My Soul to Keep

The Cohorts

Main Characters: Buck, Chris, Vin

Universe: Generic modern law enforcement universe

Note: This is neither ATF nor LB. Although there are some unavoidable similarities, we had a reason for using neither AU.

Chris stroked the gleaming finish on the rifle, then hefted it experimentally. He sighted through the scope and tapped it thoughtfully as the clerk approached. “I think this is the rifle but let’s upgrade the scope. My friend will want to use it to check out the lady hikers.”

The sales clerk grinned while he double-checked the price tag. “He doesn’t shoot them does he?”

“Not so far, but he does bag more than the limit most vacations.”

Chris chuckled softly. Best they could figure, Buck’s previous rifle had been smashed to bits in some rocks; most of it was still somewhere at the bottom of the river. Buck had been cleaning it when he’d heard the screams of two young women who’d been paying more attention to their tans than the approaching rapids. Good old Buck to the rescue. He’d managed to pull their raft safely to shore, but somehow his rifle had been lost in the process. Not that Buck had noticed – at least not until the next morning after he had kissed the lovely Claudia good-bye and they were packing up the cabin to head back to civilization. Of course, Chris had no complaints. The lovely Claudia’s friend – the equally lovely Brigette – had decided Chris’s share in the heroic rescue, secondary as it might have been, was worthy of her best efforts at cooking them a fine supper despite the relatively primitive cooking facilities at their cabin. And what happened after that – well, he presumed it was based on more than gratitude. And no one had complained that the cabin had only one bedroom.

“You’ll want to try it out.”

Chris was jolted back to the present. “I’m sorry?”

The clerk patted the rifle. “I assume you’ll want to try it out. Over in the gallery.” He rustled through drawers and set a box of ammunition on the counter. “I know you’ll want to make sure everything’s in order.”

He led the way to the gallery, briskly setting Chris up with ear coverings and keeping a not-so-subtle eye on things until he assured himself that his customer knew what he was doing. He must have been satisfied, because he drifted back to the register, leaving Chris to his own devices.

Chris settled into a rhythm, losing himself in the satisfying kick and recoil as he fired at the target. He stopped to reload several times before he felt something. It started as a niggling itch between his shoulder blades, and quickly turned into a full-blown suspicion that he was being watched. Years of law enforcement training kicked in and he pretended to drop a casing to the ground. With a casual gesture he half-turned and bent to pick it up.

There was a large window at the rear of the gallery, allowing the clerk to keep an eye on the range while waiting on other customers. A small boy stood with his nose pressed to the glass. Sandy-brown hair waved around his thin face, accentuating a pair of wide blue eyes. His mouth hung open just a bit as he gazed in fascination at the rifle in Chris’s hands.

Chris pocketed the casing and grinned. He straightened up, intending to return to his shooting, when the boy’s eyes met his.

Chris froze, his hazel eyes locked on the boy’s vivid blue. He stood spellbound, unable to move if he’d wanted to. It was as if his soul, seared shut by the fire that had consumed his wife and child, was open and alive again.

The boy lifted a small hand, pressing it against the window in an unconscious gesture of yearning. Chris took a step toward him, still locked in the child’s stare.

A hand reached out, gripping the boy by the shoulder. The child was jerked backward, his eyes torn from Chris’s by a man who seemed to be shouting, though it was unintelligible through the thick glass. Chris was left with an impression of thin limbs marred with dark bruising before the boy was whisked out of his sight.


“I tell you Buck, that poor kid is the man’s punching bag. The way he was watching me - it was like he was asking me to protect him. Those eyes looked into mine - they were begging. I’m sure he saw the badge on my belt when I took my jacket off to try that fishing rod - he knew I was law enforcement. He didn’t get a chance to say anything. The father came and jerked him off his feet, hauled him out of the store.”

Buck shook his head, hoping Chris had misread things. “Come on. All parents get impatient with their kids sometimes. If the boy wandered off and his father couldn’t find him, he probably panicked. Maybe he over-reacted a little when he finally found him. That doesn’t mean the kid’s being abused.”

Buck looked over at Chris; his words had done nothing to calm Chris’s agitation. He and Chris had worked together a long time, as partners on patrol then as detectives. They tended to trust each other’s instincts. But it was usually Chris trying to stop Buck from becoming personally involved in a case involving an abused woman. As child abuse cases were handled by specialists within the detective bureau, they’d had little experience in that arena. Buck sighed. “Okay pard, I can see you ain’t gonna let this lie. Watcha plannin’? You don’t even know this kid’s name.”

“His father bought a handgun and had to fill out the paperwork. He’ll be back to pick it up after the waiting period.”

“And you used your badge to get his name and address.”

Chris nodded.

“You ain’t plannin’ to just bust in there or start questioning neighbors are you?”

“I’ll start with the local elementary school. The kid was a skinny little thing, maybe only in kindergarten, but he could be older – first or second grade. His eyes looked older.”

“Chris you can’t go stalking around that school lookin’ for one little kid among hundreds. You’ll scare the hell out of a few dozen pre-delinquents.”

“Not if I’m with Officer Friendly.”

Buck groaned. “Come on pard. I outgrew Officer Friendly when I became a detective last year.”

“And just think how many more young, nubile teachers have been added to the rosters since then. Did you ever come away from an Officer Friendly gig without a phone number?”

“Hell, I never came back with less than three.” Buck grinned at the remembrance. “And Cowboy misses the demos. He liked up to play up to the kids almost as much as he loved biting the bad guys.” Buck’s 10 year old patrol dog had been retired when Buck made detective. In fact, Buck had delayed his application for advancement to detective until last year despite passing the test the year before just because there was no place in the detective bureau for patrol dogs and he couldn’t bear to retire his German shepherd before the mandatory retirement age. “Okay, sign us up. There ain’t a better place for meetin’ lovely young ladies thirsting for adult company.”

“Good thing I’m coming along then.” Chris leaned back in his seat with a little smirk.

Buck’s laugh filled the sedan. “By the way, you buy that fishin’ rod?”

“What fishing rod?”

“The one you took off your jacket to try out.”

“Naw, just didn’t feel right in my hands. And it wasn’t quite flexible enough.”

Buck nodded and leered suggestively. “I know what you mean Old Dog. Flexibility – that’s important.”

Chris just shook his head sadly. “If you’d take you mind off your next conquest once in a while, I wouldn’t have to catch our supper every day while we’re on vacation.”

Buck gave him an unrepentant grin. “We each do what we’re best at. I can’t help it if you’re better catchin’ fish and I’m better catchin’ mermaids. And I didn’t see you throwing back that mermaid I caught for you last year.”


There must have been a hundred screaming little kids waiting to see the policeman and his doggy. No, Chris amended. To be fair, several of the teachers had their classes in orderly lines, the children only quietly exuberant. It was in one of those orderly lines that he spotted the Tanner boy wearing jeans and a purple Kings T-shirt with a matching hat. Chris approached the teacher first and made some small talk during which he learned the boy’s name was Vin. As the class filed over to take seats on the bleachers in front of Buck and Cowboy, he fell into step with Vin. He made sure the badge on his belt was in full view.

“Hi Vin, remember me?”

The boy looked up curiously, then a big grin took over his face. “You were shooting the rifle the other day.” He looked a little wistful. “You don’t have it with you?”

