Yellowstone Park Foundation
by Sara

Main Character: All Seven

Universe: Yellowstone AU

Disclaimer: I do claim some rights to Yellowstone National Park, which is part of my heritage and birthright as a US citizen. The Seven and their friends, alas, are not, and they belong to other folks.

Note About The Universe: The Yellowstone National Park AU was created by Farad, Sassyinkpen and myself. More information about the setting and the characters' backgrounds can be found here. More information about Yellowstone National Park can be found here. This is an open AU and anyone is welcome to write in it. I'd like hearing about any stories that get written, just because I'd love to read them, but that's not a requirement or anything.

Author's Note: Betaed by my universe-building colleagues Farad and Sassy, without whom I would still be wallowing in a deep post-Wyoming funk. Arouette and Catyah provided inestimable moral support.

Summary: A week in the life of some Park Rangers and their friends at Yellowstone National Park is enlivened by poachers and a fund-raising banquet.

Sunday, 6:45 pm
The couple who hurried into the Albright Visitor Center were obviously just down from the backcountry. They were bronzed and lean and walked with a swinging easy stride, like they'd been doing a lot of it and they were used to it. It was a look the staff was familiar with around Yellowstone and it went with the rolled up shorts and hiking boots the couple wore. Nathan Jackson, manning the information desk, was surprised they didn't have backpacks on, or walking sticks in their hands.

The woman hurried to the desk, the man right behind her. "We need to report a..." she looked over her shoulder at him.

"We saw some kind of dead animal," he said. "Ten or twenty yards off the side of Sportsman Lake Trail."

"Can you make a guess about what kind of animal?" Nathan asked. The park service had made a decision years before to let nature manage the wildlife in the park, so dead animals were a natural part of the ecosystem. However, the bears wouldn't take long to find a carcass and if it was near a path it could be a danger for hikers if not moved further out into the wilderness.

The woman paled and the man shook his head. "It looked like it had been skinned and its head was cut off," he said. He looked angry and the woman looked sick. "It was the size of a bear."

Nathan rose to his feet, grabbing a topographical map of the region. "Can you show me exactly where you saw it?" He handed the man a pencil and picked up the radio microphone. "701 this is MR90 Base, come in."

"What's up, Nathan?" Chris Larabee asked, walking through the entrance. He moved easily through his domain, the Albright Visitors Center and the attached Park Ranger Station, nodding at visitors who turned to look at the small commotion.

Nathan indicated the couple, still looking over the map, and said, "These folks reported a skinned and decapitated carcass near Sportsman Lake. Think it might be a bear."

Chris drew up straight. "Poachers?" He turned to the couple. "Can you mark where?"

The woman pointed to the map, and said, "We stayed the night at campsite 0D3 and hiked about two hours this way," her finger moved along the line of the trail toward the trailhead. "We'd been planning to take this side trail, but we thought we should report it."

Chris nodded. "Thank you," he said to them, then turned to Nathan. "Nate, find out where Vin is, send him over if he can make it. No way to land a chopper around there," he said, his voice crisp and decisive, then checked his watch, and thought for a second. "And have Buck meet me at the stables. We'll ride up there tonight. Should just make that campsite today if we hurry."

The couple looked at each other and started to edge away from the desk. Chris turned to them and said, "We need you to give a statement. Ranger Jackson can take it."

They looked at each other, faces uncertain, and Nathan said, "If you'll just wait a few minutes, I'll find someone else to watch the desk here."

As he walked back out of the building, Chris said, "Josiah's at the chapel. I'll send him over."

Nathan offered the couple chairs, which he accepted and she didn't. "I'll be with you as soon as I get some folks moving," he said, picking up the radio microphone. "703, this is MR90 Base. Buck, come in." After Buck returned his greeting, Nathan said, "We've got suspected poaching up near Sportsman Lake. Chris needs you to meet him at the stables ASAP. You're riding up there with him tonight."

There was a moment of silence before Buck responded. "I was just making a dinner date with a lovely senorita from Guatemala named Rosa, I hope she'll accept a raincheck," he said, but despite the near complaint in his words, Nathan could hear from his accelerated breathing and his footsteps that he was hurrying along the trail, maybe even running. "Tell him I'll be there in half an hour. 703 clear."

He switched frequencies for his radio call to Vin, who didn't like to listen to the normal chatter they got over it when he was out in the backcountry. Which was much of the time. His standard radio greeting was answered almost immediately and without regard for radio protocol. "Damn it, Nathan! What the hell do you want?" Vin snapped, then after a second he said, "MR90 Base, this is 702. You just scared off a cougar I've been tracking for two days. This better be important."

"It is. Poachers," Nathan said simply, and he could picture the effect the one word would have on their backcountry ranger, the irritation transforming into ice cold anger, his blue eyes hardening into chips of stone.

"Where?" Vin asked, voice quiet now.

Nathan gave him the specifics and after a moment Vin said, "If I keep moving all night I'll be there before dawn. Chris coming up?"

"And Buck," Nathan confirmed. He shook his head a little. Going out into the field to look into problems like this was no longer Chris's job, and Chris knew it. Chris was the head of this station now and his job was to manage and direct the people under his supervision.

But Vin didn't comment on that, probably didn't even think about it, he just said, "I'm going to start tracking the poachers as soon as I find the carcass, I won't look for them. Have them monitor this frequency once they get to the carcass in case I need 'em. Don't want this trail to go cold."

"I'll let Chris know," Nathan said. He was used to Vin's intensity, but his anger was hard to wake and Nathan had only rarely seen it. "Sorry about that cougar," he said.

"Yeah, well, it weren't no big deal. Just wanted to see if it was the one they'd already tagged up here. Be nice if we had two on this side of the mountain." There was a pause, then he said, "Sorry for snapping at you. 702 clear."

"MR90 Base clear," Nathan said, setting down the radio as Josiah walked in, wiping off his hands on his bandanna. He was dressed like one of the rangers in green pants and a grey shirt. It would take a keen eye to spot the word "Volunteer" on the patch on his shoulder, but that, and the fact that he didn't wear a Stetson, were all that distinguished him from the park rangers at least to a casual glance.

He stopped at the desk, and asked, "Okay if I go wash up before taking over?"

Nathan looked at the couple. They were both now seated. The man leaned back and had his legs stretched out in front of him, while the woman, maybe his wife though Nathan had learned not to assume anything, rested her elbows on her knees and her head on her hands. They looked resigned to the wait, if not happy about it. "You can take a minute or two, not too long though. Those folks were good enough to come in and report something strange, we don't want to take up their whole vacation with it."

