he slurred, lifting his head and pushing to sit up. "Ain't nothin' broken, let me up."
Jim and Nathan looked at each other and shrugged, moving from trying to hold him down to helping him sit up. "Let me know if you get any sharp pains," said Nathan.
Vin's head was bowed, his eyes closed as he rubbed his ears. "Just wish this ringin' would stop," he said as he opened his eyes. He squinted a moment before his eyebrows went up and he tried to lurch to his feet. "No! The house . . . " He got to his feet only to crumple back to the ground, muttering, "No, no, no," the whole time. The four men held him back as he repeated tried to move toward the burning building. After several minutes, he collapsed back to the ground, leaning against Chris as they sat and watched his home burn to the ground.
Several minutes later, they watched the fire trucks pull up to the burning debris field and began hopping out, dragging hoses with them. Vin, tears streaming down his face, pulled away from the men and got to his feet, staggering over to the corral. He let himself in the gate, threw his arms around Peso's neck, and stood there with his face buried in the animal's mane. When the ambulance pulled up a few seconds later, Nathan and Jim went to meet them.
Chris stood watching Vin for a while, knowing there was nothing he could do to alleviate the pain he was feeling. Buck planted his hand on Chris's shoulder. "I'm guessing Eli Joe or Altaha or both have a lot to answer for."
"And they will answer for it. I'll make sure they do."
"We will make sure they answer for this," said Buck.
"Yes we will," said a deep voice from behind them. Josiah came to stand beside them as Kojay walked out toward Vin. "We all will. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. But I think we'll get an early start on this one."
Kojay put an arm around Vin and leaned his head in toward that of the younger man while five men watched and vowed to take down anyone having anything to do with the devasting tragedy before them.
Chris stood up and stretched, working the kinks out of his back. He walked over the window and looked out, trying to ignore the memories of his family being blown up in his truck. Visions of the house going seemed to blend and merge with pictures of the truck containing his family in his mind and he couldn't get it to shut off. He was struggling to push his own pain down so he could help Vin deal with his. He kept telling himself that Vin hadn't lost anyone in the explosion, but he knew it wasn't that simple. His family was already gone and the memories and history of that house were all that he'd had left of them. Anger swirled hot and deep, making him want to shoot someone. Or maybe a couple of someones.
He turned and leaned against the wall, gazing across the hospital waiting room. Buck was sitting in the far corner next to where he'd been, staring at a cold cup of coffee. Josiah and Kojay sat next to him, conversing in low tones. Chanu had arrived an hour ago and since one of the nurses had gone to school with him and Vin, he'd been allowed back. Vin had said he didn't need anyone with him since he wasn't five, but Chris noticed Chanu had not returned. Maybe that was a good thing.
Chris straightened and pushed away from the wall when he saw Chanu move through the doors leading to the treatment area. The others saw him as well, and they all ended up meeting in near the middle of the room. "How is he?" asked Chris.
"He is good, considering what happened. Vin has first and second degree burns along his back, side, and lower leg as well as first degree flash burns on his arms and the side of his face. They had to remove several pieces of shrapnel and he has stitches in his back, shoulder, and arm, as well as a myriad of smaller cuts and bruises. They are most concerned about the concussion and some minor bleeding in his abdominal cavity. They are admitting him to keep an eye one those, but he'll probably be released tomorrow."
"Nothing broken?" asked Josiah, his eyes wide.
"Amazingly, no," said the younger man. "He is not happy about staying, but I convinced him if he did not agree, that Grandfather would scold him like a small, unruly child," Chanu said with a grin.
Kojay nodded. "And I would. It is good you convinced him to stay."
"Can we see him?" asked Chris. After all the parade of memories he'd been living the last couple of hours, he felt the need to actually see Vin.
"They are moving him now. The doctor said to give them a few minutes to get him settled and then we can visit. It is late and he asked us to keep it short so that Vin can get some rest." Chanu paused a second and then looked at Chris. "Do you know what happened?"
Chris let out a deep breath. "Nothing definite yet, but we have some suspicions. Nathan and Jim have been looking around the house for evidence and so far they have a tire print that doesn't seem to match any of our vehicles. The remnants of the house itself is still too hot, so they're going to stay all night to make sure no one tries to mess with it. Buck said it looked like the work of explosives to him, but we'll have to wait on the fire marshal to tell us for sure."
Chanu's brow furrowed. "So someone tried to kill him."
"Sure looks that way," said Buck. He glanced over at Chris. "And we've got a pretty good idea of who."
"Unfortunately, we need evidence to be able to do anything," said Josiah.
Kojay frowned and seemed to be staring into space for several moments before pursing his lips and dipping his head once. "Everything will happen as it should. This has upset the balance of things . . . Vin, your team, the reservation, and the honor of history. It will not go unpunished. Of that, I am certain."
Chris stared at the man a second before looking over to see Buck looking just as confused as he felt. Josiah just nodded, like that had made perfect sense. Chanu wore a small smile that twitched a little when his eyes rested on Chris. He decided maybe he should just go with it as he seemed to be saying they'd catch the bad guys in the end and that's what he wanted to happen.
"They are putting Vin in 314. Let's go see if he's settled yet," said Chanu, turning to head for the elevators. They arrived at his room to find a nurse standing by his bed, straightening his IV line. The head of the bed was raised about thirty degrees. As they moved in, Chris could see that the left side of Vin's face looked sunburned. His arms were marked with scratches, bruises, and burns. The right one was bandaged almost from wrist to elbow.
Chanu greeted him in Apache, as did Kojay. Chris hated that he couldn't understand half the stuff either of the two men said. His team said he was a control freak and maybe to a certain extent he was. Chris looked down as a set of blue eyes met his.
"Hey, pard. I'd ask how you feel, but I think I can imagine."
Vin's mouth twitched. "Hope I don't look . . . ‘s bad as I feel."
"Don't be bettin' on that, Junior, or you'd probably lose," said Buck.
"Horses?" asked Vin, his eyes fluttering in an attempt to stay open.
"The barn and the horses are fine," said Chris. "Nathan and Jim took care of feeding them and they are staying all night to make sure no one messes with anything."
"Need . . . need to check . . ." Vin frowned and looked like he was trying to remember what he was going to say.
"You rest," said Kojay, grasping the man's hand. "You will close your eyes and sleep. There is nothing that must be done tonight. Tomorrow is a new day and we, your friends, will help you with whatever needs to be done. Sleep my young warrior, sleep."
Vin's brow furrowed and then smoothed out as his eyes slid closed. A moment later, he was breathing evenly, obviously asleep.
The group slowly made their way out into the hall and stood next to the wall. Chanu put his hand on Kojay's shoulder. "I will stay tonight in case he wakes. I do not want him waking alone in a strange place after what's happened. Claire knows."
Josiah scratched his chin. "I think maybe I should hang around outside the room. Someone tried to kill Vin and when they figure out they failed, they might try again."
"Speaking of that, where's the officers from . . . " Chris trailed off as the answer to his question stepped out of the elevator. Eli Joe looked at the signs pointing out the direction of groups of room numbers and then turned to come their way. He frowned when he saw them standing in a group, but quickly shifted to a blank expression. Chris sensed Chanu and Kojay tense as the officer stopped in front of them.
"Eli Joe," said Kojay in a neutral tone.
Eli lifted his chin briefly to acknowledge Kojay and then looked at Chris and Buck. "You're the ATF guys working with Tanner."
Chris nodded, tilting his head a bit. "We are."
Eli seemed to be waiting on him to say more, but Chris wasn't offering up anything he didn't have to. Eli glanced at Josiah. "You with them?"
Josiah held out his hand. "My name is Josiah Sanchez. I've been staying with Kojay so he could enlighten me about some of the customs of the People." After they shook hands, he nodded his head toward Kojay and Chanu. "I met Vin through Kojay and his grandson. We were going to have dinner with him this evening. And you are?"
"Office Eli Joe Martinez. I work with Tanner. Hated to hear about his place blowing up. Things are a little crazy right now, so I volunteered to come get his statement."
Chris felt anger rolling through him like a tidal wave. "The explosion was hours ago. You're just now getting around to investigating?" Eli stepped back and Buck was frowning at him, so he must be demonstrating his infamous glare.
A moment after Eli stepped back, he straightened and stepped forward again. "We don't tell you how to do your job. I suggest you not try telling us how to do ours. We have officers at the scene, but since all of you left, it was necessary to find someone to get yours. And that would be me," he snapped, narrowing his eyes at Chris.
Buck put his hands on his hips and gave his own glare. "Well, we left because Vin was injured and had to come to the hospital. It's not like we all went for a drink or somethin'."
"It took all of you to get him here?" said Eli with a snort.
Chris clamped his jaw shut so he wouldn't respond. This guy was a piece of work and he was having a hard time not making him part of the scenery. Thankfully, Buck took care of the response.
"Son, I don't know how you operate here, but when our friend and coworker is injured, we watch his back and make sure we're there if he needs us. We don't just abandon him to take care of himself and hope for the best." Buck crossed his arms and stared at the officer.
Eli shrugged. "Wasn't expecting so much concern for someone you just met a couple of days ago. Especially someone like Tanner."
Josiah's eyebrows rose. "What does that mean?"
Eli smirked and somehow managed to look smug at the same time. "Well, just between you and me, word is that Tanner had something going on the side and it backfired, resulting in his current problem."
Chris once again pushed the rage back, knowing that wasn't going to get any information. Eli was building a reason for the bomb that did not include him or Altaha and apparently taking pride in the fact that his method included destroying Vin's reputation. The man was lower than snail slime as far as he was concerned, but he had to keep control over himself until they could prove what was going on.
"Vin would not dishonor his name or his family like that," said Chanu, his eyes blazing. "Where is your evidence?"
Eli shrugged again. "Don't have any . . . yet."
Josiah clamped one of his big hands down firmly on Eli's shoulder, jarring the man. "I don't know of any jurisdiction where it is professional or appropriate to go around spreading such accusations without any evidence to support your suspicions. Perhaps you could channel your efforts into collecting evidence instead of starting rumors."
Eli pulled away from Josiah and turned angrily toward them. "Fine, you've all bought into Tanner's Robin Hood act, it's no skin off my nose. I'm just here to take the statement of anyone who was there, including Tanner."
"We'll be glad to give our statements to you, but Vin's pumped full of painkillers and asleep, so you'll have to get his tomorrow."
Eli stiffened and moved to stand almost nose to nose with Chris. "I said I'll get it tonight."
"No, you won't." Chris planted his feet firmly, almost hoping the guy would give him a reason to take him to the floor.
"Why must you get it tonight? What are you going to do with it?" said Kojay.