“Sorry son. That wasn’t a police firearm. In fact, I have a favor to ask about that rifle. See that big, goofy guy there with the smart dog -- over by the patrol car parked on the playground.” He pointed over to Buck. “That rifle is a birthday present for him and it’s supposed to be . . .”

“A surprise,” finished Vin solemnly.

Chris patted him on the head. “Exactly. So I can rely on you not to mention it to him?”

Vin nodded vigorously. Chris squeezed him gently on the shoulder. “Good boy. Now how would you like to help Buck and Cowboy with a little demonstration? That is, if you don’t have a problem with that dog barking right in your ear.”

Vin big blue eyes opened wide, “You mean it?” Chris melted under that look. The eyes really were the window to the soul and this boy’s soul was somehow in sync with his.

Chris whispered a few words to Vin’s teacher and escorted Vin down to the front row of the bleachers as Buck launched into his opening, “my dog wanted to be a fireman” joke. Chris nodded his head toward Vin and Buck gave him a quick thumbs up in return. Buck had sent Cowboy to the far end of the field. He said to the rapt audience. “I heard that last week you had a visit from a couple of firemen. Can you tell me what they told you to do if some fire gets on you?

A hundred kids screamed out, “Stop, drop and roll.”

Buck gave them an approving grin, “That’s right. You see that dog over there?” He pointed to where Cowboy sat at attention. A hundred pairs of eyes turned toward the dog whose eyes were fixed on Buck. “He retired last year but he was my partner for almost nine years. And guess what he wants to do now?”

Apparently Buck had changed his spiel a little to take into account Cowboy’s retirement. Chris nudged Vin, “Watch this.”

As about half the kids shouted, “What?”, Buck gave Cowboy a signal to come. The big shepherd came barreling toward Buck. When he was about half way, Buck shouted, “Cowboy, you’re on fire.” The dog slammed to a stop, dropped to the ground and vigorously rolled around on the grass to the accompaniment of the children’s laughter and admiring comments.

Buck then went into his safety speech, using Cowboy to emphasize his points about not wandering off alone, not getting into strange cars, having a family password, etc. He had the kids to tell him what they thought a stranger was and then talked about how strangers weren’t just scary looking people with masks. He asked them what they should do if someone they didn’t know tried to get them to go away with them. That was Chris’s cue to make an appearance. He walked up to Cowboy and said, “Hey little boy, could you help me find my lost puppy?” Cowboy scooted away from Chris and shook his head, an action which pretty much shook his whole front end. Chris then reached out to grab the dog’s collar, saying, “Your mommy said it was ok for you to help me.”

Cowboy reacted just as he’d been taught. He barked furiously at Chris, slipped his collar and ran behind Buck where he poked his head out between Buck’s knees and looked at the approving crowd. Buck then had some of the kids show how they would yell and run to an adult they knew or a police officer if someone they didn’t know tried to grab them. He used both male and female teachers to play the bad guys to remind the kids that strangers could be women too.

Then finally it was Vin’s turn as Chris had promised. Buck first tied a big cowboy bandanna around Cowboy’s eyes. Cowboy lay down facing away from the crowd. Buck looked over to where Vin sat next to Chris on the front row of the bleachers. “Sgt. Larabee, I understand you’ve found a brave young lad who will try to hide from the long arm of the law.” Vin stood up excitedly, but Chris held him back. Buck walked over and took Vin’s hat, promising to return it.

Chris placed Vin on the far right in the back row of children so Cowboy would get to him last. Buck warned the kids that Cowboy might bark really loud and he knew some people didn’t like that. He invited anyone who didn’t like barking to come watch with him. Chris noticed that half a dozen little girls eagerly took him up on his offer. He shook his head. He doubted most of those girls really had a problem with barking dogs. Buck just attracted females of all ages.

Buck took the bandana off Cowboy’s eyes and let him smell Vin’s hat. “Cowboy, this hat was found at the scene of a bank robbery. Could you please find the owner so we can question him? We think he’s hiding in that crowd over there.” All that was just Buck blather. He then gave him the real command -- “go find.” Cowboy walked between the rows of children, sniffing each one until he finally got to Vin. He took a big exaggerated sniff then started barking vigorously. Buck shouted up to him, “Cowboy, somebody else confessed, he’s innocent.” Cowboy proceeded to lick Vin all over until Chris came up and rescued him.

* * * * * * *

Buck kept one eye on Chris over the shoulders of the lovely young teachers with whom he was flirting. Chris seemed to be having an intense conversation with young Vin. Buck hoped Chris would conclude he was wrong about the boy being abused -- both for the boy’s sake and Chris’s.

They were almost back to the substation where they would exchange the patrol car for their unmarked vehicle when Buck finally broached the topic. “He acted like a normal, happy kid Chris. Did he say anything that made you think otherwise?”

Chris rubbed his temples as though a headache was coming on. “Kids are like abused wives Buck. They’re ashamed that someone they love would hurt them and they hide it. He flinched when I touched his shoulder.” Chris looked at Buck with a pained expression. “I asked the teacher casually about whether she saw many kids that young with broken bones. She mentioned three and Vin was one of them. He had a broken wrist last year.”

“Chris, children do break bones. Did she know how he broke it?”

“She said something about him falling off a fence he’d been walking on a dare, but I could hear doubt in her voice.”

“Teachers are required to report it if they suspect abuse.”

“But just having a bad feeling isn’t going to get a teacher to risk alienating ‘respectable’ parents.” Chris rubbed his temples again. “I’m going to keep an eye on that kid. I gave him my card and cell phone number. Let him know he could tell me about anything and I’d try to help him.” Chris sighed and leaned back in his seat. “I just don’t know what else I can do.”

‘Nothing now Chris. If you’re there for him maybe he’ll confide in you eventually.” Buck felt badly for his old friend. He was sure that despite the lack of physical resemblance, Chris was seeing Adam in Vin’s face -- the Adam who screamed his way into Chris’s nightmares. The Adam who begged for help from a father who didn’t get there in time. The Adam whose name Chris moaned at the peak of his frequent Saturday night drinking binges.

* * * * * * *

What’s wrong, Chris?” Buck dropped into a swivel chair next to Chris’s desk and propped his feet on the trash can. Chris sat slumped over his desk, his head propped on one hand while the other raked distractedly through his hair. “You look like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders today.”

“He called Buck.” Chris looked up, his eyes displaying a curious mixture of excitement and worry. “Vin called. He’d overheard his father talking on the phone and he was scared. I told you that guy was no good.” Chris banged his fist on the desk.

Buck held both hands up. “Whoa, partner. Back that train up and tell me what’s going on.”

“Vin’s father was in his study on the phone. The kid was just around the corner and he overheard the guy talking about a trial. Apparently the father is scared to death, which naturally terrified Vin. Fathers are supposed to be strong and brave.” Chris closed his eyes, desperately trying to shut out the image of a father who couldn’t protect his own child from danger. “Vin connected his father’s purchase of a gun with this trial and realized his family needs help. He asked me to protect them Buck.”

Buck strove to inject a measure of calm professionalism into his response. “Now Chris, the kid’s what? Six? Seven? He’s overreacting to something he doesn’t understand. His father could have been talking about anything at all.”