Josiah nodded and walked away into the depths of the station saying, "Best not to punish a good deed. I'll be as quick as I can."

Tuesday, 8:33 pm

"MR90 Base this is 702." Vin said into his radio two days later. After the return greeting from the base station, he went on, "I think I spotted them," keeping himself hidden in the stand of lodgepole pine trees that skirted the flanks of Electric Peak. Down below in a secluded valley was a small camp, the tents mostly covered with brush to blend them into the rest of the mountain forest.

It crackled for a few moments and he was afraid that he'd gone far enough out into the wild edges of the park that'd he'd lost the signal, but after a bit he heard, "Where are they?" JD's voice, not Chris's, and Vin smiled. JD was their summer intern, but he was great with both the high tech computers the Ranger Stations used for keeping track of wildlife and park visitors, and the aging and finicky radios. Not so good with the visitors always, who he seemed to regard as low-tech intrusions on his work, but he was learning.

"Way the hell out," Vin said, looking around. Aside from that hidden camp there was no sign of civilization, even of humanity. He'd left that at the edge of the trail yesterday when he headed out into Yellowstone National Park's distant backcountry. "Took me more'n a day to get out here."

"Turn on your GPS transponder," JD said, voice slightly irritated. He'd been part of equipping the Park's backwoods rangers with GPS receivers and transponders, but Vin was notorious for forgetting to use it, sometimes he forgot to even take it. It tended to make the young man a little testy.

"Sorry, kid," Vin said, swinging his pack off his back and fumbling around in one of the outer pockets for it. When he found it, he pressed the button. "Got it?" he asked, slipping the device into his pants pocket.

There was a noise through the radio, like someone pressing and releasing the talk button a few times, then Chris said, "How far away from you are they?"

Vin looked again, checking with both his binoculars and his naked eye. "Thousand feet or so, few degrees east of due north."

"Looks like they're right on the border of the park, Vin," Chris said. "Can you get closer so we can confirm that?"

"Ah, hell, even if they're in the Gallatin, we can still bust 'em can't we?" Vin asked, frustrated. If the poachers were in the Gallatin National Forest, which bordered this part of the park, they'd have to turn the case over to the law enforcement branch of the U.S. Forest Service. Vin could only hope they'd be as hard on poachers as the detectives and US Marshal stationed at Yellowstone would be.

"Have to confer with the National Forest law enforcement, you know that," Chris said, sounding more than a little frustrated himself.

Vin considered the situation, then suggested, half-joking, "I could smash this GPS thing. Sounds like I'm right on the edge of our jurisdiction, could just act like I didn't know they's over the border."

JD, voice indignant, jumped in saying, "If you break that equipment, I'll report you myself."

Vin laughed, having anticipated that response, and enjoying the picture of the young man pulling the radio out of Chris's hands. "Just pulling your chain, kid. Okay, I'm going to get closer, make sure these are the guys we want. Hell, maybe I can plant the transponder in their gear."

"Keep in touch, Tanner," Chris said.

"702 clear." He slipped the radio back onto his belt, but took care to switch it off so an untimely call wouldn't give his position away, and took a moment to check that his pistol was ready before heading down. Law enforcement wasn't his favorite part of his job, though he know Chris and Buck both felt different about it, but he was the first responder on the scene and had to be prepared for anything. He left his backpack wedged in a narrow fissure of rock on the mountainside. Hopefully he'd be back before a bear found it.

He took his time skirting around the camp, slowly spiraling closer and closer as his confidence that it was unoccupied grew. It didn't appear to be abandoned, the tents, though covered with brush, were in good condition, and there was a small campstove next to the entrance of one that looked almost ready to use.

He peeked into the two tents. One held two sleeping bags and a backpack with clothing sticking out the top. The other held large cooler chest, a trunk like a footlocker, and a stack of something, crates or boxes, covered by a tarp. Jackpot, he thought, and reached for the tent's zipper, but before he could open it, he heard the brushes rustling at a distance, maybe voices. He slipped into the forest, losing himself in the deep shadows. About 30 yards away from the camp he dropped to his belly, taking cover under and behind some huckleberry bushes.

The two men who entered the camp looked like they could be normal hikers. They wore backpacks, shorts, perfectly ordinary hiking gear. One swung off his backpack and propped it against a tree, revealing a rifle that had been strapped between the pack and his back, hidden from a casual glance if they'd encountered a hiker on the trail.

The other one dropped his pack then dropped into an exhausted sprawl against it. Vin couldn't hear their words, but the one with the gun pulled the pack out from behind his partner, dropping him unceremoniously to the ground and rummaged through it, pulling out ziplock bags of things Vin couldn't quite distinguish, even with his binoculars. Some were bloody messes, some looked like fur or other, neater parts. Obviously they'd made another kill. The man took them into the storage tent and returned a few moments later empty handed.

The sun was already behind the western mountains, though the sky overhead was still fairly bright. Darkness would come soon and he needed to find a place to camp before it did. Remembering the conversation with JD, he wriggled the GPS transponder out of his pocket and left it under the huckleberry bush. JD'd crowed for days about how those things were weather-proof, fire-proof, even could survive getting stepped on by a bison, if it didn't linger too long. It should be able to take one night in a huckleberry bush. And it was close enough to the poacher camp that they'd know for sure which side of the Park's boundary the assholes were on.

Despite his efforts to be quiet as he wriggled himself clear, he kicked something wrong and made a rustle out of place. One of the poachers stood and looked in his direction holding out his hand as if to silence the other one.

Vin froze. If this was a movie, right about now some helpful mulie or hare would flush out of the bushes and provide him with cover. But this weren't no movie and there wasn't anything in the huckleberries but him, so he closed his eyes and froze, ducking his head down so that his skin wouldn't reflect the light if they used a spotlight.

When there was no sound after a few minutes, Vin risked a look up. They were sitting again, the one with the rifle looking alertly around in all directions, responding to every noise. The distant howling of one of the park's wolf packs soothed Vin's nerves but obviously agitated the poacher, because he kept his rifle on the ground next to him, ready to fire at a moment's notice. Vin figured that about half an hour of tension would have him ready to snap, so he settled himself to wait.

In reality it took more like forty-five and Vin found himself admiring the man's nerves even as he cursed them. Two desert cottontails startled him to his feet again, hand reaching for the rifle at his side. Finally, there was another rustle from the far side of the camp and a blue grouse stepped into the circle of light cast by their gas lamp, and the poacher blasted it into a cloud of feathers and smoke.