Eli just stood with his mouth open, floundering for something to say. He stepped back and looked at all the angry faces and seemed to shift gears. "Whatever. Just give me your statements and I'll catch Tanner tomorrow. Maybe he won't be quite so . . . surrounded."
"Don't count on it," Chris murmured under his breath. Eli Joe apparently heard, because he turned to study the ATF agent, a scowl on his face. He was suddenly very glad for the support of his team and Vin's friends. He had a feeling it would take all of them to bring this drama to a satisfying conclusion.
"I'm very disappointed in you," said David Altaha as he poured his favorite bourbon into two glasses. He handed one to Eli Joe, holding onto the glass an extra second before releasing it to the officer. "You assured me you had taken care of Tanner and yet, he is not only alive, but has somehow managed to attract a security detail."
Eli swirled the drink a second before taking a sip. "I had it set to go off fifteen seconds after the door opened, giving him time to get fully inside the house. It went off like I set it to go off. The problem was that Tanner opened the door and then walked away. I'm not sure how I was supposed to predict that."
"You could have watched and set it off manually once he was inside the house."
Eli shook his head. "Obviously you've never been there. Anywhere I parked myself where I could see him would have been visible, especially since he's always with those ATF guys."
Altaha sighed, tapping his fingers against the top of his desk. "Yes, the ATF agents. I must admit that I am beginning to doubt this search of illegal alcohol." He let his eyes go up to meet those of Eli. "I am beginning to suspect that they are here for me and it's only a matter of time until they find a way to search the premises."
Eli emptied his glass. "But you have a buyer, right?"
"Yes, as fortune would have it, an old acquaintance is willing to buy everything we have on hand. I think the prudent thing to do is to get rid of it as soon as possible and then lay low until they leave." He looked up at Eli. "I need to know they won't be a problem."
"They won't, Boss. I've already got most of the force thinking Tanner is on the take and got double-crossed by his partners. No one will be spending too much time investigating the explosion, especially since I'm the lead officer. And those ATF guys are so busy protecting Tanner, they don't have time to do much else. When is the deal going down?"
Altaha poured himself another finger of bourbon. "I talked to Ethan earlier today. He is arranging for a truck to pick up the merchandise tomorrow at six. The shop will be closed and everyone gone by then so we don't have any more nosey employees seeing things they shouldn't."
Eli grinned. "We'll be home free after that."
"Indeed." Altaha looked at Eli, using what others had told him was his stern expression. "I do not expect to have any more difficulties from Tanner or any of his friends, whatever it takes. If I do . . . " He took a slow sip of his drink. "Let's just say that if anything else goes wrong, you and Tommy will have a lot in common."
"You sure you're up to this?" asked Chris, glancing over at the hunched figure in the passenger seat. Vin had been released from the hospital with orders to take it easy and Chris was already seeing that getting Vin to follow those orders was going to be a challenge.
"I ain't never goin' to be up to it, so we might as well get it over with."
"Yeah," Chris breathed out. "I know what you mean."
"Right," Vin drawled out sarcastically.
Chris reminded himself that the young man sitting next to him was hurting, both physically and emotionally. He probably wasn't thinking rationally, and he certainly didn't know about Chris's own personal tragedy. "I do know. When my wife and son were killed with a car bomb meant for me, I couldn't . . . " He trailed off, wishing he'd just kept quiet because now he'd opened a big ole can of grief and he was having a hard time shoving everything back in.
"Sorry," Chris said. "I shouldn't have said anything. I just wanted you to know that . . . Look, I know it isn't exactly the same thing, but I do know what it's like to feel like you've lost everything you care about. And while it doesn't seem like it now, it is survivable. Just barely sometimes, but it is." He could feel Vin's eyes on him, but he continued to stare at the road ahead.
"I'm sorry," Vin said softly. He pulled in a deep breath and then let it out slowly. "Guess I been havin' myself a pity party, like I'm the only one to have bad things happen to me. I apologize for that." Straightening in his seat, his jaw tightened. "That ends now. I need to see . . . to say goodbye. And then I'm gonna nail those sons o' bitches to the nearest wall."
Chris had to smile at the grit behind the words. He had no doubt that Tanner meant it. "Just remember, you don't have to do it alone. We're in this til the end."
"I ‘preciate it. I figure I'll be needin' all the help I can get." Vin looked down at his new jeans and shirt he was sporting. "And I thank ya for the clothes. I'm pretty sure they threw the ones I arrived in into the trash."
"You're welcome. And that's where they belonged."
Vin snorted, but gave a tight nod of agreement.
A couple of minutes later, they pulled up in front of the pile of blackened wreckage that used to be Vin's house. A wisp of smoke escaped here and there. Even though Chris had been present for the explosion yesterday, the devastation still took his breath away. He could only imagine what it was doing to Vin. They got out of the car and he watched as the younger man limped slowly up to the steps leading to the front porch, dodging scattered mounds of burned debris as he went. At the foundation, he stopped and stood surveying what was left of his possessions.
Chris turned as Josiah pulled up and parked beside him. Chanu and Kojay gave him a nod as they walked over to stand by Vin. Josiah joined him as he leaned against the front of the car.
"I don't know what to do for him," said Chris.
Josiah sighed. "I don't think there's anything any of us can for him right now other than be there for him. That house was his heritage, a constant reminder of where he came from and the people that he loved and honored. I know it's only possessions and no one died, but when you consider what the history that was in this place meant to him, that it was all he had of his family, it's a devastating loss."
"I know," said Chris. And he did. He knew there was more to this place than a house and possessions. To Vin, It was the heritage of his family and his people. It was the history and the people who had come before him that made him what he was today.
Vin wandered out into the center of the house and slowly turned around. He leaned over and grabbed a handful of ashes, scattering them in the wind as he mumbled to himself and spun another circuit. Looking at his hands, he took the first two fingers of each hand and smeared ashes across his cheeks, forehead, down his nose, and on his chin.
Chris winced when Vin rubbed the ashes across the burned area of his face. "That's gotta hurt. Is that some kind of Apache ritual?"
Josiah was a quiet a moment and then shook his head once. "I think it's just Vin's way of saying goodbye. Everyone has their way of coping." Josiah pointed toward the far end of the home, where the bedrooms had been. "Look, I think there is still some roof and part of two walls on that section. Maybe something in there is salvageable."
Chris squinted in the morning sun to see where Josiah was pointing. Sure enough, it looked like over half of the far bedroom had survived the explosion and subsequent fire. "I think you're right."
He turned back to find Vin moving toward what had been the combo laundry/mudroom/pantry for the house. Chanu had waded the debris field out to him and Chris decided to join them, leaving Josiah to talk with Kojay. When he arrived, he found the two men trying to clear the floor near one corner. Vin's movements were stiff and obviously painful.
"What's going on?" asked Chris.
"Help us clear this area, would you?" asked Vin.
"I have a better idea. You stand aside and let me and Chanu clear it. You're supposed to be taking it easy," Chris said as he began moving splintered and burned logs. Vin finished dragging the board he was moving to the edge of the foundation, but once he'd dropped it, he stood and watched them finish.
"Okay, that should be good." Vin moved forward as Chris and Chanu stepped back. Vin brushed the floor off and began prying at what appeared to be a narrow crack. After a moment, he began lifting a metal panel. Chanu and Chris jumped forward to pull the sheet out of the way. Underneath was a depressed area and Chris peered over to see it was a safe, tucked neatly under the floor. He had to grin at the ingenuity.
"When Grandpa built this addition, he made this to keep really important stuff in so it would always be protected. Guess he knew what he was doin'." Vin dialed in three numbers and Chris grabbed the handle to help him pull the door open against the gravity holding it in place. Chris guessed it to be four foot by two foot by two foot deep. And it was pretty full. Vin sat back on his haunches and grinned. "Thank you, shichoo," he whispered.
"You want us to help you get this stuff out?" asked Chris.
Vin sat staring at it a few moments before shaking his head. "It'll probably be safer here'n just about anywhere else. No one knows about this but me and now you. I'll come back when I've got a safe place to take it." He closed the door and spun the lock. Chris and Chanu helped replace the metal plate and scatter debris across it. As they stood there making sure it was as invisible as it had been before, Vin said, "I'll empty it before I arrange to have this cleaned up, so no one should be botherin' it."
Chris and Chanu nodded as Chris said, "Hey, it looks like most of the far bedroom survived. I didn't know if you'd want to check it out now or wait until later."
Vin glanced around, squinting into the bright sunlight. "That was Grandpa's room. I'd like to check it now, before it rains or someone looking to loot comes around."
They spent the next hour going through the house, looking for things to salvage. Fortunately, Kojay and Chanu had come with several plastic bins with the idea of scavenging whatever they could. One was filled with clothes, some things of Vin's that survived and some work clothes that had belonged to his grandfather. Since the man had been only slightly taller than Vin and of a similar build, they had frequently shared clothes used to work the horses or the land.
Another storage bin was partially filled with artifacts that survived with little or no damage. They also retrieved several boxes of photographs from his grandfather's closet that were only slightly water damaged, along with his guns and several knives. The only thing they'd recovered from the front room was the head of the spear that had been on the wall and one arrowhead. Everything else seemed to have disintegrated in the blast.
It was a little past noon when they finally headed out. Chris was relieved Vin had shifted from grief to a determination to catch the bad guys red handed, especially after he'd informed the man that Ezra had a buy scheduled for later that day. Buck was bringing lunch for their meeting at Kojay's about setting everything up. Chris had a feeling there was going to be a fight about how involved Vin would be in the take down. The man could barely walk, but Chris was certain that he was going to insist on participating. The biggest problem was this was his home turf.
Chris pulled into the police station parking lot. Vin had wanted to check in on the way to the meeting and let them know he'd need to be off a couple of days. Chris walked beside him as they entered through the staff door and headed for the captain's office. While Vin barely acknowledged it, Chris was shocked at the cold reception. Officers and secretaries alike stared at Vin as he passed before putting their heads together to whisper. Two officers took the time to greet Vin and ask if they could do anything, but the others looked on in suspicion. Eli Joe sat at a desk and grinned at the fiasco as if he couldn't be more pleased.
Chris waited in the hall as Vin knocked and then went into the captain's office. He heard Vin explaining what had happened and then telling him he'd need a couple of days off to handle things. When the captain started grilling Vin about what he was into that would result in something like blowing up his house and basically accusing him of being the cause of the whole thing, Chris slid into the office and stood at Vin's shoulder. The room went suddenly silent.
"Captain, this is Chris Larabee, Senior Agent in Charge of Team Seven of the ATF out of Denver," said Vin.
"I know who he is," the captain snapped. "And I know how much time you've been wasting running around with him and his friend."
"Compliments of Eli Joe, I assume," said Vin in a deadpan voice.