“No!” Chris stood up abruptly, shoving his chair halfway across the room. He paced to a window and stared blindly out at the passing cars. “You just don’t get it, Buck. I did some checking around. Vin’s father is scheduled to testify against Lucas James in a few weeks. He’s one of the state’s key witnesses, in fact. Vin’s got a right to be afraid. His father too. They’re in over their heads. Stewart James is not about to let his son go to prison for life.”

Watching the torrent of emotions ripple over Chris’s face, Buck shook his head in frustration. “You know we can’t get involved, Chris. This is the District Attorney’s business, not ours. Report what you heard to him and let it go. You’re getting too emotionally involved in something you shouldn’t.”

“Dammit, Buck. You just don’t understand.” Chris swung around to face his tormentor. “Vin needs me and I’m going to help him. He’s got no one else. Don’t you get it? His father is taking out his stress on Vin. Maybe on his wife too.”

He stalked from the room, leaving Buck shaking his head. When Larabee got in one of his moods, there was nothing anyone could do to stop him.


“Rough one tonight.” Buck rubbed a hand over his tired eyes, and slumped into the passenger seat of Chris’s truck. “I hope I never see another bag of Cheetos as long as I live. Nice of the clerk to splatter that one perp’s DNA over half the junk food in the store before the perps returned fire. Let’s go get a drink before we head home. I could really use one.”

“What are you complaining about?” Chris grinned as he slid behind the wheel. “I’m the one who ran all over town rousting people out of their beds to interview them about this mess. You’ve been sitting around on your ass all night taking it easy.”

“I’d be happy to trade you any time partner.” Buck sat up a little straighter and tried his best hangdog look. “I always get stuck with the babysitting chores. In fact, next time I’ll volunteer to interview the pretty girlfriends instead of spending three hours watching Ezra “supervise” his crime scene boys in picking up microscopic fibers and dusting for fingerprints.”

Chris landed a gentle punch on Buck’s shoulder. “You never minded that before. Half his team is female after all.”

“Hell, he didn’t even have any of his babe squad. They were all over at a rape scene across town where the victims would only interact with female officers.”

Chris started the truck, and Buck closed his eyes as the vehicle lurched forward. A vague sense of something amiss had him bolt upright, eyes wide open as he took in their surroundings.

“This isn’t the way to Inez’s place; what are you doing, Chris?”

“We’re not too far from the kid’s place. I figured we could just drive by, check things out.”

Buck swore softly. “What the hell do you think you’re gonna see? It’s a house, for God’s sake. You think he’s gonna be out on the lawn beating the crap out of his kid? C’mon, Chris. Let’s just go get a beer.”

Chris was silent for a moment, but Buck noticed their course didn’t alter. His partner finally sighed. “I have a feeling that kid’s in trouble. I just want to check out the situation. Who knows, we might catch one of James’ men watching for a chance to shut him up.”

“Chris, you can’t go busting in there because you got a feeling.” Buck struggled to speak calmly, hiding his urgency behind a calm façade. “That’s not going to do anyone any good. They have a patrol car rolling by the house every hour or so. Let’s say we just hit Inez’s place. My treat.”

Chris snorted. “That’ll be the day. When’s the last time you treated?”

“There’s always a first time for everything, friend.” Buck pasted his most engaging grin onto his face. “What d’ya say?”

“I just want to drive by. Won’t take a minute.”

Chris’s jaw was set and Buck knew when to quit. He shrugged and averted his eyes, taking in the rows of ranch style tract houses as they flashed by. The subdivision could have been anywhere in America, three or four basic model houses alternating on postage stamp lots. They pulled up under a spreading tree and Buck saw that they were parked in front of a home that was the third of its kind on this street alone.

Buck noted the dark shutters and white siding, and was about to voice some smart-assed comment about picket fences, when he spotted a dark smudge in the air. It drifted through the serene landscape, thickening as it eddied around the house.

Chris was out of the car and running before Buck’s mind even registered what he was seeing. “Fire,” he shouted. “Call for help and then try the front.” He raced around the back, his voice dying off as he rounded the corner out of Buck’s sight.

Buck scrabbled for the radio and shouted for the dispatcher to alert the fire department. After confirming their location, he wrenched open the door and headed for the house at a dead run.

In the brief moments it had taken Buck to call for help, the smoke had thickened and spurts of orange flame danced in the darkened windows. Buck battered down the front door, and entered a tiny foyer, but got no further into the house. The roar of the flames was deafening, and the heat and smoke drove him back out the door, eyes streaming and lungs rebelling.

He raced around the back of the house, terrified for Chris. The last thing his friend needed was to find another kid dead in a fire. As Buck barreled around the corner, he almost ran head-on into Chris who was carrying a limp bundle in his arms.

The wail of sirens grew ever louder, followed by screeching tires as the paramedics arrived out front. Chris peered at Buck, his face blackened with smears of soot.

“I found him just inside the back door.”

Buck had to strain to hear. Chris’s voice was raspy with smoke.

“He’s a smart kid. He must have kept low. Stayed under the smoke.” Chris stopped to cough, but he snuggled the child closer to his chest when Buck tried to take him. “He nearly made it out on his own, Buck. He’s some kid.”

They made a strange procession as they filed around to the front of the house. A swarm of paramedics descended on them, but through it all Chris refused to let the child out of his arms. In the end, they let him ride in the ambulance.

Buck stayed behind to talk to the arson investigators on Chris’s orders. It was turning into a much longer night than Buck had anticipated. And it didn’t look like it was going to get any shorter.

* * * * * * *

Buck peered through the doorway, taking care not to disturb the room’s occupants. Chris still sat by the boy’s bedside, his eyes fixed on the unmoving bundle. Buck shook his head and sighed, backing away as silently as he arrived.

“He’s still in there?” Josiah Sanchez appeared at his elbow, brow furrowed in worry.

“Yeah, he sure is. Says he’s waiting for the kid to wake up so he can do a ‘gentle’ interview.”

“But you’re worried, same as me.” Josiah folded his arms and leaned against the wall, weariness adding new lines to his face.

“He’s getting too attached, ‘Siah. He’s never gonna see this kid again. It’s only gonna hurt him.” Buck’s boots beat a tattoo as he paced back and forth in the hallway. “I think there’s something more going on too.”

Josiah nodded. “He saved this boy from the fire, something he couldn’t do for Adam. Is that it?”

Buck couldn’t help a wan smile directed at the other man. “You ain’t as dense as you look. That’s it exactly. What if he’s substituting this boy for Adam, a child he couldn’t save. I’m afraid he’s never going to want to let that kid out of his sight.”

“That could be what’s happening.” Josiah’s eyes were narrowed in speculation. “What about other relatives? The boy’s alone now, isn’t he? Parents dead on the scene, right?”

“I don’t know about other relatives. Guess we’ll have to ask the boy when he wakes up.” Buck stopped pacing and planted himself squarely in front of Josiah. “Would it be such a bad thing if Chris took the boy home with him for a while. Just until someone can be located to care for the kid. It might do them both a world of good. You should have seen that house; we’re looking at a double homicide. The kid is the only witness.”

The two men leaned companionably against the wall for a while, discussing the situation in more depth. They were so deeply engrossed in their conversation they didn’t notice the nurse entering the child’s room until she rushed passed them on her way out.