With a thought of thanks to the poor animal, Vin took advantage of the blast, and the flight of other unseen animals, to get out of his hiding place safely, while behind him he could hear the raised voices of the two poachers, fighting with one another.

Wednesday, 12:15 am

"Go on home, JD," Chris said to the young intern, hours later, shortly after midnight. They were both making up work to do to keep them around the ranger station until they heard from Vin. Every bit of Chris's paperwork for the last two weeks was complete and in his out-basket. JD'd entered the data from the animal sighting reports for the last week, crunched some numbers about admissions Buck dropped off from the entrance station, and was now working on a project of his own that had something to do with mapping the underground channels of the hot springs.

In response to Chris's words, JD sat up straighter in his seat, but before he could say anything, Chris went on, "I'll stick around until I hear from him, but you've got to be up early tomorrow to go fix that webcam at Old Faithful."

JD checked the computer again, clicking a few keys in rapid sequence, then said, "His transponder hasn't moved in two hours, Chris. Someone should..."

Chris turned a silencing glare on the other man. "Go home, JD. I'll take care of things."

JD nodded, obviously reluctant. He took as long as he possibly could about gathering up his laptop, his jacket, his water bottle, fraying Chris's temper with each delay. The kid got out just before Chris snapped at him and revealed his own concern. Because truth was, he was worried. If Vin'd dropped the transponder by the camp he found and left, he should have checked in by now. Should have.

And who knew what poachers would do if they found him spying on them. Men who killed endangered animals for a living probably wouldn't have too much compunction about killing a man either.

Not just any man, Vin. The soul-brother he'd always known, it seemed, even though they only met a few months before. The blue of his eyes was as familiar a color as the blue of the sky and had been from the moment they met.

Chris checked the transponder. Still stationary. Still just barely outside the park's boundaries.

Time to call in law enforcement. He reached for the telephone.

He was just hanging up the phone, when the radio finally crackled to life, "MR90 Base this is 702." Thank God.

"702, this is MR90 Base. You okay, Vin?" Chris asked, sinking back into the chair in relief.

"Yeah, just got held up at their camp for a bit," he said, sounding relaxed and sleepy. Chris smiled; some men would be nervous out in the backcountry with nothing between them and the bears and the wolves but a thin tent, but not Vin. He was comfortable there, happy. "I'm about a mile away now, I reckon," Vin went on. "I'll get up at first light so I can keep an eye on them."

"How far is your transponder from their camp?" Chris asked.

"Reckon 'bout thirty feet due south of it," Vin said, more awake. "That bad or good?"

"Bad," Chris answered. "They're definitely in the Gallatin. I've already called their law enforcement. Good news is they should be able to have someone at that location by early afternoon. Apparently there's a road that goes within a few miles of it."

Vin grunted. "Figures. They have a cooler chest and a footlocker to carry their haul in. And some crates or something. I couldn't make those out really, they were under a cover. I can't imagine them packing those out for more than a couple of miles."

"Forest Service has the coordinates, you can come back whenever you want. You'll just need to go make a statement in the next couple of days," Chris said.

"I'll keep an eye on the poachers until law enforcement gets here," Vin said. "Don't want them breaking camp and getting away. Take me two days to get back to the trailhead, I reckon. Any chance someone can come pick me up on Friday?"

"Sure," Chris said, enjoying the near privacy of talking on the backcountry channel rather than the main channel that everyone in the Mammoth region of Yellowstone used. "Give me a heads up when you're an hour or so out and I'll go myself."

"Thanks. Just need to be dropped off at my camper, assuming you don't mind me getting a shower and a change before I go to the station," Vin said, referring to the small trailer he kept at Mammoth's campground and lived in during the summer months. At least when he was in town and not out on the trail.

"Well, I'll be able to judge that better after I've been in the car with you for an hour. We need to get you there anyway, though. Ezra's fundraiser at the Fort's on Friday evening," Chris said.

"Hell, maybe I should stay a little longer, work with the Forest Service folks. Had to watch one of them poachers blow apart a blue grouse tonight. That ought to be good for another year or two in jail right?" Vin asked, and Chris suppressed a chuckle.

"Give them your card and go up there to make a statement on Saturday. Everyone who was at that poker table knows what the stakes were last week," Chris said. Ezra'd played their motley group of seven friends and coworkers for time at his fundraiser, talking to potential donors about their work for the Park. They were playing for time instead of money and they'd still lost big. Chris owed nearly two hours; Vin had stopped playing after he'd lost 90 minutes, claiming that he couldn't take dancing with rich widows for a minute longer than that.

Vin chuckled. "Well, I ain't no welcher. And for only 90 minutes it can't be that bad. Josiah's the one I feel sorry for, he's gonna be washing dishes half the night to use up all the time he lost." There was a pause then Vin asked, "Hey, any word about JD yet?"

Chris said, "Nothing yet. Buck's about to drive Travis's secretary nuts calling every day to ask." JD was their summer intern but had fit in so well with all the Rangers and staff at Mammoth Hot Springs, he'd applied for a regular job there. Orin Travis, the park's superintendent, was supposed to make the decision any day now, to give JD enough time to get settled in permanent housing rather than the dorms the summer help used before the first snows arrived in a month or so. Or to find another position before he found himself not just jobless but also homeless.

"Well," Vin said slowly, "At least it ain't bad news." There was a muffled noise, then he went on, "I'd best get some sleep so I can keep an eye on those bastards tomorrow."

"Watch your back up there, Tanner," Chris said, reluctant to let the conversation go.

"Ain't no one to watch it for me," Vin said, and Chris wondered if that was resignation or satisfaction he heard in Tanner's voice. "I won't do nothing stupid, but I ain't standing by while they kill any more of our bears neither," Vin said, voice firm. "702 clear."

Chris didn't like that answer, not entirely, though he didn't want the poachers killing any of their bears any more than Vin did, but he also knew there was no arguing with that tone of voice. "MR90 Base clear." He set the radio microphone down on the desk and leaned back in his chair. Friday wasn't too far off. It'd be good to have Vin back at the station for a few days.

Wednesday, 4:45 pm

JD looked up from his work on the station's radios when he heard the door open. Visitors, he'd been reminded often enough over the summer, took priority over tasks. Even one as important as hooking up two radio base stations, so the ranger on duty could monitor both the main radio channel and the backcountry channel, or Vin's channel as he thought of it. When he saw Buck walk in, Stetson pushed way back on his head as he strode across the Visitor Center, he went back to work, saying into the back of the radio, "So how'd you do today, Buck?"