"It doesn't matter how I know. Frankly, you haven't been doing your job lately and now we have your illicit activities to thank for escalating violence on the reservation. I've contacted your supervisor in the BIA and suggested you be suspended pending an investigation." The captain leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, looking very happy with himself.
Chris decided it was time to insert his two cents worth. "And what neutral party would be conducting this investigation?"
The big man shrugged. "My most dependable man right now is Officer Martinez."
"Not acceptable," said Chris.
The captain dropped his arms and stood up, leaning over the desk to stab his finger at Chris. "You don't have a say in this. Go back to Denver and take your buddy with you. This is tribal land and you aren't welcome."
Chris looked down at the finger almost touching his chest. His gaze rose slowly, a tight grin forming as he glared at the man, causing him to take a step back. "We will be leaving tomorrow, but not before I speak to the BIA myself and let them know what's really going on here. I bet they would be interested in conducting their own investigation of the situation . . . don't you?"
The captain's face had gone from red to almost purple and Chris was surprised at how much pleasure that gave him. "Get out. And Tanner, I want your gun and badge."
Vin's expression was still so neutral that Chris didn't know what to make of it. The young agent cocked his head and stared at the man behind the desk. "I respected ya when I first came to work here. Oh, I remembered what happened with my father when I was a kid, but I figured you were kind of a kid back then too. All of us have made mistakes, done things we ain't proud of. It's what you do after that that makes the man. I figured you deserved my respect since you'd stuck with it and worked your way up to captain."
Goseyun's eyes widened and his mouth opened a little. The red began fading from his face as he stared in shock as the younger man continued, his voice steady if a little raspy.
"But you don't deserve that respect any more. You're biased and unfair and you're too lazy to check things out on your own. You encourage tattling and spreading rumors as long as it's against someone you've decided you don't like. You may not be doing it purposely, but your ineptitude is helping drug pushers and gun runners and who knows who else to do business on our land. In short, you're hurting the People and I plan on trying to change that."
Goseyun sputtered a moment, but never could seem to figure out what he wanted to say. Vin sighed. "I'll turn in my badge and gun, but not to you. When my division supervisor comes, I'll turn it in to him." Vin grinned. "After this, I might be willin' to drive over to Phoenix to turn it in and be rid of it." He turned to go and then stopped in the doorway to look over his shoulder and mumble something in Apache. Chris had no idea what it meant, but from the look on Goseyun's face, it wasn't too flattering.
Chris was proud of Vin as he walked back through the room of people with his head held high. He smirked and gave a two-fingered salute to Eli Joe. They went to his office, where he pulled the plastic bag out of the garbage can and set it on the floor. "I bought this, so I have no problem taking it," he explained as he emptied his desk into the can. Chris helped him gather up his stuff. One of the officers who had shook his hand before stopped in and stared at them for a moment.
"Vin?" The dark complexion and braided hair of the officer made it obvious he was Native American. Gray at his temples and fine lines around his eyes let Chris know he was closer to his age than Vin's.
"Hey, Sam. Looks like I've worn out my welcome here."
Sam shook his head and closed his eyes a second. "I was afraid of this when I heard Martinez spouting his nonsense this morning. Not everyone listens to that weasel, you know."
Vin stopped and leaned against the desk. "I know, but I can't do the job I was hired to do like this. Goseyun will never be able to see me as anything but a boy watching him make a fool of himself. And I can't sit by and watch him embrace criminals because they have money and power. It's time."
Sam frowned, but after a moment, he nodded. "I suppose you are right. I am truly sorry about your home and I repeat, if you need anything, a place to stay, help getting the guy who did this, anything . . . just ask. We are few, but some of us have your back. We would have been at the hospital if any of us had known in time."
"Thanks, Sam." He glanced at Chris and then back at Sam. "I might need to take you up on that a little later today, depending on how things work out."
Sam smiled and nodded. "Just ask."
"Thanks. For right now, know where I can get a box? My can isn't quite big enough for all my stuff."
"Be right back."
Once the officer was gone, Vin looked at Chris. "Sam and Mark, the other guy we saw on our way in, are dependable and are good officers. If we decide we need a couple more people, that's who we'll want to call."
Nodding, Chris said, "That's good because I've been thinking about how short-handed we're going to be. I'm used to having a back-up team on things this big."
Sam returned with an empty paper box. "This work?"
Vin nodded. "Perfect." They filled up the box with the rest of Vin's personal effects and were taking one last look around when Jim Nighthawk showed up. He stood in the doorway and watched Vin take one final look in his desk.
"I can't believe you're leaving."
Vin stood up and pushed the chair in one last time. "Neither can I," he said softly before meeting Jim's eyes. He walked over and they grabbed each other by the forearm to shake. "You've been like a brother to me and I'll always be grateful for our time working together. You and a couple of others made this job bearable."
Jim sighed. "But it's no longer bearable?"
Vin glanced down the hall before returning his eyes to his friend. "Goseyun isn't going to let me stay. Even if the BIA ends up backing me, he'll insist that I can't work out of this building. It'll be better for everyone if you start new with someone he doesn't already hate."
"But what will you do? The house . . . no job . . . "
"I'll stay with Kojay for now," he said, shrugging one shoulder. "Figure the rest out as I go."
Jim put one hand on Vin's shoulder. "You need a place to stay, you have it. For however long you need. Promise you'll call if you need it?"
Vin grinned. "Promise. You watch your back here." He leaned forward to look down the hall before whispering to the forensics expert. "I hope to be calling you for that evidence on Tommy's murder soon."
Jim nodded and then grinned. "Oh, speaking of evidence, we found the remains of a trigger device at your place. I've got a call in to an explosives expert to confirm what I think, but I hope to have some solid information on the type of bomb by tomorrow."
"I appreciate you, more than I can tell you. I'll call tomorrow."
Jim dipped his head once before looking at Chris. "I expect you to take care of my brother."
"Count on it."
Jim smiled at him. "I believe that you will. Good luck to you in whatever you have planned. I can tell by looking at the two of you, that do have something planned. May the spirits guide you."
Ten minutes later, they had Vin's belongings loaded into the car and were on their way to Kojay's.
They arrived to find the house filled with people. Kojay and Josiah were in the kitchen with Buck and Nathan talking to JD in the living room. Vin grabbed the box and headed for the bedroom at the end of the hall with Chris following. "Just set that down over in the corner," he said as Chris passed him carrying the trash can. They returned to the living room and joined the three men already there.
"JD, I wasn't expecting to see you here," said Chris.
JD shrugged. "Altaha's been very happy today, bouncing between the shop and the warehouse all morning. He came in at lunch and announced we were closing early, sent us all home." He grinned as he pulled a long paper out of his pocket and waved it around. "He was so happy, he gave us all a bonus for good work this week."
Buck reached for the check. "You know you can't keep that, kid."
JD pulled it back and stuffed it into his pocket. "Hey, I worked hard for that check. I'm keeping it."
"You see anything interesting yesterday or today?" asked Chris.
JD nodded, automatically straightening as he addressed Chris. "I managed to overhear Altaha talking to Brown this morning right outside the back door. They were talking about the meet with Ezra this afternoon and how it would clear out their remaining inventory. He's planning on laying low for a while." His brow furrowed as he looked at Vin. "He said Eli botched the job to get rid of Tanner permanently and if his current scheme didn't work, he'd have to make other arrangements before they started back up."
Vin kept his expression neutral. While he hadn't considered Altaha sending someone else after him, he wasn't surprised. "Guess I'll just have to make sure we put him out of action tonight."
Chris frowned at the BIA agent. "Guess you'll just have to stay out of our way and let us make sure he's put out of action."
Vin's eyes flashed as stiffened. "I been after Altaha for months now and Eli Joe for over a year. They've taken my home, my job, and my reputation. If you think I'm gonna sit around waitin' on you and your team to bring him down alone, you ain't quite as smart as I thought you were."
"Be reasonable, you're injured. You can barely walk."
Vin stared at Chris for several seconds before saying quietly, "Who's your high man?"
Chris blinked and looked confused. "What?"
"Your high man, your sniper. You got one?" snapped Vin.
Chris shook his head. "No."
"Our sniper moved over to a job with the FBI a couple of months ago," said Buck and then sighed. "Always knew somethin' wasn't right about that boy."
"You got one now."
Chris narrowed his eyes as his lips thinned out in a grimace. "You can't just become a sniper because you want to."
"Vin has the eye of the eagle and the spirit of the hawk," said Kojay, standing behind them with Josiah. His mouth turned up in a smile. "And he was a sniper for the Army."
"Army Rangers," said Vin. "Better part of three years. I can shoot the wings off a fly at a thousand yards. Somethin' the size of Altaha won't be a problem."
"You're a sniper?" said Buck with a huge grin. "Well, whoo-ee, how lucky is that? Just what we need."
Chris and Vin continued to glare at one another until Kojay stepped up to stand next to them. "If you cannot work together, you will not catch your prey. You must put your pride aside. Examine the possibilities and you will find the true path." He paused a moment and then slapped them both on the back. "Let's eat. You are holding things up and the food is getting cold."
The two men watched as Kojay walked to the kitchen, followed by JD and Buck punching and dodging one another. Nathan headed that way and then glanced over his shoulder at them. "Better hurry, guys. Remember Buck's motto. He who eats last, eats least."
Vin turned back to look at Chris, who frowned at him. "He's not joking. Between Buck and JD, if we don't get in there, we won't be eating much and whatever they got, it smells good."
Vin nodded. "Truce?"
"Truce." Chris lead the way to the kitchen, where boxes of Chinese food were spread across the counter. He picked up a couple of paper plates, handing one to Vin. A few minutes later, everyone was seated at the table, plates piled high as forks clinked dishes.
While he ate, Vin thought about the layout of Altaha's property and the way the buy would probably go down, trying to figure the best plan and where his sniper skills could be the most help. He wished he hadn't mentioned that or offered to be the high man. It meant he'd be removed from the action and he really wanted to be on the ground, right in the middle of it. He wanted to see the look on Altaha's face when they took him down. Me and my stupid big mouth.
His phone buzzed and he pulled it out and stared at the number. Ignoring the call, he set his phone face down on the table. When he looked up, Chris was looking at him. "Trouble?" he asked.
Vin sighed. "Probably. It's my direct supervisor. I can't take a chance of him suspending me or firing me before tonight, so I'm unavailable. I'll call him tomorrow and he can do whatever he wants.
Chris looked at him, green eyes revealing nothing of what the man was thinking. But somehow, Vin felt the support all the same. Finally, Chris nodded and went back to eating. Vin stared at his plate as he pushed the food around. His appetite had evaporated with the call. He tried to push gloomy thoughts of the bust going wrong and some of his new friends getting hurt. Gripping his fork, he figured he'd just have to make sure that didn't happen.