“He’s awake. Alert Dr. Jackson. He’s in the On Call room and asked to be notified as soon as the child awakened.” Her voice was calm in spite of her rushed movements, her professionalism keeping all but a faint hint of excitement from her tone.

Buck exchanged a quick look with Josiah, and the two hastily entered the room together. Chris was leaning over the boy’s bed, clasping the small hand between both of his. The child was pale, his eyes wide and wary as he avoided making eye contact with any of them.

“Vin. It’s going to be all right, son. I’m here with you, and I’m not going anywhere.” Chris’s voice was low, but his tone brooked no argument. It was apparent to everyone that he meant what he said.

Josiah moved to the other side of the bed and leaned over to bring himself to the child’s level. “I’m a friend, Vin. My name’s Josiah and I’m here to help any way I can. Do you have family in the area, someone we can call?”

Vin risked a quick glance at Chris and then just as quickly looked away again. Silently, he shook his head.

Josiah sighed. “No aunts, uncles, or grandparents? No family at all, son? Don’t be afraid. I promise I’ll call anyone you like.”

Again Vin glanced over at Chris before he shook his head.

He remained silent as Josiah asked a few more questions, and didn’t make a sound when Nathan Jackson briskly entered the room and began an examination. Buck took advantage of Jackson’s visit to pull Josiah to one side of the room.

“I think we should push for the kid to be released to Chris’s custody temporarily. It’s clear Vin’s already starting to lean on him. It’d do them both good to stay together, don’t you think. Just until we find someone for him. You give us the backing on this and the department’ll support the decision.”

Josiah’s hesitation was plain. “It could cause problems in the long run, Buck. What if Chris bonds with him to the point where he can’t let him go? Do you want to take that risk? I think it might be better to sever the tie now, while it’s still early.”

They turned to look at the scene playing out across the room. Nathan had finished his examination and was making notes on the child’s chart. Chris had moved back into position, quickly scooping up the boy’s limp hand and holding on, gently but with the air of a man who wouldn’t let go.

Buck nodded in their direction. “Vin needs him, but I think Chris needs Vin even more. Help them out, Josiah.”

Just then, a tear worked its way down Vin’s pale cheek, and Chris bent to wipe it away with a tissue. Josiah smiled, and shook his head with a sigh of resignation. “All right. I’m not making any promises, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Buck clapped him on the shoulder. “You won’t regret this. I promise.”

The psychologist was already on his way out of the room. “I sure hope I don’t,” he called back over his shoulder. “I’ll let you know when a decision’s been made.”

Buck gave him a mocking salute, and leaned back against the wall in satisfaction. It would do the kid a world of good to have a protector like Chris Larabee. And Chris was already besotted with the boy. Clearly they were meant to be together.

Buck settled himself more comfortably. It wasn’t going to be easy. But Chris and Vin had an ally. Buck would make sure that both man and boy got a fighting chance at rebuilding their lives. He shut his eyes, as weariness swept through him, but suddenly pulled himself upright. It wouldn’t do to fall asleep on his feet, and there were still loose ends to tie up. Slipping from the room, Buck hastened to catch up with Nathan.

“Hey, Nate,” Buck said, tapping the man on the shoulder as he read through a chart at the nurse’s desk. “Can you spare a minute? I need to ask you something.”

Nathan Jackson glanced impatiently at his watch, but relented as he gazed professionally at Buck’s tired face. “I can give you two minutes, Buck, but that’s about it. We have the victims of a bus crash coming in.”

“It’s about Vin Tanner. I wanted to know how he’s doing.” Buck folded his arms across his chest, and waited as Nathan flipped some pages on a chart.

“The boy’s suffering from smoke inhalation, but he’s in surprisingly good shape. I don’t know why he stayed unconscious for so long actually, under these conditions. He should have woken up sooner. We’ll be running some tests to determine if there’s something we’re missing.”

Buck snorted in disgust. “The kid just watched someone murder his parents. I’d stay out too, if I’d seen what he did.” He glanced around and saw that no one else was in earshot. “I really need to know background stuff. What about Vin’s other injuries and his past history? Any signs of abuse, any reports filed that we should know about?”

Nathan searched the chart thoroughly before replying. “There’s nothing here that suggests abuse to me. We’ve treated him for a broken bone, and a couple of other things in the past, but the attending physician didn’t find anything suspicious. You know as well as I do we’re required by law to report suspected abuse.” He looked up and faced Buck squarely. “What’s Chris’s connection to the kid? He’s not a relative, is he? I’ve never heard him mention family, except for Sarah and Adam.”

“No, he’s not family. Vin remembers Chris from a school visit we did. And after what he went through tonight he’s apparently latched on to Chris as something familiar in a world gone haywire.” Buck shook his head sadly. “Thanks for your time, Nate. I appreciate it.”

Nathan smiled gently. “He seems like a good kid. I hope he gets through this with as little trauma as possible.”

“Chris and I’ll see to that, doc. You’ve got my word.” Buck clapped the doctor’s shoulder and decided to take advantage of an empty chair in the lobby.

Chris would stay with Vin until they pried him away; that was becoming obvious. But Buck would be damned if he left his friend in the hospital on his own. Sleep beckoned, and Buck let it take him.


Buck usually enjoyed the ride to Chris’s place. His partner lived outside the city in a neighborhood of ten-acre ranchettes near the Folsom Lake horse trails. Just enough room for a barn and horses, but not too far to commute to Sacramento to work. Chris’s barn had remained empty since Adam’s death. Chris couldn’t bear the sight of his son’s pony when he was suffering through the worst of his grief, and had given it to a local riding stable that had a program for disabled children

Today Buck ignored the gentle swell of the hills and didn’t glance at the horses grazing peacefully behind the fences. Even the occasional llama or curious emu didn’t elicit the usual grin. He chewed his bottom lip as he contemplated what he might find when he arrived.

Chris had taken Vin home as soon as the boy was discharged from the hospital. It had taken all the arm-twisting and favor calling that Buck and Josiah could muster. But they’d been able to convince the authorities that Vin, still suffering from his trauma-induced muteness, had formed a bond with Chris and had a better shot of healing with someone he trusted.

The fact that the boy was a material witness in the slaying of his parents and that Chris was an officer of the law who could protect him had also factored into the decision to place Vin in his temporary custody.

Buck hadn’t heard much from Chris in the week or so Vin had been in his home though Chris called in daily to make a brief report to Josiah. Apparently the kid liked horses and was adjusting as well as could be expected, considering what he’d been through. Buck had been busy running down leads, and now he had to report what he’d found. Josiah had asked him to check on Vin, so he figured he’d better chat with Chris in person.

Chris’s intense bond with the child worried Buck. He knew his partner hadn’t recovered from the death of his wife and son; he’d only sealed those memories behind an impenetrable silence. Chris could all too easily be hurt again when Vin was sent to live with someone else. How would Larabee handle the pain? It hadn’t been easy living through those long months after Sarah and Adam died. Buck wasn’t ready to do it again.

He pulled up in front of the house and immediately spotted Vin, perched on a chunky little pony, while Chris leaned against the fence and watched him with a proud grin. Cowboy leaped from the car and bounded toward the pair, tail wagging furiously as he barked a greeting.

Chris waved, but didn’t take his eyes off the boy for long. “What d’ya think of this guy, Buck?” he called. “He’s gonna be a great rider with a little more practice.”