Buck leaned against the front of the counter. "Well, at one point I had a group of about ten bikers, and each and every one of 'em needed to purchase an annual pass. I was afraid the line'd go all the way out to the Roosevelt Gate."

JD nodded, "I think I saw them all drive by, heading down toward Norris. Couple hours ago?"

"Yeah, that was them," Buck said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. "A lovely lady named Sally Ann is going to be coming in around five for a special tour of the center and a guided walk around the terraces."

JD looked up at him, eyebrow arched, "Guided walk? A private tour, right?" He went back to work, dropping cables through a hole in the back of the desktop.

"No one's more of an expert on those terraces than I am, kid, and I know all the best places to take a lady so she can get the best view," Buck said, smug.

JD snorted. "Or you can get the best view of her." He dropped onto the floor and stuck his head under the counter, pulling cables through.

"That too," Buck said, voice muffled now by the desk. "You doing okay down there?"

"Yeah," JD said, "I'm almost done." He made a few last connections then climbed out from under the desk. He switched on both base stations and adjusted some dials until the static of them interfering with each other stopped. "Go outside and do a radio check, Buck. I want to make sure it's still working."

Buck did so, returning immediately when they found that receiver to be working perfectly. JD sat and contemplated the other one for a minute, nervous to contact Vin when he was out on the trail without a good reason.

While he was thinking, Buck asked, "What're you doing anyway?"

"Well, day before yesterday when you and Chris were moving the dead bear and Vin was tracking those poachers, I realized that we couldn't monitor you and him at the same time. Not from here. Made Nate and me crazy not being able to keep up with all of you," JD said. He picked up the microphone, then set it down again.

"Both channels are on in Chris's office," Buck reminded him.

"Yeah, but Chris isn't always there," JD said. When Buck grinned, he looked down at the desk. It wasn't like it was any big secret that Chris wasn't always at his desk, even though he was supposed to be there most of the time anyway. But it still seemed like he was giving away a secret to talk about it out loud.

Buck nodded and said, "That's good thinking. So what are you waiting for? Call Vin and make sure the backcountry channel works too."

JD picked up the radio microphone again. His reluctance to use it must have shown somehow, because Buck said, "He won't bite you, kid. Just call him."

"I just don't like bothering him for no reason," JD said, fidgeting with the microphone.

He didn't get a response right away. Instead, Buck ducked into the back office and picked through the pile of mail that had accumulated on Vin's desk while he'd been up in the distant wilderness of the park's northwest corner. He made a triumphant noise and reappeared with a catalog in his hand, which he smacked down on the desk in front of JD. "Tell him about this."

JD looked from the catalog to Buck. "A catalog? You're kidding me, right? I've never seen Vin buy anything but food before, Buck. "

Buck shook his head. "Then you haven't been paying attention, son. Vin doesn't buy much, you're right. But what he buys is hiking gear. This is the fall catalog from his favorite outfitter, with the end of summer clearance sale. Trust me."

JD was still talking to Vin, looking up the sale price of a particular cold-weather sleeping bag, when Buck strode over to the entrance and greeted a young redhead with a tip of his hat and a big smile. "Sally Ann, welcome to the Albright Visitor Center. Let me show you around a bit before we go look at the hot springs."

JD ended the conversation with Vin, after promising to put the catalog in Vin's desk where it wouldn't get lost, and sat back in his chair. He was surprised, as he had been so many times during this summer internship, at how much he liked it here. How much he liked having found a family in the people who worked here.

He fidgeted with the radios, adjusting the volume and shifting the cords so they were more out of the way, as he wondered when Superintendent Travis would make his decision about the employment application and what it would be. And if he had any chance at all of getting a permanent position in the park.

Thursday, 1:05 pm

Ezra nodded to Josiah, manning the Visitor Center information desk, and then walked past him into the 'employees only' portion of the building. He stuck his head into the rangers office and gave a satisfied smile. Perfect timing. "Mr. Jackson, might I have a word with you?" he asked.

Nathan looked up from his salad and gestured to a chair at the corner of his desk. "Do you mind if I keep on eating while you talk? I've got a tour of the Fort at 1:30," he said, then took a bite without waiting for Ezra's answer.

"By all means. I would hate to interrupt your repast." Ezra waited until Nathan took another bite, then said, "I'm glad to have a chance to speak with you before tomorrow evening's festivities."

Nathan swallowed and said, "I haven't forgotten if that's what you're worried about. 137 minutes, that's what I owe you, right?"

Ezra nodded. "Precisely. I applaud your memory." He took a deep breath, then said, "As you know, the presence of yourself and all of our friends who serve the park in an official or unofficial capacity, is very helpful at these events. To demonstrate to the potential donors precisely the kind of work you do here."

Nathan nodded. "Makes a personal connection, yeah," he said, brow wrinkled. "I don't need you to explain this again."

Ezra smiled. "I'm pleased to hear you say that. I would like to request that you remember which organization the fundraiser is to benefit. The Yellowstone Park Foundation." He leaned back in his chair, watching Nathan closely for any sign of understanding. But it wasn't forthcoming. Nathan ate another bite of his salad and shook his head. Ezra sighed, internally, letting nothing of his frustration show. "Last time you attended one of these fetes you spoke to the guests extensively about the various types of training you have received in wilderness first aid, wilderness medicine, and whatever else you've taken since then."

Nathan, still not showing the comprehension Ezra wanted, nodded. "Lots of people are interested in that, Ezra. Makes them feel safer here knowing the kind of medical training some of us have."

"That is quite correct. However, if you would refrain from promoting the worthiness of the Yellowstone Association and its educational programs tomorrow evening, I would be most grateful."

Nathan shook his head, eyes narrowing. He got what Ezra was driving at, finally, or it looked like he did, but he disapproved. "They're a good organization and I owe a lot to them. It's not like y'all are in competition."

Ezra shook his head, surprised that Nathan wasn't seeing the problem. "My good friend, that is where you are incorrect. Of course the Foundation is in competition with them. There is a limited supply of money in the world, an even more limited supply of money that people are going to give to charitable causes. Every dollar that goes to them is one that hasn't gone to us. How do you think it makes me look to my superiors at the Foundation to tell them that my last fundraiser brought in $10,000 for us and a check for $2,000 made out to the Yellowstone Association?"

"Makes you look like a good fundraiser, if you ask me," Nathan said, scooping up the last bite of his salad.