When everyone had finished eating, Kojay and Josiah poured everyone a cup of coffee. Chris sipped his and grinned. "Josiah, are you planning on coming back to Denver when this is over or staying here with Kojay? You two seemed to have hit it off."
"Kojay's probably glad to have someone new to figure out his riddles," said Vin, smirking at the older man.
Kojay grunted. "And perhaps you are tired of not being able to figure them out." He lifted his cup toward Vin.
Vin dipped his head and grinned. "Touche."
Chris's cell phone vibrated on the table. "Right on time." Swiping it, he tapped the speaker icon. "Hey Ezra, we're all here and I've got you on speaker."
"Excellent," Ezra said, the rhythmic sound of a blinker in the background. "As you are aware, the buy is scheduled for five-thirty this afternoon. Mr. Kelly will be driving the truck to the warehouse of our illustrious criminal element. I am to deliver the case with the funds for Mr. Altaha to check. When he is satisfied, he will allow me to look over the merchandise. Providing we are both satisfied, he will have men there to load the truck. Do you have a plan yet on how the arrests will take place?"
"We were just about to discuss that. I waited because I wanted your input. I'll lay out what I was thinking and then you guys can voice your concerns. It's pretty open around the warehouse, so I'm thinking when everyone's inside checking money and crates, we move in to get close. We'll have to use the buildings to provide most of our cover. We stay out of sight until the truck is loaded and then move in."
"He'll have at least one outside guard," Vin said. "Most likely he'll have two, one out in the open and one that's not so obvious."
Chris frowned and then nodded. "Good to know."
"That's where you need me," Vin said.
Chris opened his mouth, looking like he was going to protest, and then closed it and cocked his head to one side. "Make your case."
"Remember that hill just north of the warehouse where I took you? I can watch from up there. I'm out of the way, but I can see a lot with my scope. I assume everyone will be radioed up, so I can tell you where his people are. I can also provide some cover from up there if needed."
Chris frowned and rubbed his chin. Vin could almost see the wheels turning as the man considered his offer.
"I assume that offer was from the Agent Tanner that Mr. Altaha seems to loathe so much. Ezra Standish, also known as Ethan Sanderson for this endeavor."
"Vin Tanner. I thank ya for your help getting Altaha shut down."
"I assure you, it is my pleasure. And if I may say so, the idea of an angel on high watching over us is not a bad idea."
Vin snorted. "Ain't no angel, but I got lots of experience watching over operations from a high point."
After a few moments of silence, Buck said, "I know this may not be what you want to hear, Chris, but having a sniper watchin' our back ain't a bad idea, especially since we're gonna have cover problems."
Chris took in a deep breath and then blew it out before looking at Vin. "All right, Vin, you're in. Can you be in position before five-thirty? I don't want motion up there attracting Altaha's attention at the last minute."
Vin nodded. "I got plenty of time to get settled."
"Wait," said Nathan, setting his cup down so suddenly he sloshed coffee on the table. "Your rifle didn't get blown up?"
Vin shook his head as he glanced at Chris, who was smiling at him. "Nah, my guns were in Grandpa's gun safe in his closet. We dug through the rubble earlier today and everything in the safe was okay. I'll need to clean it good to make sure it's in good workin' order, but it should be fine." He sighed. "Been a long time since I used that one. Been a long time since I needed it."
"Anything else?" Chris said, looking around the table. "Okay. We'll take care of the outside guards while you are inside with Altaha. Ezra, come outside while they're loading the truck in case someone notices the missing guards. I don't want you trapped inside. Put as much distance between you and his guys as you can without raising suspicions. Once the truck is loaded and you move to your car, we'll announce ourselves. Best case scenario, they drop their guns and surrender. Worse case, they open fire on us. Everyone be in a position to drop quickly behind cover because to be honest, I don't expect them to come quietly."
"They won't," said Vin. "And keep an eye on Altaha. He'll try to slip away while you're busy."
"What about Eli Joe?" asked JD.
"He won't be there," said Vin, his face screwing up in a scowl. That was the only bad part of this plan. He wanted Eli Joe, and he wanted him badly, but there was no way the guy would be caught anywhere near a buy. As much as Vin hated the guy, he had to admit that he was smart.
"I agree," said Chris. "This guy is way too good at covering his tracks. I'm afraid the best we can hope for right now is finding something in the warehouse to tie Altaha to Martinez or for Jim to find something implicating him in the explosion or one of the murders." He let his eyes move over to meet Vin's. "Sorry we can't do better than that."
"Yeah, me too. At least after today he won't be my problem anymore." Vin was both comforted by that thought and horrified at leaving the man running loose to kill again. It was what it was. He'd just have to make peace with it. Rule number 11 – when the job is done, walk away.
"What about manpower?" said Chris. "There are a couple of officers that Vin trusts that we can bring in for the bust if you think we need them. Ezra, any idea what kind of manpower Altaha will have?"
"Interesting question, Mr. Larabee. The last time I visited him at the warehouse, I counted four men in addition to Mr. Altaha and his shadow, Mr. Brown. There could have been others in the back that I was unable to visually verify however."
Chris turned to JD, who was frowning as he stared at the table seemed to be ticking something off on his fingers. "JD?"
After a moment, JD looked up at him. "I've been trying to watch the people coming and going from the warehouse when I could. I'm in the shop most of the day, but I managed to get outside several times. The day they loaded that truck up, I counted eight different guys during the course of the day. I'm not sure if they were all there at the same time or not, because some I saw once in the morning or evening and others I saw a couple of times."
Chris nodded. "So up to eight, ten if you count Altaha and Brown. Six of us on the ground, seven if you count Kelly. A couple more men wouldn't hurt."
"I say call them," said Buck. "You think that'll be enough?"
"Jim would come if we need him," said Vin. "Forensics is his specialty, but he's certified in weapons and he served in the marines."
Chris thought about it a moment. "No, let's not pull Jim into this. I'm assuming it's been a few years since he's faced something like this." Vin nodded. "We've got the element of surprise, plus you on the hill, plus we'll be taking one or two out before the action starts, so we should be okay. Any questions?"
When no one said anything, Chris dipped his head once. "Okay, we're a go. Ezra, we'll see you there. Stay safe."
"Safe is my middle name."
"I thought it was Ezra P. Standish," said Buck with a grin. "Safe doesn't start with a P."
"You are correct, Mr. Wilmington, although I am surprised to hear that you know that. Au revoir."
Vin chuckled at the look on Buck's face. Chris grinned as he ended the call. "He got you there, Buck."
"Some people just don't appreciate good humor," Buck mumbled.
"I don't have my car, so I need someone to give me a ride out to . . . " Vin drifted off, the horror of what happened hitting him fresh. He'd been about to say he needed a ride to his house, but he no longer had a house. He swallowed, remembering his vow to end the pity party. "I need a ride out to my place so I can grab Peso and get into place on time."
"I'll take you. Your stuff from the house is still in my truck. Need to make any stops?"
Vin glanced over at Kojay. "You still got all that ammo?"
Kojay nodded. "Yes, and you are welcome to whatever you need."
"I've got my gun cleaning kit in the tub with the rifle, so let me grab some ammo and I'm ready to go, cowboy" said Vin. The men at the table stared as Vin followed Kojay out of the room and then turned to look at Chris.
A furrow slowly formed across Chris's brow as Buck said, "Did he just call you cowboy?"
Vin shifted, trying to ease the ache in his leg without sending a cascade of dirt and gravel down the hill. He'd arrived at the hill near Altaha's warehouse over an hour ago and he was starting to stiffen up. The trip on Peso had convinced him that Larabee was right when he'd said Vin had no business riding a horse. He was paying for it in spades now, but none of that mattered if they could take Altaha down.
Sweat rolled down the side of his face, but he ignored it as he looked through the scope at Altaha as he came out of the warehouse to talk to the guard there. Looking at his watch, Vin saw that it was almost five-thirty. As he continued to study the people below, Brown came out with two more men. They talked for a few moments and then the two men took off in opposite directions. He watched them until he saw Ezra turning into the driveway.
"Cowboy, is thing working?" Vin whispered.
"Radio is working fine and don't call me cowboy."
Vin grinned at the sound of Larabee's annoyed voice. "Your man just arrived. We've got one bogey outside the front door. One in the collection of bushes by the driveway near the road and one on the move. The rover is currently walking between the buildings headed for the rear. Our main target is standing out front waiting to greet your guy."
"Copy that, keep us informed."
Vin watched Ezra get out and shake hands with Altaha, smiling like they were old friends. This guy was good. There was no sign he was anything other than what he said he was. After speaking for several seconds, the agent reached into his car and pulled out a large case. At Altaha's direction, he handed it over to Brown and the three of them went inside.
"Your man and our two primary targets have gone inside. Bogeys are in same position except the rover went behind the shop building and I've lost visual on him."
"We're moving in. Let us know if you regain visual on the rover."
"Will do." As Vin watched, motion near the road pulled his attention. What looked like a water balloon sailed out of the trees and splattered on the road, near the bushes where one of Altaha's men hid. The bush moved as the man stuck his head out. Apparently he couldn't see what he wanted, because he began inching out of the plants toward the place where the balloon had impacted. Nathan had crept up from the other side of the bushes and grabbed the man, jerking the weapon from his hand as he laid him on the ground and popped him one in the face. It was so fast that Vin had almost missed it.
Once again movement drew his attention, but this towards the shop. "Heads up, our roving bogey is coming around the front of the shop now." Vin watched as the man lifted his chin toward the door guard and the greeting was returned. Shop bogey stood looking over the property for a few moments before heading towards the patch of trees east of the buildings, where the ATF group was hiding.
"Roving bogey is coming toward you. . . entering the trees . . . now."
Vin lost sight of the guy, but a few minutes later, he heard the guy calling out. The voice did not sound panicked, but it did sound insistent. The man at the door looked around like he wasn't sure what to do and then headed for the woods.
"Door guard is headed your way. ETA in fifteen seconds." Vin watched as the man disappeared into the trees. A minute later, an unmarked white truck that was built like a U-Haul pulled into the driveway and backed up to the warehouse door. As it came to a stop, the door to the warehouse opened to reveal Ezra and Altaha stepping out to shake hands. Ezra opened the back door of the truck and two men in dark clothes came out of the warehouse to put a ramp into place.
"Truck is here and in position. Your man and our target are shaking hands and opening the truck." He paused a moment to watch through the scope again. "Crates are being loaded."
Vin eased the rifle down and wiped the sweat from his face. His sweat-soaked shirt clung to him. The dirt coating his skin and clothes combined with the burns and scabs to make him itch like he'd been swallowed up by a chigger patch. Just a few more minutes and this will be over. At this point, that was what he wanted the most, for this to be over with so he could move on.