Buck smiled at Vin, who lifted one hand in a half-hearted gesture of greeting. He grinned at Cowboy however, as the dog made a wide circle around the pony, barking joyously. “Looks like a natural, sure enough. Where’d ya get the pony?”

“I borrowed him from the Bennett’s down the street. Their daughter’s at camp for the summer and Pooh was getting chubby without exercise. They were more than happy to have him come down here for a while.” Chris remained focused on Vin while he talked, a smile tugging at his lips.

Buck forced himself to remain cheerful, even though his stomach clenched in a spasm of tense worry. “Made some progress in the investigation, and Josiah wanted to know how the boy was doing. So I thought I’d come out and kill two birds.” He watched as Vin carefully turned the pony’s head into yet another looping turn around the pasture. “Physically he looks great. Has he said anything yet?”

Chris shook his head. “Not a word. But he’s doing fine. It’ll come. You can tell Josiah to quit worrying. The boy’s in good hands.” He gave Buck a mild version of the glare that usually had bad guys dropping their weapons. “Spit it out, Buck. You look like you’re chewing on something that’s got you in a knot. What did you find that has you so worked up?”

Buck noticed that Vin had ridden a little closer, his face blank. And yet the air around the boy fairly vibrated with tension and fear. Buck sighed. The kid was far too young to have learned to hide behind a mask.

“A woman named Ella Gaines had been checking up on Vin’s father. Phone records show that a couple of weeks ago she called a few times. A private investigator had approached the neighbors and asked questions about the Tanners too. That sleazy Fowler who caused us so much trouble on the Purgatorio case - Ella Gaines hired him.”

“What’s her connection to the family? Why the phone calls and the P.I.?”

“Get this.” Buck jerked a thumb in Vin’s direction. “According to some legal papers we found at Tanner’s office, Vin here was adopted. Ella Gaines is his aunt, his biological father’s sister. She doesn’t seem happy about her brother’s decision to give up his child.”

“Visitation? Was that what she was after?” Chris’s voice was rough with mounting tension. “Or more. Was she trying to take the kid away?”

Buck shrugged. “We haven’t been able to find her at this point. We’re working on it. The district attorney handling the James case told me that as far as he knew, once a parent gave up a child for adoption, the parent’s blood family had no claim whatsoever. Of course, he’s not a family law specialist and he didn’t know what would happen if the child lost all his adoptive family.”

“I want to know as soon as you hear.” Chris turned back to Vin who’d ridden closer on the pony. “Time to call it a day, pard. You don’t want to be sore tomorrow.”

The child nodded, but before he could ride toward the barn, Buck reached for the reins and halted the movement. “Howdy, Vin,” he said pleasantly. “You having fun out here with Chris?”

The boy’s eyes darted toward Chris and then dipped lower. He nodded, but didn’t speak.

Buck smiled in sympathy. “You’ve had it pretty rough, kid. But it’ll get better. Chris here’ll take good care of you.”

The boy kept his head lowered, but he peeked at Buck from beneath his lashes.

With a deep breath, Buck asked, “Vin? Did you know you’ve got an aunt back east? She’s going to college out there, isn’t she?”

Vin didn’t answer and Buck continued. “Why didn’t you tell us about your aunt, son?”

Vin’s eyes shifted quickly to Chris and then slipped down again. He refused to meet Buck’s eyes and he didn’t speak.

“What are you talking about Buck?” Chris growled. “You’re scaring the boy.”

“No, I’m not Chris. Settle down, okay? There’s something we need to know, and Vin’s the only one who can help us.” Buck turned his attention back to Vin, who had slumped in the saddle, clearly hoping they’d forgotten he was there. “Vin, son. Are you afraid the people who hurt your mom and dad are going to hurt the rest of your family? Your aunt? Are you afraid for her, Vin?”

Vin’s face was drawn, his eyes darted frantically toward Chris and then back to Buck. His eyes locked on Buck’s and he nodded. Overwhelmed, he grabbed the reins from Buck’s hand and set the pony in motion toward the barn.

Chris rounded on Buck. “Was that really necessary? Why’d you bring up his aunt? She’s not going to be any use to him, a 20-year-old kid in college. She can’t raise him, and she certainly couldn’t protect him from the people who killed his parents.”

He strode off toward the stable, and Buck trailed after him, Cowboy at his heels. So Chris already knew about the aunt. Buck wondered what else Chris has found out about the boy but had kept to himself. “Josiah said Vin might be so traumatized that it could take some time before he snaps out of the selective muteness. Are you two handling things all right together?” Buck kept his voice casual, striving to pull Chris back from the edgy anger he’d seen growing throughout their conversation.

“We’re doing fine.” Chris’s glare changed to a grin as Cowboy pushed past them and into Vin’s waiting arms. The dog licked the boy’s cheek and wagged his tail frantically and Vin actually giggled out loud. “Did you hear that, Buck? He laughed.”

“Cowboy’s got a way with small children and women.” Buck’s grin matched Chris’s as they watched the dog and the boy romp off for an impromptu game of fetch. “I can’t tell you how many dates I’ve gotten because of that fine animal you see before you.”

“Would you let him stay here for a while?” Chris face was soft with laughter, the anger gone as if it had never been. “Vin seems attached to him and you heard him, Buck. He laughed out loud. Cowboy could do the trick. Just for a little while?”

With an expansive gesture toward the house, Buck nodded. “Tell ya what, my friend. You fix me lunch and I’ll let Cowboy hang out here with Vin for a week or so. Deal?”

Chris clapped him on the shoulder. “Deal.” He called Vin and gestured toward the house. The boy headed in that direction, the dog sticking close to his side. “I think things are looking up, Buck. I think Vin’s going to do just fine.”


Wailing sirens split the night; lurid splashes of blue and red bathed Chris’s house at regular intervals. Buck’s car roared into the driveway and he was out and running almost before he could put it in park. Flashing his badge at the officers milling about the grounds, he flung open the front door without knocking.

Chris and Vin were huddled in the large living area, the boy’s eyes enormous dark pools in his pinched white face. Cowboy beat his tail on the floor in subdued greeting but didn’t leave Vin’s side. Chris rose, putting himself between Buck and the boy.

“Chris? You two okay? I heard about the shooting on the scanner, and I was already on the way when I got your page.” Buck skidded to a halt, peering around Chris to get a better look at Vin.

Chris glanced down at the boy and then stepped a couple of paces away, lowering his voice to a whisper. “We’re fine. Vin’s rattled, but why wouldn’t he be? Some guy tries to break into your window, and you’re going to be spooked too. I had to do it, Buck. He was trying to snatch Vin.”

Buck grasped Chris’s arm in a firm grip. “Settle down, partner. Why don’t you just tell me what happened, start to finish. All I’ve got is what I heard over the radio. Perp dead, one gunshot wound to the head. What’s going on? What happened here tonight?”

Chris sighed and sent another glance at the little boy who cowered under a blanket as he curled in a little ball on the couch. Cowboy leaned up against him and Buck could hear his dog’s unsettled whine.