"No, it makes me look like a rube who can't remember the name of his own cause," Ezra snapped. "Tomorrow night, please, talk all you want about setting broken arms while hanging from a rope off Bunsen Peak or sticking wild herbs in sucking chest wounds or whatever it is that you do. That sort of thing opens wallets. Just don't mention the Association by name. I'd prefer to raise money for my own Foundation."

With a shake of his head, and a drag of his fork through the remains of what looked to be remarkably poor quality bleu cheese dressing, Nathan said, "I won't lie if they ask me how I got trained, but I'll try not to bring it up either." He considered the dressing on his fork, then dropped it into his plate. "That do?"

"That'll do nicely, thank you," Ezra said, looking out the window. "And now, if you'll excuse me, my friend, I see Mrs. Holtzmann out there and really ought to go ingratiate myself."

"Mrs. Holtzmann?" Nathan asked.

"One of the donors here for the fete tomorrow evening. She is very elderly, very infirm, and has no living relatives. I am endeavouring to win my way into her affections," Ezra said, rising to his feet as he watched the white haired lady proceeding slowly along the sidewalk.

"Into her affections?" Nathan said, incredulous. "You're not gonna tell me you're hoping to marry her?"

"Of course not," Ezra said, not at all offended. "She is unfortunately completely faithful to the memory of her dear departed husband. I am hoping to take on the role of the son she never had. Her money oughtn't be wasted when she passes on to her great reward."

Nathan shook his head and scooped up his trash, saying, "You trying to get her money for the Foundation or for yourself?"

"Well, naturally, I hope that she leaves a substantial bequest to the Foundation, but if her money were to find its way into my pocket...well, I assure you that I would pass along a fair portion of the largesse to my employers," Ezra said, eyes still on the old lady. Fortunately, Mrs. Holtzmann didn't move quickly and he could catch up to her on the sidewalk without breaking out of a walk, but he didn't want anyone else offering to help her. "Excuse me," he said, walking to the door.

Nathan waved him goodbye, shaking his head with bemused tolerance. Which was often the reaction he got from his friends. As he got to the door, Nathan asked, "So what did y'all do with that check for the Association last time?"

Ezra stopped and looked back over his shoulder, poker face on. "I couldn't say. I gave it to my superiors and let them deal with it," he ducked out the door before he gave anything away. He wasn't entirely sure why he was friends with people who could read him even when he would have sworn there was nothing to read. But Chris and Vin and Josiah and, especially, Nathan all were perfectly capable of seeing right through his most opaque expressions and phrases.

Somehow he found that he liked that quality in a friend. Made them seem less like a mark and more like a peer.

He just hoped his mother never found out. He didn't like to think of what she would say about him deliberately associating with people he couldn't take advantage of.

Thursday, 9:35 pm

Chris sat in his living room, half-drunk beer propped on his knee, watching the last glow of sunlight fade from the sky. The sun had set long before, dropping behind the western mountains, but he'd learned that the sky stayed light for as much as an hour afterwards, the day not ended just because of the artificially high skyline created by the mountains. The only light other than that of the sky was the glow of a small fire in the fireplace.

Another thing he'd learned to get used to since moving to Montana. There was no way that they'd have ever had a fire lit in August in Phoenix, the heat would have driven them out of the house even in the middle of the night. But here, even the hottest days had chilly nights and a fire felt good when he had the time and inclination to make one.

He looked away from the window toward the fireplace, grateful that Buck had pushed him to leave Phoenix after losing Sarah and Adam. Glad he didn't have to drive past the new home that had replaced the burned out shell they'd died in. Glad their ghosts weren't haunting him at every grocery store and gas station, reminding him of times they'd shared together. It was hard starting new, new home, new state, new career, but the months between losing them and deciding to move had been agony, dulled only slightly by whiskey and Buck's frequent presence.

The day before, when he'd looked around the house and only seen the faintest hints of Sarah there, a color she liked in the carpet, a scrub jay flying past the window, he'd been furious. But today he was glad of it.

He drank the rest of his beer, now half-way to flat and mostly warm, with a slight scowl, as the sky went from incandescent blue to starry black almost in the blink of an eye.

He considered throwing another log on the fire, maybe getting another beer, but before he'd managed to move from considering to actually doing the phone rang.

He checked his watch as he answered. Late for a social call. "Larabee," he answered, as he always did.

"Chris, this is Orin Travis," said the rough, warm voice on the other side of the line. "I just heard from Forest Service law enforcement."

Chris tucked the phone between his shoulder and his ear and pushed himself out of his deep chair, as he said, "What's the word?"

"Word is that they took two bears, a grizzly and a black, a couple of bighorn sheep, and they had five cages with blackfooted ferrets in them, probably for the pet trade," Travis said in a voice like he was reading from notes. "Looks to be some bull elk too, though they'll need to get DNA testing on those to be sure."

"Looks to be?" Chris asked, jaw tight, as he threw another log on the fire and poked at it until flames started to dance along its length.

"Apparently an elk's," Travis coughed slightly, "penis looks just like a mule deer's once removed from the animal. There's no market for mule deer, though, and elk can be sold in China for a substantial amount of money. So they're willing to bet they were elk."

Chris choked a little himself, then said, "Any word on Vin?"

"I assume he's fine," Travis said, and Chris clenched his jaw to keep in his irritation that Travis hadn't thought to ask. "They didn't say anything to the contrary."

"Yes, sir," Chris said, rubbing his temple as he walked into the kitchen, setting the empty in the sink to be rinsed and recycled later. "Is there anything else?" He opened the fridge and pulled out another Moose Drool beer. Another thing he'd never have found in Phoenix.

There was a pause and a noise like shuffling paper, then Travis said, "I'd like to talk to you about this young intern Dunne..."

Friday, 1:03 pm

Vin was standing with his backpack at his feet when the Park Service truck pulled into the parking lot at the Sportsman Lake trailhead. He loved being out in the backcountry, it was why he'd joined the Park Service after all, but he'd been looking forward to seeing Chris, all of his friends, ever since he'd watched the Forest Service take away the poachers and their disgusting haul.

This pleasure at coming back from the high country was new to him. This was the first time in his life he had people, friends, worth coming back to.

The truck had barely stopped when he tossed his backpack into the bed and he opened the door, saying, "Hey, cowb..." The teasing greeting that he shared only with Chris died on his lips as he saw Josiah there behind the wheel. He ducked his head for a second, then climbed into the cab saying, "Josiah. Hey." He hoped he didn't sound disappointed.