Altaha caught his attention and he leaned over to look through the scope again. The man looked angry and was talking in a rather animated fashion to Brown, waving his arms around the parking lot. Oh, shoot. It looked like he was asking about the guards. Brown spoke into what looked like a radio, a frown beginning to form on his face.
"Houston, we have a problem. I think our targets are wondering where all the help has gone. The primary is eyeing your man in a not-so-friendly way, if you get my drift."
Altaha held up his hand to the men carrying a crate out of the warehouse. They set the crate down, looking confused. Altaha had raised his voice to talk to Ezra, but Vin couldn't understand what he was saying. He completely understood the gun that was whipped out of Altaha's coat. Vin fired as Ezra dove for cover. He got Altaha in the shoulder, making him drop the gun. Brown stepped toward where Ezra had crouched behind his car. Vin took him out as he brought his gun forward to fire.
Three more men jogged out the doorway, crouching to avoid the gunfire. One grabbed Altaha and helped him move toward the warehouse entrance as they others provided cover fire. Vin was forced to let their main target go in order to shoot the man taking aim at Chris. He cursed under his breath as the guy got a shot off just as Vin took him down. In the ensuing chaos, Vin almost missed the new action taking place.
"Heads up, guys, about ten armed men just exited the back of the warehouse." Vin lost sight of them as they moved along the far side of the building. "I have lost visual, but they are headed your direction."
"Crap. We see them," said Buck.
Vin watched, waiting for them to emerge in the front part of the building. He was concentrating so hard on where he expected them to come out that he almost missed the two men moving in a wide arc almost to the road. "You've got two trying to flank you on the south side near the road," he said.
The two moved along the bushes near the road where Vin couldn't get a clear line of sight. Looking back toward the building, he saw the others spreading out beside the building and behind a couple of cars that had been left in the lot. He fired. Knowing he'd hit his target, he immediately took the scope back to the two near the road. One had stepped out and was firing, giving Vin a clear shot. He took it, but heard someone yelp over the radio before the man fell.
"JD," yelled Buck. He saw a shuffle of movement near the edge of the trees, his gut clenching while he waited to hear if the kid was okay.
"Turn around, Tanner. And you'd better move slowly if you want to live for a few more minutes.'
Vin froze, recognizing Eli Joe's voice immediately. The voices over the radio became white noise as he rolled over on his back, looking into the barrel of the 9mm Eli had pointed at him. Stupid, stupid, stupid he chanted in his head. How could he have been so blind as to miss Eli Joe following him.
"You've been a thorn in my side for a while now, Tanner, and that ends today. Boss wasn't too happy when you didn't go up with your house. He made it clear either you were out of the picture or I was." Eli Joe grinned as he shrugged one shoulder. "I choose you."
"Eli Joe. How did you know we'd be here?" asked Vin. He could still hear gunfire below so he knew there wasn't going to be a rescue. The least he could do was let them know what had happened.
"I knew you'd end up at Kojay's place, so I watched to see what you were doing. When I saw you get together with those ATF guys and the two newcomers, I knew something was going down. I figured I'd stick with you. After all, you're the one Boss hired me to get rid of."
As Eli brought the gun up slightly, Vin prepared to make his move. The BIA agent rolled to his left, bringing the rifle up as he came around to land on his back. As he fired, there was a burn across the top of his right shoulder between his neck and his arm. Eli flew backwards, his gun thrown to the side as he slid a few feet down the slope. Vin quickly sat up, pointing the weapon towards the fallen figure. When he detected no movement, he pushed to his feet and walked over to stand over Eli's body. With a hole in his chest, Eli's mouth pursed like a fish out of water, blood bubbling over his lips. As the motion stilled, his eyes slid to half-mast. Vin wanted to feel sorry for his nemesis, but he just couldn't seem to find it in him to feel much of anything.
That changed as he heard one of the men on the radio yelp and the gunplay once again began to register. He quickly returned to his nest on top of the hill to see men had once again moved into position to flank the ATF agents. They were all behind enough cover that he couldn't find a clean shot. Chatter on the radio indicated at least three of the agents and officers on the offensive were down. He needed to draw the bad guys out.
When the idea hit him, all he could think of was that Larabee was going to kill him if he somehow managed to make it out of this fiasco alive. His shoulder burned where Eli's bullet had grazed him and all the aches from the explosion were making themselves known. He closed his eyes and took a few slow, deep breaths. He mentally went through his body from top to bottom, relaxing the muscles and focusing his energy. When he felt in complete control, he opened his eyes and smiled.
Chris Larabee ducked back behind the tree, splintering bark stinging his face. That had been close. Almost as close as the one that had gone through the meaty part of his left bicep. Altaha had ended up having a lot more men than they had counted on. Even with Tanner's help, he was starting to wonder if they would be alive at the end of this encounter.
A yelp through the radio brought his attention back to his men. He glanced over toward where Josiah was and saw him crouched over running to the last location of Sam Tessay. He gave the big man a few seconds before he sought information. "Josiah?"
"Tessay is down, gunshot to the right side. I'm trying to keep the bleeding under control."
Nathan's voice came right on the tail of Josiah's. "Keep pressure on the wound and I'll try to make my way over there."
Chris sent off a flurry of shots and noticed the others doing the same in an effort to give Nathan enough cover to move. The thing he noticed was the absence of Vin's rifle. And then he heard Vin's voice, apparently talking to Eli Joe. He glanced toward the top of the hill, but could no longer see any sign of the BIA agent. Unfortunately, there was no way to get up there and help him. Chris took a moment to mentally curse Altaha, Eli Joe, and gun runners in general as he kept firing on the men trying to overtake their position.
He suddenly realized that the radio had been silent for a couple of minutes and he glanced toward the hill again. What he saw made his jaw drop open. Tanner topped the hill riding Peso, screaming out something that sounded like an Indian war cry from an old movie. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention.
Apparently it had the same effect on Althaha's men. All sound of weapon-fire stopped as Tanner rode like a screaming banshee straight toward the bad guys. As he got closer, he began firing the two handguns he was holding. Chris realized the opening he was giving them and yelled, "Take ‘em down, boys," as he began firing again. Several minutes later, he couldn't detect any return fire.
"Stand down. I think we got ‘em all, but approach with caution." He slowly slid out from behind the tree, his gun up and waiting for trouble. When no shots came, he began walking forward. In his peripheral vision, he saw some of the others doing the same. He made it to the door of the warehouse and checked each of the downed men.
"I've got two alive over here. I guess we'd better call in some ambulances." He turned to see where Tanner had gotten off to, thinking he should have been there by now. Peso stood about forty feet away, nose down nudging the shoulder of his owner, who lay sprawled on the ground. "Vin's down," Chris yelled as he took off running toward his new friend.
The fear subsided slightly as he heard the man moan and then saw him roll over onto his back. Sliding to knees at Vin's side, he was immediately shocked by the amount of blood on his shirt. "Vin?"
Vin's eyes fluttered and then opened, settling on Chris. "Please tell me . . . got ‘em and . . . I didn't pull that fool stunt . . . for nothin'."
"Fool stunt is a pretty accurate description," Chris said as he began checking for the wounds that had produced all that blood. "But yes, we got ‘em. How many times did you get yourself shot and why on earth did you think that was a good idea?"
"Good Lord," Josiah mumbled as he appeared at Chris's side. "Nathan, we need you as soon as you can."
"S'okay," said Vin softly. "Think they mostly winged me . . . just winged me a lot."
With Josiah's help, they had Vin's shirt off a few seconds later. Chris sat back and sighed. "Well, he wasn't wrong." There was a through and through in Vin's upper right shoulder, part way between his arm and his neck that was bleeding more than Chris was comfortable with. There was a graze down his right side that left a six-inch long furrow across his rib cage. Another chunk of flesh was gouged out of his left side, just above his waist.
Chris wadded up part of the shirt they had cut off Vin and pressed it against the shoulder wound. Josiah took the rest of the fabric and used it to put pressure against the man's side. Blood soon soaked through the cloth Chris was holding. He was about to call for Nathan again when the man appeared at his side.
"What have we got?" asked the medic.
"Three wounds. None of them are too severe except this shoulder wound is bleeding pretty heavily."
Nathan rolled Chris's hand away from the wound and studied it before replacing Chris's hand. "I think he might have nicked a blood vessel. We're gonna need him airlifted out of here. Keep pressure on the wound and I'll see to it."
Chris pressed down harder as Nathan walked away, his phone to his ear. Fear began crawling up his throat, making his heart pound and his stomach squirm. Vin's eyes were almost closed, but he winced at the increase in pressure.
"Take it easy, Vin. Help's coming."
The corner of Vin's mouth turned up and his eyes opened a bit more. "Enjoyed the ride . . . cowboy."
"No, no, no," Chris said, pushing harder. "Don't you go quitting on me, Tanner. I need a sniper and I hear you might be looking for a new job. It would mean a move, but it's not all that far away. I'll even let you bring that cantankerous horse you like so much."
Vin's eyes closed, but he chuckled. "Peso . . . cantankerous? Looked in the mirror . . . lately?"
"Yes, and I'm not nearly as ornery as that horse of yours. At least I don't bite."
"Nope . . . shoot . . . instead."
Chris grinned. "Well, I'd offer to shoot you for calling me cowboy and comparing me to that mule of yours, but it looks like the bad guys beat me to it." The lines around Vin's mouth tightened a moment before his face went slack. Chris's heart just about exploded out of his chest. "Vin. Vin, talk to me."
Josiah shifted his hand up to press on Vin's neck. "It's okay, he just passed out."
The thump, thump, thump of an approaching helicopter a few minutes later was one of the most beautiful sounds Chris thought he'd ever heard. He closed his mouth and eyes at the dust storm that engulfed them as the chopper landed just their side of the parking lot. In a flurry of activity, EMT's were there getting Vin stabilized and then whisking him off to the helicopter.
Suddenly, Chris was standing in the middle of what felt like nowhere, watching the shrinking form of the air ambulance rush what had become a good friend to the hospital. As the dust settled and the sound faded away, a large hand clamped on his shoulder. He looked around to the sympathetic face of Josiah and noted the ambulances and police cars beyond him.
"Everyone else okay?"
Josiah nodded. "For the most part. JD and Buck have minor wounds. Sam is the worst, but Nathan thinks he'll be okay. Looks like you took a hit yourself."
Chris looked down at the dried and tacky blood on his sleeve. "I'll be fine."
"As will we all, brother. Come on. The sooner we clear some of this up, the sooner we can get to the hospital. But first, a visit with the EMT is in order."
Chris stared at the few tablespoons of cold, black coffee at the bottom of the Styrofoam cup in his hand. He swirled it, watching stray grounds get deposited on the white foam when they were tossed above the liquid's surface. The smell of burnt coffee rose up with action, making his stomach roll, so he set the cup down on the magazine-stacked side table.