Reassured that the child was all right, Chris moved another couple of paces away. “It’s pretty much what you must have heard. Things have been going so well since you were here the other day, Buck. Vin was making great progress. Cowboy’s been a godsend in more ways than one. Not the least of which was tonight. His barking alerted me and I got up to find Vin’s window open. That bastard had pried it open and was half way into the room. Cowboy had him by the right forearm but the perp had a gun in his left hand. I’d grabbed my gun when I got up and I did what I’m trained to do. I called out a warning and told him to freeze. He wouldn’t drop the gun and I shot.” Chris stopped for breath and Buck smiled reassuringly.

“Can’t be helped, I suppose,” Buck said. “Too bad though, I’d have liked to question the guy. Find out who he was working for, what he wanted.”

Chris started to sputter in anger, but Buck’s raised hand stopped him. “I’m not blaming you, Chris. You did what you had to do to protect Vin and Cowboy. I’m just saying it’s too bad we can’t find out what this scumbag was up to.”

“If he weren’t already dead, I’d kill him with my bare hands.” Hostility saturated Chris’s words, and his eyes were bleak. “How dare he try and take Vin out of this house. I’m here to protect that boy, Buck. No one’s going to hurt him while I’m around.”

“Steady there, Stud.” Buck kept his tone even. “I’ll take care of things here. Have you already given your statement to the uniforms?”

Chris nodded tersely, his attention already focused back on the quivering boy on the sofa. “Keep those guys away from Vin. He doesn’t need any more to deal with tonight,” he said as he moved to sit protectively in front of the child. “Take care of this for me, Buck.”

Buck nodded, knowing that it didn’t matter if he answered or not. Chris had already shut himself away from anyone but Vin. Buck sighed and set out to find the officer in charge of the scene accidentally kicking a small object as he passed. He bent down to retrieve it, surprised to find it was a small cell phone.

“Sorry Chris,” he murmured as he placed the phone on the table. “I hope I didn’t bust your phone. It was on the floor.”

Chris reached for the phone, slipping it between the pillows on the couch. “It’s one of those prepaid phones. I got it for Vin, for when he goes back to school. I want him to be able to reach me at any time.”

Buck nodded. “Good plan. Although the boy’s going to have to start talking first, I guess.”

“He will.” Chris displayed absolutely no hesitation. He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and squeezed. “He’ll come around. I know he will.”

Buck gave a mock salute and headed for the door. “Call me if you need anything at all, boys. I’ll be around the rest of the night.”

He didn’t get a response. Chris was absorbed in the boy who hadn’t moved a muscle during the whole confrontation. Buck sighed and went to look for the officer in charge.


Buck pulled into Chris’s long driveway, still worried about the coming confrontation. He hadn’t heard from Chris since the night of the break-in. Buck had deliberately kept away to give his partner a chance to work his way through the kid’s defenses. He’d seen with his own eyes how Vin seemed to depend on Chris. After the added trauma of having a man shot and killed in his bedroom, the last thing little Vin needed was an extra hovering grown up. Or at least that’s what Buck had let himself believe. Maybe it was just that he didn’t have much to report and he’d been trying to avoid Larabee’s wrath.

Well, time to face the music. Buck sighed and pulled himself from the car. Have to get it over with sooner or later.

He looked around, eager for a sight of Cowboy. He’d never admit to anyone how much he’d missed that dog. The first tendrils of fear crept into his gut, tightening and twisting when he realized there was no barking coming from the house or surrounding area.

“Cowboy!” Buck called and then let out a piercing whistle. Nothing.

He checked the garage and realized Chris’s king cab pickup was not in its usual space. Buck tried to relax. Chris had probably taken the kid and the dog into town for groceries or something. Pulling his key ring out of his pocket, Buck fished around for the spare key to the front door. He and Chris had long ago exchanged house keys, although they didn’t use them all that often.

Letting himself into the silent house, Buck peered around. He frowned at the light film of dust settled on table tops and the cold, abandoned feel to the place. Chris wasn’t much of a housekeeper, but a small boy would have left trailing fingermarks through some of that dust.

A quick check of the place revealed no sign the little boy had ever been at the house. All the toiletries and clothing Chris had bought for him were gone. Buck rifled through Chris’s closet and realized that Chris’s camping gear and warm clothing were missing too.

Dammit, Chris. Buck swore violently. I hope you haven’t gone and done what I think you have.

He raced for the barn, heading directly for the storage shelves in the back. With a groan he realized the sleeping bags, portable stove and assorted other camping gear weren’t in place. Gaping spaces on the shelves bore mute indication that many items weren’t in their usual spots.

Larabee, I’m gonna kill you. That boy ain’t in any shape to be traipsing around the countryside just yet. Buck whipped out his cell phone and punched in the speed dial code for Chris’s cell.

It rang three times, but Buck breathed a sigh of relief when Larabee’s voice rasped a greeting before the fourth.

“What d’ya want, Buck.”

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, taking Vin off like that?” Buck didn’t trouble to hide the anger surging through him. “He’s been through enough Chris. Get him back here so he can try and deal with what’s going on.”

“No.” Chris’s voice was clipped, but otherwise he didn’t react to Buck’s anger. “I’m not bringing him back until you find out who killed the Tanners and what Ella Gaines wants. He’s in danger as long as someone knows where to find him. I’m not letting anyone get to this boy, Buck. Not until you can assure me he’s going to be safe.”

Buck clenched his fist tightly on the small cell, trying not to crush it as he talked. “We’re doing the best we can, Chris. You know that. We’ll keep the boy safe.”

Chris’s snort of derision was loud and clear. “Tell me another fairy tale. That was a good one.”

With a firm grip on his temper, Buck tried again. “Just tell me where you guys are and I’ll come out there to you. We need to talk, and I can help take care of Vin and keep Cowboy from driving you nuts.”

“Vin and the dog are fine. We don’t need anything.” Chris sounded distant, unaffected by the intensity of Buck’s emotions. “I’ll get in touch with you when I think it’s safe.”

“Chris. Wait!” Buck knew it was futile. Chris had hung up without waiting for a response.

Punching in another number with his speed dial, Buck waited impatiently. “C’mon. Pick up,” he muttered and felt the relief when Josiah’s calm baritone greeted him.

“Josiah, we’ve got trouble.” Buck didn’t sugarcoat anything, filling the psychologist in on Chris’s disappearance from the ranch with Vin in tow.

Josiah interjected a few noncommittal grunts as Buck poured out his story, but otherwise let his friend talk. Only when the flood of words stopped did he ask, “Where did they go?”

Buck sighed. “Chris didn’t say. But judging from the supplies he took, I’d say he’s heading for his cabin in Montana. It’s secluded and rugged enough for him to need the camping gear.”

* * * * * * *

It was full dark when they finally arrived at the cabin. A flat tire, and several longer-than-planned stops had delayed their trip. It had been a long time since Chris had traveled with a boy and he’d forgotten how one could dally in a convenience store.

He was bone-weary when they finally pulled up in front of the rustic cabin nestled in a tiny clearing carved from the Montana wilderness. He pulled the truck into the shed built for that purpose and helped Vin climb down from his seat.

Chris tried not to betray his sadness at the boy’s continuing silence. He pretended not to notice that Vin walked warily beside him.

Of course the kid was nervous. Chris glanced around, the darkness on either side of the narrow beam of the flashlight was nearly impenetrable, and the sound of the night insects echoed eerily all around them. The kid was from the suburbs. There was always some kind of light, even when clouds obscured the moon. The boy was probably scared out of his mind by the immense dark lurking on the fringes of the yellow light.