"Welcome back to civilization, brother, or what passes for it around here," Josiah said, waiting until Vin had buckled himself in before putting the truck in gear. "There's a bottle of water there for you, in case you need it." He pointed to the unopened bottle in the cup holder.

Vin took it gratefully and drank deep before saying, "Thanks." He generally wound out slightly dehydrated at the end of a hike, because it didn't make any sense to purify and haul around any more water than necessary, but he didn't think any of his friends had ever noticed that about him.

"Don't thank me, thank Chris," Josiah said, turning out onto the Grand Loop Road toward Mammoth and home. "He told me to bring it. Must have mentioned it three times."

Vin smiled to himself as he took another drink, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Surprised he ain't here," he said, cautiously. He knew Chris would have been there if he could be, so the fact that he wasn't meant something was up. Something he might need to know about.

"All I know is that he was called into the Superintendent's office about noon and asked me to come get you," Josiah said. "Might have had to do with your poachers."

"They ain't getting off or anything?" Vin said, anger drawing him upright. "Bastards ought to be shot."

"No idea, so there's no sense getting stirred up about it," Josiah said, his voice a soothing rumble.

Vin thought for moment to resist being soothed but then realized that Josiah was right. He sagged back into his seat, stretching his legs as far as they would go, and leaning his head back against the head rest. He slid his hat forward to keep the bright August sun out of his eyes and dozed lightly, grateful that it was Josiah who'd come for him, since Chris couldn't. The worst part about coming back was having to talk to folks after days or a week of hardly saying anything, except to check backcountry permits and help hikers if they needed it. Josiah understood silence, and Vin was profoundly grateful for that.

Bad enough that he was going to have to go to this party tonight.

Vin snapped out of his doze when Josiah braked, slowing down for the busy junctions at Mammoth Hot Springs. A few minutes later he pulled into the parking lot behind the Visitor Center, saying, "Chris asked for you to see if he's free before I take you to your camper."

Vin nodded and climbed out of the cab of the truck. He looked at his backpack and hiking stick, then walked on. He could stop back by and pick them up if he wasn't going the rest of the way home in that truck. He turned to look at Josiah, who'd stopped at the edge of the parking lot. "You comin' in?"

Josiah pointed to a shady spot under a big tree and said, "Think I'll wait out here. Got some thinking to do." He dropped to the ground, legs crossed under him and Vin smiled, remembering what his grandfather had told him about bison bulls going off to quiet places for solitude and contemplation. Josiah looked like nothing more than one of those bulls, wise and thoughtful.

Vin went into the building, waving a greeting to JD who was helping a couple of visitors at the information desk. "Chris back?" he asked.

JD looked over the shoulders of the couple and said, "Think so. We got busy for a while and I was kind of tied up, so I'm not sure."

Vin nodded and walked back into the office, dropping his radio in the recharger as he passed it. He stopped at his desk, pulling the catalog JD'd stashed for him out with a smile. Flipping through the pages and looking at the pictures as he walked, he went to Chris's office and stuck his head through the door. Chris was sitting at his desk reading reports. "Hey, cowboy," Vin said.

Chris looked up with a smile, and said, "You just call me a cowboy?" The growl in his voice didn’t diminish the smile at all.

Vin grinned and said, "Your ears goin' bad or something?" He dropped the empty water bottle into the recycling bin near the door. “Thanks for the water. I appreciate it.” Chris waved off his thanks with one of the papers in his hand and Vin nodded at it, saying, "Forest Service isn't letting those bastards go, are they?"

Chris dropped the papers onto the desk, face down, Vin noted. "Better not be." He looked at the papers and back at Vin, an amused looking twist to the corner of his mouth, "This is just duty rosters and schedules for the next couple of weeks."

Vin nodded, profoundly grateful that his life involved almost none of that. "Ah, that boss crap. Josiah said you wanted to see me." He rolled the catalog and tucked it under his arm.

Chris pushed his seat back from the desk and rose to his feet, grabbing his hat from the windowsill behind him. "Yeah, nothing major. Just wanted to apologize for not picking you up."

"No biggie," Vin said. "Coulda walked in if it weren't for Ezra's shindig tonight."

"Speaking of which, Travis says formal uniforms," Chris said.

Vin winced. "Oh, hell," he said, running his hand through his hair. "I ain't quite sure where mine is." Last he'd seen it was when he'd gone to Nathan's graduation party for his EMS certification and that was over a year ago.

"Figured that," Chris said as they walked out together. "I'll help you look for it. Aren’t that many places it could get lost in your camper."

"I don't know if it'll be in no condition for wearing even if we do find it," Vin said, a vague recollection of stuffing it into a large paper sack in the back of the cupboard he used for a closet tickling at his mind. He rubbed at the back of his neck. "Ezra don't mind me going to these things dressed normal, why's Travis got to interfere this time?"

"I assume he has his reasons," Chris said, waving to JD as they passed the desk. "We can iron it at my place. You can shower there too."

Friday, 7:11 pm

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, after spotting Vin hovering at the edge of the party and waving him over. He placed a hand firmly on Vin's shoulder and guided him toward a knot of people a few feet away, "I understand from Josiah and Nathan that you have had an exciting and eventful week."

Vin shrugged and nodded, saying, "Suppose you could call it that. Did good work, anyway."

"I'm very tempted to invite you up to the podium to tell us all about it during supper," Ezra said, his best winning smile on his face. It grew wider when he saw Vin's blue eyes open in alarm before narrowing again. Before Vin could voice the flat refusal Ezra could see building, Ezra went on, "However, Ranger Jackson said just enough to have these folks anxious to hear, before he went off to get himself a drink. Perhaps you could let us all," he waved around the group of people, two smiling socialites, a bored looking couple from New York City, and a wealthy good ol' boy from Texas, "in on what you've been up to."

Vin forced a smile onto his face and moved like he was tipping his hat to the ladies. "Well, we had some poachers took a couple of our bears. I spent two days tracking them into the Gallatin National Forest."

"Tracking them!" One of the socialites exclaimed, with a screeching laugh that made Ezra want to wince. "Like an Indian or something?"

Vin's cheeks colored slightly, then he said, "Like that, yes, ma'am." Vin took a deep breath, shot a glare at Ezra that made him glad they were surrounded by a room full of people, then went on, "Followed foot-marks, broken branches, places where they stopped to eat or just take a rest. Found their camp on the other side of Electric Peak..." As he warmed to his story, Ezra moved off, making sure that every donor had a drink and was offered food.