Explaining everything to the reservation police captain had been a nightmare. He'd probably still be out there defending their actions if the Chief of Police hadn't shown up. Captain Goseyun had been adamant that both Tanner and the ATF had overstepped their bounds and should probably be the ones being arrested. Once the chief had shown up and listened to the whole story, he had shut Goseyun down and taken over the situation. Josiah and Chris had finally been cleared to leave, having sent Nathan on ahead with JD and Buck.
Shortly after they arrived at the hospital, Nathan came over and joined them. He'd informed them that JD caught one in the shoulder and was headed for surgery shortly. Buck had a graze on his leg that was being stitched. Vin was in surgery and Sam had been flown to Phoenix. Now they sat in the surgical floor waiting room.
Chris heard the double doors at the end of the hall open and stood, waiting to see if there was news. A doctor with graying hair came around the corner. Upon spotting them, he came over and waited as they got up and made a semi-circle. "You have news about Vin Tanner?" Chris said.
"Yes. He is out of surgery and we have repaired the damage. The main problem was the blood loss, as you are probably aware. He's very weak and his pressure is still lower than I would like, but he's doing well, all things considered. It may take him a bit to bounce back, but barring any unforeseen complications, I don't see any reason why he wouldn't recover. We'll need to keep him several days to watch out for clotting problems, not that he'll feel up to doing much anyway."
Chris nodded. "Thank you, doctor."
The man nodded. "I think they were just finishing up with your other man and they should be out in a minute to talk to you. Mr. Tanner will be in recovery for a bit, but the nurse will come let you know when we move him to a room."
As the man was leaving, he stopped to talk to a woman who was almost a foot shorter than he was. The group remained where they were, watching the two. After a couple of minutes, they parted and the woman came over to them with a smile. "You are waiting to hear about JD Dunne?"
Buck nodded. "Yes, ma'am we sure are. Can you tell us how he's doin'?"
"He came through the surgery well. He'll be sore for a while, as you can imagine, but he is young and healthy, so he should heal quickly. Fortunately, no bones were broken and the joint itself was unaffected. It is mostly a soft-tissue injury, skin and muscle. I'll have the nurse come let you know when he's out of recovery and in a room."
"Thank you, ma'am, for takin' such good care of him," said Buck.
"You are very welcome. He's a very lucky young man." The doctor shook hands with Chris and Buck before leaving. The two stood eyeing each other for several seconds.
"I hear you offered Vin a job," said Buck with a smirk.
Chris threw a scowl at Josiah, noting both him and Nathan grinning without shame. "Maybe. I was trying to keep him conscious."
"So, you're not offering him a job," prodded Nathan.
Chris let his head drop and rubbed his forehead. "Yes . . . No . . . Maybe? I don't know. It seemed right at the time."
"And now?" asked Buck.
Chris thought about it a moment before looking up at his team. "It still feels right."
Buck nodded, as if that was the answer he'd been expecting. "I think he'd make a right good addition to the team."
"I agree," said Josiah. "While I didn't get to spend the time with him that you two did, I did spend a lot of time with Kojay and he has a lot of respect for Vin. I trust his judgement." He furrowed his brow as he looked up toward the ceiling. "The man is kind of odd, but he seems to have an almost spiritual understanding of what makes other folks tick."
Everyone glanced at Nathan, causing the medic to step back. "Easy, now, I'm with you guys. Like Josiah, I didn't really spend much time with him. But Jim and I got along quite well and he also has a very high opinion of Vin. Said he's an excellent investigator, best marksman he's ever seen, and he'd trust him with his life. That was plenty good enough for me."
Chris rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger. "I guess I'd better call Travis, see what he thinks before I get too far into this."
Buck grinned and hung his thumbs in his pockets. "Well, shoot, Chris. Ain't that a little like kickin' the barn door closed after Peso's done got out?"
Chris glared at his old friend. "I'm going to call Travis. I need to explain what happened tonight before Goseyun or someone from the BIA calls to complain. One of you call Phoenix and check on Sam. Vin's going to want to know how he is."
Buck nodded. "Where's the other guy . . . Mark something?"
"He went to talk to Sam's family once they let us go," said Josiah. "I told him we'd call when we knew about Vin for sure. I'll give him a ring in a few minutes when we know the room number. He'll probably want to run up here tomorrow."
"I guess I'll see about getting us some fresh coffee," said Nathan. "I don't know about you guys, but I could really use some about now."
"Did someone say you needed fresh coffee?"
Startled, they all whirled around to see Kojay standing there beside a grinning Chanu, both of them carrying drink holders filled with what looked suspiciously like coffee cups. Chris shook his head. "I don't know where you just appeared from, but I sure am glad you did."
"I told you that I would return when the time was right," said Kojay in a tone similar to what one used when explaining something simple to a small child.
Chanu began handing out cups. "Don't worry, you get used to it."
"That's what I'm afraid of," muttered Nathan.
Vin woke to an aching body. There were no sharp pains, but he attributed that to the drugs he could tell were coursing through his veins. He decided the biggest ache was his shoulder and maybe across his rib cage on the right side. He could tell from the smell he was in the hospital, but it took several moments of drifting in and out to remember why that might be. Oh, yeah, crazy ride on Peso into the middle of a gun battle. He was kind of surprised he was alive to feel any pain.
He forced his eyes open, but immediately shut them the light tried to drive a stake through his eyes and into his brain.
"Sorry, I pulled the blinds. It should be safe to open your eyes now."
Ah, Larabee. He was actually here. He had figured the ATF guys would be long gone by now. He blinked a few times until his eyes adjusted to being open and sure enough, there stood Chris. "Hey, cowboy," he said, or at least tried to say. It came out sounding kind of weak and scratchy, so maybe not so understandable.
"I told you to quit calling me cowboy."
Okay, so maybe more understandable than he'd thought. Larabee's voice had been firm, but the slight smile and the glint in his eye bled the danger right out of the comment. He felt sort of numb and floaty and it took a few seconds for his brain to catch up to the fact that the end of their little bust was extremely fuzzy in his mind. He frowned, trying to remember. "Someone . . . someone got hurt. Who?"
Chris ignored him to pick up a cup with a bendy straw in it and poke the end in his mouth. "Here, drink."
Vin did drink because his mouth was dryer than a popcorn fart. When the straw was pulled away, he watched Chris set the cup down on the side table. "Bossy."
Turning back to him, Chris grinned. "So I'm told. And in answer to your question, JD took one to the shoulder and Buck had a deep graze to the leg. Both will be fine. Sam took a shot to the side so they airlifted him to Phoenix. Surgery went well and they expect him to recover, although it may take a while. Bullet nicked his liver."
Vin grimaced, wishing he hadn't drug the officer into his mess. He'd been thinking about how much they needed the backup, not what might happen as a result.
Raising his brows, he looked up at Chris, who poked him in the chest. "You heard me. I said quit that. Quit feeling guilty for asking Sam to help. He's a trained officer and he knew what he was doing. He felt like the need outweighed the danger and he chose to help us. And if he hadn't, I'm not sure we could have held out long enough for you to pull that crazy stunt and turn the tide back against the bad guys."
Vin closed his eyes and gave a tiny nod. He knew that Chris was right, but he couldn't seem to stop the guilty feeling. Maybe it would fade in time. He opened his eyes and frowned at the ATF agent. "What about you? I thought you were hit."
Chris shrugged. "Graze on the arm. I got some stiches and a tetanus booster and I'm good to go. To be honest, the arm with the tetanus booster hurts worse than the one with the wound."
"That I believe. What about Altaha and his guys?"
Several are dead, a couple are in the hospital prison ward, and the others are in jail. Altaha was treated and taken to jail. Eli Joe is dead, but I'm guessing you know that."
Vin thought about Eli Joe standing there with a gun trained on him, ready to kill him where he lay. He also thought about Tommy on his knees, begging for his life. Part of him felt bad for taking a life, but he just couldn't muster any sympathy for Eli Joe. He looked up at Chris. "Are they charging me for killing him?"
Chris shook his head. "No, it was obvious from everything there and what we heard that he followed you there to kill you and almost succeeded. Goseyun was ready to find something to get you on, but then the chief showed up and took over. He was a whole lot smarter and easier to work with."
"Yeah, the chief is a good man. If he's involved, we should be okay. I didn't want you guys to get into trouble for helping me take Altaha down."
"It's fine. We went over everything and looked at the guns, ammo, and explosives that Altaha sold to Ezra. After that, it was a done deal. We still have to go in and make an official statement and we're still working on the jurisdiction thing, but we'll be able to work it out."
"Good." Vin studied Chris for a moment. "There's something else. What is it?"
Chris looked at Vin and took a deep breath. "I'm not sure how you'll feel about this and you don't have to decide right now. I know this is your home, but . . . it just seems to me that working with Goseyun isn't working out. I was serious out there when I said I needed a sniper. Obviously, you're good at what you do and I think you'd be a great addition to the team."
Vin frowned. "I must be on more drugs than I thought because it sounded like you just offered me a job."
Chris crossed his arms. "I did. The rest of the team is all for it. I called my boss, Orin Travis, and talked to him for a while last night. He said if you want the job, it's yours."
Vin gave Chris a blank look. His mind wasn't firing on all cylinders and he was having trouble understanding how that would work. "Don't you live in Denver?"
"Yes, we are stationed out of Denver."
Vin shook his head. "This is Arizona. This is my home." Vin glanced up and saw the pity in Chris's eyes. The sight of his burned out house came rushing back and he turned his head to toward the wall. Oh, right, he didn't have a home because Eli Joe blew it up.
"I know you have roots here, which is why I almost didn't ask you. But we need you and I think we work well together, so I thought I'd ask. If you prefer to stay here, I understand. Think about it and you can give me your answer later."
Vin closed his eyes, processing the words. He was glad Chris didn't want an answer now. He liked the idea of working with these men, but he hated the thought of leaving his land and his friends. "I'm tired."
"I know," said Chris softly. "Sleep. I've got your six."
Vin was a little startled at how safe that made him feel.
Chris emptied the cup of its last dregs of cold coffee and then stared into it. His stomach rumbled, whether from the large amount of bad coffee he'd sent it the last couple of days or the lack of decent food he wasn't sure.
"Hey, Chris, what'cha doin' out here?" asked Buck as he sat down beside him.
Chris glanced around the empty waiting room before looking at his friend. "BIA District Supervisor came by to talk to Vin."
Buck studied Chris, his brow furrowing. "He throw you out?"
Chris scratched the back of his head. "Actually, he very politely asked to speak to Vin alone."
Buck nodded. "He threw you out."
"Yeah," he breathed out. "He threw me out."