A small kernel of hope suddenly blossomed. It was just the two of them now. No one else to rely on. He reached down to pat the dog frisking beside them. A man, a boy and a dog. It wouldn’t be long before Vin would relax and open up to him. He’d be chatting up a storm in no time. With a lighter step, Chris broke into a tired grin.

“C’mon, son,” he said. “I’ll get the lamps lit and fix a can of soup and then it’s bed for both of us. Tomorrow we’ll go exploring.” He placed an arm lightly around the boy’s shoulders and steered him into the cabin. “Just you and me, Vin. We’re really going to have some fun together. I promise.”

The soft swish of the door, the hiss of the lamp being lit and the rattle of the saucepan filled the stillness of the cabin. The familiar sounds of setting up camp kept Chris occupied and kept his mind from dwelling on the boy’s continued silence.


With a muffled curse, Chris sucked on his sore thumb. He’d been taking his frustration out on a hapless nail, thinking that some minor cabin repairs would help his state of mind, when he’d missed his target. He glanced over at Vin who was flipping idly through a gun magazine, the only reading material Chris had in the cabin. The boy hadn’t even glanced up at the commotion.

“Damn.” Chris swore again. Why wouldn’t the kid even look at him? All he did was stare at the magazines when he wasn’t taking desultory walks with Cowboy. And now Chris was going to have to put a stop to those solitary walks. This morning he’d searched frantically when Vin and Cowboy disappeared into the woods. It had taken most of the morning, but Chris had finally found the pair three miles from the cabin headed for nowhere, although Vin probably hadn’t realized that.

Chris shook his head. It wasn’t that Vin had meant to run away, he reasoned. The boy had just gotten lost and kept walking instead of standing in one place like he’d been told. Chris struggled against the blatant facts staring him in the face. The kid should have gotten used to his changed circumstances by now. He should have warmed up to the man who was his sole caretaker. He should know how much Chris cared for him and wanted him to be happy. Damn it. Chris banged another nail harder than necessary.

With another quick glance at the child, Chris threw down his hammer in disgust. “Hungry Vin?” He attempted to project nothing but soothing warmth. “I’m gonna rustle up some dinner for us, okay Pard? Got any requests?”

Vin’s grave eyes darted up from the magazine and just as quickly darted back down again. Silently he shook his head from side to side.

Chris sighed. “All right. Hot dogs and beans it is then.”

The silence in the cabin was broken only by the flipping of magazine pages and the sizzle of frying hot dogs. With a grim scowl, Chris vowed once more that he’d break through that shell of Vin’s. Somehow. Some way. He’d make the child respond to him.


Chris set up some targets on the side of the little hill behind the cabin and started taking them out with his Glock. He remembered Vin’s interest in his shooting at the gun shop and hoped a little target practice would coax the boy out of his shell.

Sure enough, Chris had only reloaded twice before he spotted Vin watching him from the back porch of the cabin. Chris gestured to him. The boy hesitated at first but finally joined him at the impromptu firing line. When Chris asked Vin if he’d like to try, he nodded.

Chris looked at Vin closely and took a deep breath. He was taking a risk, but this was the best opportunity he’d had since he’d carried the boy away from the burning house. “I have to hear you Vin. Just ask me out loud and I’ll show you anything you want to know about shooting.”

The boy pulled back, his eyes not on Chris but on the Glock. Chris picked up his extra set of ear protectors and pulled his .38 special out from its hiding place at the small of his back, replacing it with the Glock. He opened the cylinder on the revolver and poured the six bullets into his hand. He held the gun, bullets and earmuffs out toward Vin.

The boy hesitated, then said slowly, “Please sir, can I try?”

Chris tried not to let his exaltation show on his face, afraid he would frighten the boy back into silence. He showed Vin how to load, unload and use the sights on the barrel to aim. He went over the same safety measures he included in the lectures he gave new recruits on the police firing range. Vin was still quiet, but he did make brief responses when Chris quizzed him to make sure he understood the proper safeguards. Finally, he let Vin shoot. His first few shots just kicked up dirt. But by the time he’d reloaded for the second time, Vin started hitting targets. Chris was amazed at the boy’s prowess. He was as good as any of the police cadets, as least those who lacked a background in firearms use.

Finally, when they went in to supper, he showed Vin how to clean both the handguns and his hunting rifle. While Chris cooked them up some hamburgers, Vin meticulously worked the tools from the cleaning kit. Chris wished he could have gotten Buck to be so painstaking over their years of hunting together. He wouldn’t have had to reclean his own firearms so often.

As he set down their supper, he gathered up the firearms, put the handguns into his locked carry box and placed the rifle on a shelf well out of the small boy’s reach. In response to Vin’s look of disappointment, Chris told him, “We can do some more target practice tomorrow Vin. But I want you to promise not to touch any of them except when I’m with you.”

Vin looked at him and nodded. Chris acted as though he didn’t understand. “Promise?”

This time Vin said quietly, “Yes sir.”

Chris hoped he’d get him to drop the sir eventually, but he didn’t want to correct him right away. He didn’t want to say anything Vin might take as a reprimand.


Buck was still fuming over his inability to find a helicopter or private plane for hire. The closest airport was 400 miles from the cabin and now he was forced to drive the whole damn way in a rental SUV. He’d never been so scared in his life. It was one thing to protect and serve the general public, to have his heart go out to a woman abused or murdered by her boyfriend, to comfort a family destroyed by a drunk driver. When the situation involved the best friend he’d ever had – well, he knew now why they didn’t let doctors operate on relatives. He pounded the steering wheel in frustration. He cursed the bad roads, but couldn’t afford a breakdown or a flat so he had to go easy when all he wanted was to push the damn Bronco to breakneck speeds. Buck had to get to the cabin before it became a crime scene. He just hoped he wasn’t too late already. He’d tried Chris’s cell phone a hundred times, hoping he might be able to make a connection if they went to a nearby town for supplies. He never got anything but an “out of service area” notification.

Buck was exhausted when he finally got to the vicinity of the cabin. He parked a quarter mile away so as not to alert anyone and walked the last bit down the rutted dirt road, keeping to the edge so he could disappear into the trees if he heard anything.

When he got to the cabin, he stayed at the tree line and circled around until he could peek into the back kitchen window. He immediately drew his gun and circled to the bedroom where a window had been left open. He heard Chris as he made his way through as quietly as he could.

Chris’s voice was calm and steady, coming from the kitchen. “Just put the gun down. You don’t want to hurt anyone. We can talk this out.”

Buck slipped quietly into the room, gun still drawn. Chris was sitting in the ratty old armchair Buck had hauled up two summers ago. Vin was standing quietly in the far corner near the cold potbellied stove, holding a revolver pointed at Chris.

“Good thing I came along,” Buck said quietly, trying not to scare the boy.

“Good thing you did,” Chris answered without taking his eyes off Vin.

Buck’s heart broke as the looked at the small boy with the ice cold blue eyes. The revolver was starting to look the slightest bit shaky in his little hands as he braced the butt against his ribcage in a vain attempt to keep it steady. Cowboy sat quietly at the boy’s side.

Buck spoke to him ever so softly as he edged over, trying to put himself between Chris and the boy’s line of fire, “Vin, you can put the gun down now. I can take care of things.”