Out on the terrace, a few couples were swaying to the music of a brass quartet playing old standards. Live muzak, Ezra thought with a mental sneer and a visible smile. The band leader nodded in his direction, then at the dancers. Ezra waved in return and went on his way, walking around the edges of the terrace so he could keep an eye on things.

In the shadows of a big oak tree he found Josiah, squatting at the edge of the terrace. "Mr. Sanchez, I expected you'd be in there telling Indian tales to amuse and enthrall the masses," he said.

Josiah rose to his feet and tossed something into a nearby trashcan. "Just spotted some Russian knapweed that needed pulling," he said, wiping his hands on a paper napkin. "I'll be back inside in a minute."

"You're pulling weeds?" Ezra asked, incredulous. "During a banquet?"

Josiah pulled his head back and looked at Ezra through guileless eyes. "It was setting seed. Don't want it to spread around here." He looked out into the darkness. "Meant to spend the day weeding over at the chapel, but got caught up with a little of this and a little of that. Everything in a hurry. Didn't have time." Ezra's eyes followed Josiah's to the ground where a darker patch of turned over earth was visible where he'd pulled up the weed, "Reckon this was a reminder for me to slow down and take a minute for what's important."

Ezra stared at him for a minute, incredulous, then said, "Well, what is important right now is making certain our guests have a good time. And making certain that they are aware of all the good their donations could do. Perhaps you could talk about the importance of eliminating weeds."

"Bet I could at that," Josiah said. "Bison won't eat the knapweed." He bent down and pulled up another purple flowered stalk. He caught Ezra's eye as he walked away, waved the flower, and said, "For show and tell."

Friday, 7:45 pm

While most of the guests were lined up for the buffet, Chris found Vin standing at the edge of the room. He looked at his watch. "Half-way through your dues, pard," he said, by way of greeting. "You had to do any dancing yet?"

Vin shook his head. "Not yet, though there's a lady with a laugh like a raven who's got her eye on me for after dinner," he said and nodded in the direction of a blonde girl, maybe twenty-five, wearing a pink sequinned dress. "You?" Vin smoothed his hands down his coat, obviously uncomfortable, then let them drop into loose fists at his side.

"Well, if you can call it dancing when the lady can't move an inch without her walker," Chris said, leaning against the wall. "Felt more like parallel parking." When Vin chuckled and relaxed next to him, pushing up the tails of his coat so he could hook his thumbs in his belt as was his custom, Chris said, "Heard you talking to those folks earlier about the poachers."

"Ezra thought it'd make a good story," Vin said, tensing. "Didn't give no names or nothing, so there's no trouble, right?"

"How come I didn't know you'd gotten shot at, Tanner?" Chris said, voice low. He'd been stopped in his tracks when he heard Vin talk about standing up and shouting to scare off a bear the poachers were taking aim at, drawing their fire to himself. The thought of losing one of his men, his friends, like that had bitten into him like a black fly, the sting of it worrying at him.

Vin relaxed again. "Didn't come up, I reckon. Soon's I got back, I got distracted by finding all the bits and baubles I need for this get up." He flicked at one of the bronze insignia on his coat lapel, then tucked his hand in his pocket. "I's kind of glad they did, to tell the truth. Even if they manage to shake clear of some of the other charges, we got them dead to rights on taking a shot at a federal officer. And carrying a gun in Yellowstone. Hell, I even got a photograph of them with the gun."

Chris turned to him with an angry snarl, but kept his voice low. "You stopped to take a picture while they were shooting at you? What happened to watching your back?"

Vin grinned and gave him a wink. "Weren't shooting at my back," he said. Chris clenched his teeth and Vin's voice and attitude sobered. "Told you I wasn't going to stand by and watch them kill more of our animals, Chris. I had real good cover, so they weren't likely to hit me anyway."

Chris wondered how much trouble he'd get in if he got himself a drink from the bar, despite being in uniform. "Damn it, Vin, I'm gonna start making you take a partner up there if you do something stupid like that again."

Vin shook his head and looked away, eyes narrowed. "Did what I had to do, Chris, and nothing bad came of it." He pushed away from the wall, dropping his hands to his sides and smoothing out his coat. "Line's gone down and I've been looking forward to real food for a couple of days. 'Scuse me," he said, with a nod of his head in Chris's direction but without meeting his eyes. His words were congenial enough, but his voice held an edge of anger.

Chris stayed at the edge of the room for a few more minutes, trying to figure out if there was any way to stop Vin from taking risks like that short of chaining him to a desk.

Nathan walked by from the direction of the terrace and stopped next to Chris. "You okay?" he asked, forehead wrinkled.

Chris nodded. "Yeah. Just one of those days when it's tough to be the boss, I guess," he said.

Nathan laughed and said, "Let me guess. Vin did something that could have gotten him hurt or killed and you're trying to figure out how to keep him from doing it again?" Chris gave a chuff of a laugh and Nathan went serious, saying, "Do you remember last summer, when that kid fell through the crust on the Upper Terrace and Buck rescued him? Got scalded pretty bad?"

Chris nodded. It was before he'd been promoted, and he'd been directing traffic at a bear jam on the Hoodoos Road when he heard on the radio that there was a ranger in need of medical assistance. He pressed his lips together. "I remember."

"What about earlier this summer when that elk kicked me good?" Nathan said.

Chris remembered that one as well. Nathan was trying to help a visitor who'd irritated the animal get clear and got kicked himself for his trouble. He sighed as he got Nathan's point and nodded, reluctantly, unwilling to give up his irritation so lightly.

"This isn't a safe job, Chris. We all accept the risks but you got to let us do our jobs," Nathan said. Before he walked away, he leaned close and said, "And whatever he did, you just ask yourself if you would have done it too."

Chris only had to think for a second before moving away from the wall and toward the buffet table with a lighter step.

Friday, 8:12 pm

Carefully balancing his over-full plate of chicken a la king and stuffed shells, with a smaller plate with salad and a roll, and a third plate with a slice of chocolate cake, JD looked around the room for a place to sit. Preferably one near one of his friends. He'd managed to get through this fundraiser, his first, mostly by staying next to Buck or Josiah and following their lead, nodding and smiling as Buck talked about the importance of the hot springs or Josiah told stories about elk and wolves and, strangely, weeds.

He caught Buck's eye and Buck gestured to the empty chair next to him. It was on the other side of the room, so he had a long, precarious walk, but it was better than sitting next to a bunch of strangers and being expected to entertain them or something.

When he finally made it over, without having dropped anything, Buck looked over his plates and said, "Damn, kid. They do let you go back for seconds, you know?"