As the two sat staring at the door to Vin's room, it opened, sending both men to their feet. A Native American built very similar to Buck in both height and weight walked out. Chris could see Vin through the open door and their eyes met for a second before the door closed, blocking him off.
"Thank you for letting me speak to Agent Tanner alone, Agent Larabee," said the man in a deep baritone. His expression was neutral, but Chris could see the dark eyes studying him.
"I wasn't sure I had much of a choice," Chris said. He must have flashed his patent glare, because the large man's eyes widened and he took a half step back.
Buck chuckled and thrust out his hand. "Agent Buck Wilmington. You'll have to ignore Chris, here. He gets kind of defensive about his men."
The man shook Buck's hand and seemed to relax. "Daniel Crow, District Supervisor for the BIA. I work out of Phoenix." He grinned as he stood back, crossing his arms over his chest. "Did you say his men?"
Chris sighed and scowled at Buck for a moment. "What he means, is when you work with our team, you become part of our team. Vin . . . let's just say he fit in like he'd always been there. I know it doesn't make much sense, but it's the way things are."
Daniel nodded. "I think I understand. From the things Agent Tanner said, I got the impression he felt the same way."
"Look, is he in any trouble? We'd be happy to give statements to verify what happened," Chris said.
"Actually, I would like to get statements from everyone for the official report. I've been in contact with the ATF and they've agreed to let the BIA take the lead since everything occurred on the reservation. As for Agent Tanner, unless something new turns up, he's in no trouble. Normally he'd be on administrative leave until the shooting is investigated, but since he'll be out on medical leave that probably won't be necessary. From the evidence I've observed, it's fairly obvious he acted in self-defense."
Chris studied the BIA supervisor, trying to decide how to bring up Goseyun to see if the man was going to try to cause trouble. Crow apparently was a bit of a mind-reader. "If you're worrying about Captain Goseyun, don't. He's made it apparent that he doesn't like Tanner. Takes every opportunity to hint around that he's lazy, unreliable, and not too smart." Crow snorted and shook his head. "I've been around long enough to figure out a personal vendetta when I see it. I'm friends with the Chief of Police, so I hear more than the captain realizes. I've seen enough to know that Tanner's been doing a heck of a job and sometimes doing it under duress."
Chris was surprised at how relieved he felt. Knowing Vin had the big boss in his corner swept away a lot of his concerns over the mess that the bust had become. "What about Eli Joe's family? I understand they are some pretty powerful people."
"They are," said Crow with a grimace. "And they'll try to cause trouble, especially since he was killed. But the evidence is pretty clear. And since your radio communication was recorded, that will be indisputable. If you turn it up, you can hear Eli Joe in the background telling Vin he was there to kill him."
Chris was suddenly glad JD had arranged for all radio communication to be recorded. He'd have to give the kid an extra pat on the back when he checked on him later.
"Can I ask you something?" said Buck.
Crow shrugged. "You can ask. I don't know if I'll be able to answer."
Buck gave a quick nod as he rubbed his chin. Chris recognized that Buck was trying to put his thoughts into words that wouldn't get him in trouble. "It sounds like maybe you and/or the police chief were aware of some . . . friction between Vin and the captain and also with Eli Joe. That maybe you were aware he was bein' . . . well, let's just say he was bein' jerked around every chance they got."
Crow narrowed his eyes a little. "And you're wondering why we didn't step in and stop it."
Buck flushed and bobbed his head to the side. "Now I feel like a kid tattling on another kid to the teacher."
Crow chuckled a moment before offering an answer. Chris had to admit to wondering the same thing, he just hadn't thought it prudent to ask. "Believe it or not, Captain Goseyun was once a really good officer. He had a rough start, but once his ego got filed down, he did a good job. That's how he made captain. I'm not sure of all the specifics, but his wife got sick a few years ago and the chief cut him some slack on his hours and work ethic while he was taking care of her. Eventually she got better, but he never really went back to work, if you get my drift. He's been coasting ever since."
"Yeah, I think we've seen the coasting in action the last week," said Chris.
Crow nodded. "It wasn't long after that Eli Joe came along." He rubbed his chin, a look of disgust on his face. "I told the chief to keep an eye on that one. He's just a little too slick and condescending for me. I know their drug problems went up significantly a few months after Eli Joe started. He insisted the captain keep him on it and Goseyun welcomed the opportunity to dump it off on someone else. Vin thought Eli had something going with the supplier. The way everything worked out, I'm inclined to agree with him. The problem with all of that, of course, was that there was no evidence to move forward on."
"And it was the new guy's word against established officers," added Chris.
The men were silent for a few moments as they thought about all that had happened. Crow sighed and looked at the two men. "I need to get down to the station. Vin told me where he has a copy of some things hidden in his office. I guess I need to touch base with the captain. You can either come down there to make your statements or I can probably round up someone reliable to come up here and record them."
"We'll come down to the station later. You'll be in Vin's office?"
"Yes, I should be there all afternoon." He paused a moment and stared at Chris. "I heard you made him a job offer."
Chris was a little surprised by the comment, but recovered quickly. It hadn't been a secret, but it hadn't occurred to him that Vin would tell his boss. "I did. He was pretty sure he wasn't going to have a job here after everything went down. That a problem?"
Crow continued to hold his eyes a second before answering. "Honestly? No. I'd hate to lose him, though. He's really good at what he does. But I know he isn't happy working out of the local department, at least not like it is now. You and I know he hasn't done anything wrong, but between the lies Eli Joe told and the comments being made by Goseyun . . . let's just say that anyone who doesn't know him really well is buying into the thought that he's dirty somehow."
Chris grit his teeth, muttering a curse under his breath. Crow nodded. "Yeah, I feel the same way. I hate what happened to his house, but that might be a blessing in disguise. It would make it easier for him to leave. From what I've heard talking to Jim Nighthawk and a couple of others, he fit right in with your outfit. Heck, you even called him one of your men. He needs that, especially now."
Buck shook his head. "I don't know. Junior seems pretty wrapped up in his heritage and the history of this place. He seems pretty close to Kojay's family and a few of the others."
Crow arched an eyebrow. "Junior?"
Buck shrugged. "Well, yeah. His glare is almost as good as Larabee's here and he acts a lot like Chris does. It's almost like havin' a younger, slightly shorter version of Chris here. So . . . junior."
Crow laughed out loud. "Does he know you call him that?"
"He does," said Chris with a grin. "But I don't think he was too impressed with Buck's reasoning."
"I can imagine," said Crow. "He is close to certain members of the community, but Denver isn't so far away he couldn't visit. And if he thought he had a hostile work environment before, wait until he tries to go back after killing one of their officers. Eli Joe was slime, but he had friends there who either doubt the validity of what happened or simply don't care. I could probably find him some space in the BIA building, but he'd still have to work with the locals on a regular basis."
The two ATF agents nodded. "I want him as part of my team, but I hate that it's under these circumstances," said Chris.
"Me too," said Crow. He held out his hand, shaking that of both men before walking down the hall.
"Alright, stud, let's get in there. I can't stand on this leg too much longer," said Buck as he began limping for the door.
Chris rushed past him to push the door open. "Crap, Buck, why didn't you say something. I wasn't thinking about you having all those stitches in your leg. Get in there and sit down."
Buck limped past him and Chris entered the room as the big man was lowering himself into the chair by the bed. Vin had turned his head to watch them.
"You okay, Bucklin?" asked Vin, frowning as he watched him slowly sit down.
"Oh, I'm fine, Junior, just a little sore is all," Buck said, winking at Chris before turning a big grin towards Vin.
Vin sighed. "Tell you what, I'll quit callin' you Bucklin if you quit callin' me Junior."
Buck leaned back in the chair, stroking his chin with his thumb and forefinger. "That sounds like a mighty temptin' offer, but the name fits so well, I ain't sure I can stop myself at this point in the road."
Vin's glare brought a chuckle from both men. "Told ya, Chris. By golly, he's already almost got that glare down pat."
"For all the good it does me," muttered Vin.
"The problem is that you're aimin' it at someone who's been fieldin' that look for years. You aim that at someone who ain't prepared and you'll get results, I promise ya," Buck said, patting Vin on the arm.
"We talked to Crow in the hall just now. Sounds like he's got your back," said Chris, his expression sobering at the change of subject.
Vin gave a tiny nod. "Yeah, Crow's a good man. Smart too. He can read between the lines of bull faster than just about anyone I've ever seen besides Kojay and Grandpa. Good thing for me or I'd a been out of a job a long time ago. Problem is, it's only him and about three others in the department."
"Doesn't sound like much of a department," said Chris.
Vin shrugged one shoulder. "Most of them are good men, good officers. You have to understand that Eli Joe was there a lot longer than me and he's slicker'n wet ice. He's got . . . He had this way about him where he charmed most folk into thinkin' he was a good ole boy. It's only when you work with him closely or get in his way that you see the other side. I was the new guy who looked like a white man and had federal authority. That made an automatic trust Eli over Vin attitude when we clashed and we clashed pretty often. Plus, I'm pretty sure he was spreadin' rumors about me being dirty or unreliable or both almost from the beginnin'."
While Chris was considering this, Buck asked, "What about Mark and Sam? How did they end up on your side?"
"I backed Mark up on a domestic situation that turned violent, ended up saving his life. I helped Sam solve a burglary that turned out to be an inside job at the trading post and made sure he got the credit for it. They worked with me and took the time to see that what Eli Joe was sellin' didn't make any sense. They tried to spread the word and I think some of the others realized Eli Joe was just trying to run me down for whatever reason." Vin paused as he looked up at the others.
"It wasn't a good career move to be my friend, so even if others suspected I wasn't as bad as Eli Joe was sayin', it wasn't worth goin' out on a limb to make friends with the guy the captain obviously hates. Mark, Sam, and Jim just don't have a good sense of self-preservation."
"Maybe not, but they sound like mighty good friends," said Buck.
Vin smiled and looked kind of wistful. "Yeah," he said softly. "They are at that."
"Now imagine having a whole team of friends who will have your back, no matter what," said Chris.
"Subtle, Larabee, real subtle."
Buck barked out a laugh and shook his head. "Now, Vin, Pard, one thing you've got to learn early on is that Chris is never subtle. That word ain't in his vocabulary. He glares, he orders, and he yells on occasion, but he'll always be blunt as a broken knife blade."
Vin snorted. "And probably just as painful."
"That a deal breaker?" asked Chris, trying to get a read on the young man before him. A man he wanted for his team. A man he thought might just close the circle of completion for his team.
Vin met his eyes and he saw no fear there, only acceptance. "No. To tell you the truth, I actually prefer it that way. You got a problem with me, just tell me and let's work on it. Don't appreciate people who tiptoe around behind your back complainin' to others."