Vin just straightened a little and with great concentration, held the revolver a little steadier.

“Come on son, that gun is gonna get awful heavy. Just put it down and let old Buck take care of everything.”

Vin didn’t take his eyes off Chris but finally spoke – the first words Buck had ever heard him say. “He killed my mommy and daddy.”

Buck sighed, “I know he did, son. I know he did. But you’ve got to let me take care of it.”

“You don’t believe me. You’re his friend.” Vin spoke with great sadness. He was a boy left with nothing to believe in.

“Vin. I know Chris better than anyone and I believe you. Remember Dr. Sanchez, the psychologist you talked to. He’s Chris’s friend too and he believes you. Everybody believes you.”

Buck continued to talk to Vin, he hoped persuasively, but his eyes were on Chris. Chris looked at him with a sadness to match Vin’s. He finally spoke.

“Buck, you won’t shoot me. You should have stayed out of it. Vin is better off with me. His parents didn’t love him – not the way I can. You know how much I loved Adam. I can give all that to Vin.”

Buck felt sick to his stomach but kept his gun steady, pointed at Chris now. “Chris, it’s over.”

Buck pulled set of handcuffs out of his pocket. “Chris, if you put these on, maybe Vin there will put the gun down.” Without taking his eyes of Chris, he directed his next words at Vin. “Vin, if Chris puts these cuffs on, you’ll put the gun down won’t you?” Buck stole a quick sideways glance at Vin. He looked unsure. When Buck looked back at Chris, he saw what he’d dreaded most. Chris was slowly reaching his hand around to his back. He knew Chris would have a gun there. He always did when he walked into a potentially dangerous situation and he must have been feeling threatened ever since he’d killed the boy’s parents.

“Chris, don’t.” Buck spoke sharply but tried to keep his voice soft so as not to startle the boy

Chris stopped with his hand halfway to its goal. He looked at Buck with confidence. “Buck, you don’t have it in you to shoot me.”

“Old Pard, I sure as hell don’t want to, but if you keep reaching for that gun, I’m gonna have to. There’s only two people within twenty miles of here you could be fixin’ to use that gun on and I don’t aim to let you shoot either of us. Please Chris. We can get you help. Josiah can find someone. I’m beggin you here. Just put your hands out front. We’ll get the cuffs on. Vin there will put the gun down and we can start working things out.”

Chris kept his focus on Buck, his eyes intense as though trying to mesmerize him. But he didn’t stop his steady reach for the gun Buck knew was tucked into his waistband. Buck was frozen with indecision. This was Chris. He couldn’t shoot Chris. But then Chris had the Glock in his hand. Buck saw it as he brought it around. Buck fired, aiming for Chris’s right arm, too close to miss.

The bullet in his right forearm slammed Chris back in the chair, his right hand useless. But he didn’t give up. He reached across with his left hand to where the gun had dropped between his right leg and the arm of the chair. And almost simultaneously flung himself out of the chair and brought the gun up to aim at Buck. Buck had no choice. He fired twice and Chris was out of action.

Buck picked up the Glack and tucked it in his waistband. He looked over at the kid. Vin had lowered the revolver but when he sensed Buck’s eyes on him, he raised it again. Poor kid. How could he know who to trust? He’d probably been told to trust cops and look where that had gotten him.

“Vin, I’m going to unload my gun and put it on the table here. You go get that lock box in the corner. You can put my gun in it, then yours, okay?”

Vin’s eyes went to the Glock in Buck’s waistband. Buck pulled it out, unloaded it and placed it next to his own handgun on the table. Vin looked over at Chris. He was down, moaning softly, barely conscious. Buck dangled the handcuffs in front of him. “Okay, Vin. I’m going to put these on Chris, then put the key on the table with the guns.” He closed the metal bracelets around Chris’s wrists then looked up at Vin. “I need to bandage him up. We have a long drive to the nearest law.”

Vin nodded, then with his next words, showed too much suspicion for a seven-year-old boy. “You have another gun.” It was more a statement than a question. Chris had a back-up gun. He must have figured Buck would have one too. Buck had almost forgotten the airweight .38 revolver in his boot. He slowly pulled it out and placed it on the table.

He looked over at Vin and realized there was no reason for the kid to feel safe even if all the guns were locked up. He was a banty-weight, 4-foot nothing child facing a 6’3” adult. “Tell you what Vin. I’m going to take Chris into the bedroom and bandage him up. You put all the guns except for my little one into the lock box. You tuck that little one in your waistband until you figure you can trust me. Keep it there ‘til we get to the sheriff if you want.”

An hour later they were on the road to the sheriff’s substation. Chris was in front with Buck, hands cuffed together, tied to the seat for good measure. Vin sat in the back seat, the lock box containing the guns at his feet, Cowboy lying next to him, head on his knee. The airweight revolver was in his hand. The gun wasn’t pointed at Buck, but it rested in his lap, ready for use. Buck didn’t try to get it away from him, even when he started to nod off.

Chris spent the first half hour with his eyes closed, leaning back in his seat. Finally, he inquired quietly of Buck, “How did you know?”

Buck sighed. “Started when Ezra had to re-interview the witnesses from that convenience store murder-robbery. He found out you’d rushed through your interviews. You were gone for three hours but your interviews couldn’t have taken more than an hour total. I had to wonder what you’d been doing for that extra two hours.”

Chris didn’t answer, didn’t try to make any explanation or excuse. He just listened as Buck went on. “When we finally identified the guy you shot at your house, we checked his phone records. He’d made some calls to an unidentified cell phone. I don’t know what made me think of it, but I remembered that prepaid cell phone I almost crushed the night of the shooting. You left it tucked in the couch cushions. I fetched it and had it checked just to prove it wasn’t you he’d called. But it was and that phone showed several calls to his number. Once we’d discovered you knew the man you’d shot – well, the rest wasn’t hard. At least it wasn’t difficult to figure out – but it was the hardest thing Ezra and I ever had to do.”

Chris closed his eyes again and stopped speaking except for one final statement. “Buck, you do know I wouldn’t have killed you.”

CHAPTER 11 - A Month Later

Buck stood by the counter stroking the beautiful wood grain on the rifle stock. He’d picked up the message from the gun shop off Chris’s answering machine when he’d dropped by to pack things up. He hadn’t realized it had been intended as a present for him until he’d read the elaborate inscription on the stock, “Please return to Buck Wilmington who probably lost it rescuing a damsel in distress.”

He’d never go hunting with anyone again. But it was paid for and Chris wouldn’t have any use for it. He visited Chris at Atascadero every week, spending an hour or so talking about what he and the other boys were up to in both their professional and private lives. Chris was as silent as Vin had been, yet somehow Buck felt Chris was almost happy to see him so he knew he’d keep going back.

Buck would probably just store the rifle away somewhere as a reminder of the good times. He looked toward the back of the store toward the shooting gallery. Might as well try it once.

He bought a box of ammunition, borrowed some ear protection and took the rifle back to the gallery. He’d only fired twice when he sensed someone watching him through the glass partition. He turned to see a little boy with long, dark bangs covering his forehead. Blue eyes met hazel.

After he watched the boy’s father yank the boy away from the window and then out of the store, he used his badge to find out the name and address of the family. That little boy had been begging him for help as surely as if he’d spoken aloud.


The Cohorts –