JD set down the plates carefully, then said, "Of course, but I didn't know what they'd be out of before I could get back. So I figured I'd get some of everything I wanted."

JD smiled at the ladies at the table, two twittering debutantes, a middle aged lady wrapped in a fox fur coat that made JD wonder if she even understood where she was, and three older women who looked like they were going to pinch his cheeks if he didn't keep his distance. He said a general good evening to all of them as he pulled out his chair and sat.

Buck grinned, most especially at the debutantes, and said, "Well, I think we get a few minutes to eat in peace before the speeches start. I'm one of the park rangers here, Buck Wilmington, and this black hole next to me is JD Dunne, one of our best interns."

JD, having just taken a big bite of chicken, waved, hiding his mouth behind his other hand.

A few minutes of eating and very scattered talking passed, JD more grateful than ever to have the unglamorous title "intern", which worked like a charm to keep these wealthy people at their distance. Buck handled the burden of talking to them, sharing stories about the history of the park and the geysers.

JD, his back to the podium, didn't pay much attention to the first two speakers, one of the bigwigs from the Foundation Ezra worked for and a man who'd given ten thousand dollars for wolf research the year before, but when Superintendent Travis was introduced he wiped his mouth and twisted around in his seat so he could see and hear.

Travis, looking grave and dignified, began his speech with the usual 'thank yous' and introductions and JD was about to turn back to his chocolate cake when he said, "A few minutes ago, Mr. Fenton of the Yellowstone Park Foundation made some special 'thank yous' to donors who have contributed to the work of the Foundation and Yellowstone National Park itself in outstanding ways." A balding man with round red cheeks waved in acknowledgment. "There was one special announcement of that nature that I asked to make personally, as it impacts the operations of my office directly. I have a special thank you for Mrs. Irene Holtzmann, of Providence, Rhode Island. Mrs. Holtzmann is a very great fan of the park's website and all the multimedia features we have there."

From the far side of the room a high, ragged voice said, "I love the podcasts," drawing a brief burst of laughter.

When the laughter died down, Travis went on, "She has made a generous endowment to the Foundation which will provide enough money for the park to hire one technical expert in a permanent, year-round position."

Travis's eyes roved over the room, and he rocked back on his heels, looking almost smug. "I spent some time discussing with the staff all around the park who would be the best choice for this position, and got some excellent candidates nominated." JD sat back in his chair, trying not to let himself feel disappointed. He'd done his research and knew that positions in the park, especially year-round positions, were hard to come by. No one who worked here actually wanted to leave. He turned back to the table and took a drink of his milk.

Travis droned on for a bit about the merits of the various candidates, and JD wished his milk were something stronger, like beer. He thought about excusing himself but figured he ought to wait until after the speeches were done before he left. And he still owed Ezra almost two hours at the party. He winced. Maybe he could help Josiah with the dishes in the kitchen...

Buck nudged his shoulder and pointed toward Travis, so JD twisted around again. From the podium, Travis caught his eye and said, "Ah, there you are, young man. After careful consideration of the park's needs and the details of Mrs. Holtzmann's gift, I have decided to give the position to Mr. JD Dunne, the only intern in the park who can fix the webcams in the morning and the two-way radios in the afternoon and still have time during lunch to keep our databases current."

JD was still processing his words when Buck grabbed him around the shoulders and cheered, sparking a round of applause from the whole room.

After it died down, Travis pulled a piece of paper from his breast pocket and said, "My secretary, who unfortunately couldn't be here this evening, asked me to read a short note after making this announcement." He made a show of putting on his glasses, then read, "To Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Standish, and Rangers Larabee, Jackson, Tanner and especially you Buck Wilmington..." He held up the piece of paper to show where the name Buck Wilmington had been underlined repeatedly, then went on, "Stop calling to ask about his application. Thank you kindly, Jill Stokely."

Buck whooped out a laugh and shouted, "It worked, didn't it?" Another round of laughter and applause rippled around the room, mostly carried by the people who worked in and near the Albright Visitor Center.

Within seconds, JD was surrounded by his friends, each of them in turn shaking his hand and congratulating him. Even Vin, who was getting close to the end of the time he'd lost to Ezra, was showing no signs of being ready to leave and was, instead, laughing and smiling with the rest of them.

After a couple of minutes of cheer, Ezra took him by the shoulder and said, "Time for you to meet your benefactor, John Dunne." With a wave to the others, JD let himself be lead away to where an elderly lady in a bright blue dress sat talking animatedly with a group of young men.

As they were walking away, Nathan said, with a chuckle, "Well, at least you got her money for a good cause, Ezra."

Ezra shot a look back over his shoulder, then gave a crooked smile and said, "There's still time, Mr. Jackson. I haven't forsaken hope. This is just a fraction of what's available."

Friday, 10:26 pm

Vin, breathing hard from dancing with the pink-sequinned woman yet again, pulled up a chair next to Chris and glared at Ezra across the patio table. "You owe me two hours, Ezra, and don't think I ain't taking it out of you. I'm thinking of takin' Peso and a pack-horse or two up Hellroaring Creek next weekend and I'm gonna need a lot of help cleaning tack and getting ready. Maybe I'll even give Tiny the day off and let you muck out stalls or something." Chris smiled, happy to hear the good natured grumbling.

Ezra grinned, white teeth gleaming in the light pouring out onto the terrace from the banquet hall, and said, "Mr. Tanner, I don't recall asking you to stay beyond your alloted time and consequently I don't believe I can be held responsible for Miss Rathbone's repeated requests for your company on the dance floor." His smile was friendly, though, and Chris figured that Vin'd have his help with the tack despite his words.

JD, still grinning so hard Chris figured his cheeks must be hurting, was standing off to the side of the room talking to Casey Welles, there with the catering staff from the Mammoth Dining Room, part of the visitor services in the area, along with a few stores and a large hotel. She smiled and laughed and let him lead her to the dance floor for a slow dance.

Chris sat back in his chair and heaved a sigh of contentment. One thing he'd learned in his life was to appreciate the good times when they came, because you never knew how long they'd last.

As if in response to his thoughts, his cell phone rang. He excused himself from Ezra and Vin, now bickering good naturedly about their deal, and stepped aside to answer it. While he talked to the ranger on duty at the station, Vin's eyes never left him and he was poised and ready when Chris came back and said, "Some drunks are causing a ruckus over at the hotel." Vin rose to his feet while he was speaking and Chris met his eyes with a small nod. "Time to get back to work."

*** The End ***