"Me either," said Chris, somewhat amazed at the feeling of relief that filled him. "And I meant what I said. I know what I'm asking is a big deal and involves more than just a job change. Take your time, talk to your friends. Make the decision that is going to be right for you."
Vin's features relaxed, making Chris aware of how tense and drawn they had become since the conversation began. "I appreciate that," Vin said.
Chris suddenly noticed how truly exhausted the man looked. "Looks like you need to get some beauty sleep, cowboy. How about if Buck and I go give our official statements to Crow and see what else needs to be done and we'll see you later?"
Vin gave a slow nod, his eyes already looking droopy. "Sounds like a plan, cowboy."
Chris bit his lip to keep from grinning. "Keep calling me cowboy and I'll retract that job offer."
Buck snorted. "Pard, I don't think that dog's gonna hunt this far into the game."
Vin, his eyes closed, grinned.
Vin jerked at the sudden sound of people filling the room. He sighed as he rubbed his face. He hadn't meant to doze off . . . again. "Hospitals make me sleepy," he muttered.
Chris grinned, having arrived at his bedside first as the rest of his team trailed behind. "I think that has more to do with the reason you're in the hospital, pard."
Vin took a moment to examine the men. JD mirrored Vin in having his right arm in a sling. He met the kid's eyes and nodded toward the sling. "Sucks, don't it?"
JD grimaced. "Sure does, especially when it's your dominant hand. I have to have help doing almost everything. And now I can't even ride my bike back to Denver."
"I'll ride it back for him," said Buck with a huge, goofy grin.
Chris sighed. "You've got twenty stitches in your leg and you can barely walk. You're not riding a motorcycle. We're hauling it back. I don't need any more damaged people to explain to Orin."
Buck just shrugged a shoulder as JD pushed him toward a chair to sit down. Nathan and Josiah grinned as they watched the ensuing shoving and bumping match that seemed to be commonplace with those two. At least neither of them looked injured. Moving his eyes to Ezra, he noticed some bruises on the side of his face. "Ezra, you okay?"
Smiling, Ezra straightened with the ensuing attention. "Yes, Mr. Tanner, I am fine." He gently brushed his fingers across the bruising. "I'm afraid my skills at subduing and apprehending miscreants need a bit of improvement."
"He tackled one of Altaha's goons trying to run away and got slammed before he knocked him out," said Chris with a grin. "He likes to dress things up a bit."
Vin chuckled. "Yeah, I noticed." He sobered as he looked back up at Chris. "Daniel Crow, my supervisor, came by this morning. The bullet that killed Tommy came from the gun Eli shot me with."
Chris let out a breath and gave a short nod. "So no question about who killed the kid?"
"No. When they searched his place, it turned out Eli had recorded several conversations between himself and Altaha, apparently as insurance in case Altaha ever tried to double-cross him. There's no way he's wormin' his way out of this."
"That's mighty good news," said Buck with a big grin. "Did Crow go back to your office?"
"Yeah, but he's headed back to Phoenix later today. I gave him my verbal resignation. I won't be able to do the job proper-like with a big part of the local police department not trustin' me."
Chris let out a deep breath and reached out to squeeze Vin's good shoulder. "I know he'll be sorry to lose you. He told us what a good agent you are."
Vin nodded and shifted his gaze to his blanketed feet. It was easier not to see the expressions of pity. "He offered me a transfer if I wanted to stay with the BIA, but work somewhere else. I turned him down."
"You should come work with us, Vin. We need a sharpshooter to watch our backs. That was some amazing shooting out there," said JD, almost bouncing on the balls of his feet.
The others joined in to comment on how well they had worked together and how happy they would be to have him join the team. Vin was almost embarrassed at the flush of acceptance that flowed through him.
Chris finally raised his hands to quiet them down. "I've made Vin the job offer and he knows he'd be welcome to join the team. But this would be a big move, a huge change in his life." He turned to look at Vin. "At the risk of repeating myself, I want you to take your time thinking about it and make the decision that is right for you," said Chris. "When you're ready, Vin, call me and let me know . . . either way."
Vin nodded, seeing only sincerity in the green eyes. "I will . . . álá' áná'idléhí."
Chris's eyebrows raised and then he frowned. "What was that? Did you just call me a cowboy?"
Vin grinned and waggled his eyebrows at the confused man as the others laughed, spreading out around the room to make themselves comfortable. They were heading home in the morning, but for now, they would keep their new friend company.
Vin took a deep breath and got out of the truck, keeping his eyes averted until he reached the edge of the devasted house. He sucked in a breath, the destruction catching him by surprise, even though he'd seen it before. He couldn't seem to reconcile the pile of debris before him with the home he'd grown up in.
Chanu stepped up behind him, placing a hand on his shoulder. Softly, he chanted words of comfort in Apache into Vin's ear. Closing his eyes, Vin let the words roll over him, leaching the tension from his shoulders. After a moment, he opened his eyes again, a sense of peace easing his grief. He remembered his grandfather's words, telling a much younger Vin that their history was in their hearts and their blood, not in the things that they had collected.
"We've been here three times to collect everything you might find value in," said Chanu. "It is all stored with father."
Vin nodded. "I thank you for that." He could feel the tension in Chanu and knew his friend was questioning the decision to come here. He'd picked up Vin from the hospital and Vin had insisted he come here first. His eyes strayed to the untouched barn. He could see the horses out in the pasture. "Peso give you any grief?"
Chanu snorted and stepped up beside him. "He tried. I think he was worried about you. We all were." They stood in silence for several seconds. "Are you going to take the job with ATF and move to Denver?"
Vin sighed. That was the question. He wanted the job. He wanted to work with the ATF team and hang out with the guys after work. He wanted to see Chris's ranch and the old mission where Josiah volunteered. He wanted to buy a round of drinks for his team at the Saloon and meet Inez. What he didn't want to do was leave this land and his friends. "I don't know."
Chanu moved to stand in front of him and Vin raised his brows in question. "You are more than my friend, you are my shik'isn, my brother. I will miss you if you go with these men, but I will understand. My family is here, along with my heritage. Your heritage comes from both the indaa and the People. You have spent many of your years here with the People."
Vin shook his head. "You forget, I spent four years in the Army and that is definitely the white man's world."
Chanu grinned. "I think we both know that the Army doesn't count as the typical white man's world." He sobered and glanced around the clearing before returning his eyes to Vin. "You must search your heart for what you want. If you stay, we will help you rebuild. If you go, we will watch over your land until you return."
Vin nodded, swallowing back the emotions flooding through him. He faced Chanu, placing one hand on his friend's shoulder while meeting his eyes. "You are my shik'isn, by choice and actions if not by blood. I am honored. I will try to choose wisely."
Chanu dipped his head once before grinning and pushing Vin away. "Now go and see to that mule you call a horse."
Backing up a step, Vin pointed to Chanu. "Hey, that's my horse you're disparagin'. Peso's a good horse." As he turned around, he heard Chanu muttering under his breath. The grin that followed felt good. By the time he got to the fence, Peso was standing there waiting on him and whinnied as he reached out to stroke the animal.
"Hey, boy, I missed ya. I hear you been stirrin' up trouble. You gotta take it easy on Chanu and Kojay, they're just tryin' to help." Leaning his head against the strong neck, he stroked the horse that served as a friend and a sounding board. "I got a big decision to make. Do we stay here and rebuild, try to find a new place for ourselves here? Or do we take a chance and move to Denver? Either way, you'll be with me. I won't move if I can't take you."
Vin straightened and looked the animal in the eye. "Sure do wish you could talk and throw your two cents in." As he stared at the reflective eye, his grandfather came to mind and he could almost see a reflection of the man in the lens. He remembered the conversation with his grandpa when he was deciding whether or not to apply for the BIA job, his mind taking him back to the night as he sat at the kitchen counter, watching the older man cook.
"Close your eyes and look deep inside yourself. What does your heart tell you?" his grandfather's voice echoed.
Vin closed his eyes and projected what the next few years might look like here on the reservation and then working with the men in Denver. Opening his eyes a few moments later, he leaned over to touch his forehead to that of Peso. Ashagotech, shichoo.
Vin turned around to lean back against the fence. Chanu must have sense his decision because he made a quick nod before turning and heading back to the truck. Vin slid his phone from his pocket and dialed. A few moments later, a familiar voice answered.
"Hey, this is Vin Tanner. How serious were you about that job offer?"
"I've already got the way cleared if you want it. My director is fully on board with it."
Vin hesitated, looking at the land he thought he'd spend the rest of his life on. Chris apparently picked up on the reason for the hesitation.
"How about you come up for a visit. I'll show you around, tell you more about the job. You can see the ranch. If you decide to come on board, you are more than welcome to stay with me until you find your own place. Truth is, I could use the help. Depending on how many horses you're wanting to bring, I can accommodate them too. And if you look things over, decide this is not what you want to do, no hard feelings."
Vin relaxed, the idea of checking the place and the job out first taking the pressure of making a decision right now off him. He was almost giddy with relief. "I'd like that. Would next week be good?"
"That would be perfect. We haven't started a new case yet since half the team is still recovering and I've got some time off coming, so I could show you around proper. Just let me know when. If you fly in, I can pick you up."
"Okay, I will. I need to figure some things out tonight and I'll give you a call tomorrow."
"Sounds like a plan. The boys will be excited you're coming. Better get yourself ready for the sales pitch they'll be throwing at you."
Chucking, Vin said, "I will. And Chris, thanks. For everything."
"You're welcome. I'm glad we were there. See you next week."
"See you next week, cowboy." Vin grinned and disconnected the call as Chris growled into the phone. Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes, feeling the heat on his face. His head was clear, his path was becoming more visible, and he was beginning to let go of the physical possessions he'd lost. Hearing footsteps, he opened his eyes to see Chanu standing in front of him with a big grin plastered across his face, a large plastic bin in his arms.
"Let's raid your safe and then go tell father the good news."
Vin nodded, giving Peso one last stroke. His heart felt lighter. Whatever his path turned out to be, he knew he would work to make it a successful one. Whether with new friends in Denver or old friends here on the reservation, he had friends . . . and a family of sorts. And he would always feel the love of his parents and his grandparents and could imagine them watching over him. These blessings . . . these people . . . would give him the courage to go forward and meet his destiny, whatever and wherever that might be.
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Note: I had a terrible time trying to find words in Western Apache and sometimes the information from different sources conflicted. I did include a few words that seemed to be from reliable sources, but if I goofed them up, please forgive me and realize that it was not intentional. But according to my sources:
"álá' áná'idléhí" means cowboy.
"Shichoo" means grandfather, specifically the father's father.
"shik'isn" means brother
"indaa" is a white person
"aheeiyeh" is a formal thank you
"Nah-kah-yen" is a name that means keen sighted