BROTHERS IN PEACE

by Gail R.

Walker pulled back the sheet that covered the two bodies. His gut wrenched at the sight -- two young black boys, maybe eleven or twelve years old, riddled with bullets.

Standing, he scanned the dilapidated basketball court. At one corner, a struggling fir tree was decorated with Christmas tinsel. A bright spot in a blighted neighborhood. Looking back at the two boys, Walker sadly shook his head.

“Any witnesses?” he quietly asked the DPD officer beside him.

“No. At least, none that will come forward.”

A crowd had gathered on the edges of the blacktop, held back by the yellow crime scene tape that an officer was stringing around the court. Walker noticed a group of black youths staring menacingly. He strode toward them, recognizing them as members of the Ravens. Midnight, their leader, stepped forward to confront the Ranger.

“Somebody’s gotta pay, Walker.”

“You let me handle it, Midnight. We don’t know who did it.”

Another youth spoke up. “It was the Toros! It had to be.”

“No one saw it happen, Jamal,” Walker reiterated. “Midnight, I want your word on this. No payback.”

Walker stared into Midnight’s eyes and the youth grudgingly nodded. A few of the other Ravens exchanged surprised glances as Midnight gave in so easily. Walker headed for his truck, stopping as he heard a woman screaming. Two officers were restraining a black woman.

“My baby! Let me go to my baby!”

She broke away from the officers and rushed to the bodies, falling to her knees and lifting one of the dead boys into her arms. Her pitiful sobs pierced Walker’s heart.

“Merry Christmas,” he murmured as he climbed into the RAM.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Walker stepped into C.D.’s, waved to his former partner standing behind the bar, then located Alex in a booth. It was sleeting outside and he brushed the ice crystals off of his jacket as he made his way to her, passing by the huge Christmas tree and the holiday lights and candles strategically set around the room. He wasn’t much in the Christmas spirit and he sighed wearily while sliding into the booth and into Alex’s outstretched arm.

She hugged him, concerned. “I heard about the drive-by shooting. You okay?”

Walker nodded and sighed. The recent increase in gang activity was alarming. Shootouts, stabbings and bombings were occurring on a weekly basis, and no matter how hard he and Trivette tried to keep the peace, something happened to disrupt it again. But that was all going to change. He’d talked with the gang leaders individually over the past few weeks, gotten them to agree to a secret meeting that he would mediate, and if he had anything to do with it, there’d be peace on the streets of Dallas soon.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” he replied to Alex. “Two kids are dead, though.” He looked down at the table.

Alex gently massaged his shoulders, knowing how personal he took it when kids died, especially kids he had made contact with in the gangs.

“Any leads?” she asked him.

He shook his head.

“Do you think it was the Toros?”

Walker shook his head again. “I just talked to Pedro. He swore they had nothing to do with it, claims they were set up. I want to believe him. Maybe ballistics will tell us something.”

“How about the Ravens? Do you think they’ll seek revenge?”

“I talked to them already. I think I convinced Midnight to hold off until we know more.”

C.D. approached the table with bowls of chili and frosted mugs of beer. He’d heard about the killings too. “Here ya go, Cordell. Eat up --- it’s food for the soul.” He put a hand on Walker’s shoulder, his voice laced with concern. “You’re doing all you can do.”

Walker looked up at the kind, wise eyes. C.D. smiled and headed back to the bar.

“Where’s Jimmy?” Alex asked, taking a bite of her chili.

“He’ll be along. He was finishing up some paperwork.” He sighed again, picturing the two dead boys on the basketball court, gunned down as they played one on one.

Alex wrapped her arm around his and spoke softly. “You can’t save them all, Walker. Think of the ones you’ve pulled off the streets. Think of the successes. Like BJ.”

“I know,” he answered, giving her a grateful smile at the mention of the eleven year old black boy in his karate class. It was almost time for him to test for his yellow belt. Walker was amazed at the progress the youngster had made in such a short period of time. He’d come into the Kick Drugs program as a difficult, bitter child, hating Walker just for the fact that he was white. Now he was talking to Walker, telling him about schoolwork and friends, enthralled with the karate he was learning. Walker knew he could only take a small amount of credit for the turnaround. The accolades belonged to Maisie Williams, the paramedic. She’d taken the boy in, become his foster mother, and since then the child had thrived.

Alex’s smile lifted much of the heaviness away from Walker’s thoughts. She was so good for him --- he wondered for the millionth time why it had taken him so long to see that. He squeezed her hand, then pulled her close, giving her a warm kiss.

“Break it up,” said a jovial voice.

They looked up to see a smiling round face.

“Maisie,” Walker said. “I was just thinking about you.”

“Really? Thinking about me while you’re smooching with this smart, gorgeous blonde? That witchcraft stuff must really work.”

Smiling, Walker motioned for her to sit down, but she did so cautiously, glancing at the ceiling.

“Just making sure I’m not under a fire sprinkler. There’s a lot of heat rising from this booth,” she teased.

C.D., clearing off the next booth, snickered. “I’ve had the fire hose out here a lot, lately.”

Walker felt his face reddening but Alex laughed.

“We were talking about BJ,” she told Maisie.

“Oh, the little tough guy,” Maisie chuckled. “He’s over at a buddy’s house now.” She took a chip from the basket of nachos on the table, fingering it absently, losing her smile.

Alex noticed the pensive pose and stood up, realizing Maisie had something big on her mind. “If you two will excuse me, I need to talk with C.D. for a while.”

Maisie smiled in appreciation. “Thanks, Alex.”

After Alex was gone, Walker peered at Maisie curiously. “What’s on your mind?”

She met the Ranger’s eyes. “I have a nephew, Walk-Man. He’s 23 and he moved here about a month ago. He spent the last four years in Huntsville.”

“Prison?”

She nodded. “Manslaughter. There was a fight, a young man was killed. It was gang related. Elf says he didn’t do it, but a witness says he did.” She shrugged, letting Walker know she wasn’t convinced of his guilt or his innocence.

“Elf?”

She chuckled. “That’s the nickname I gave him when he was tiny. His name is Elvin.”

Walker sat back in the booth, waiting for her to go on.

“He lived with me in Alabama from the time he was five, because my sister was a junkie. Never knew who his father was. But when he was fourteen, my sister claimed she’d gotten her act together and took him back. I fought it but the courts let her do it. Four years later she OD’d, but he was eighteen by then and on his own. He was an aggressive boy, but never out of line when I had him. But Walk-Man, the four years he spent with his momma was enough to undo all the discipline and love I had given him. My sister hauled him around to every drug den and filthy dive in Mobile, turned him mean.”

“Is he in trouble here?”

“Not yet, but I feel it coming. He’s got two slash marks on his upper arm.....” She trailed off, knowing the cuts were probably gang markings. “I really don’t know what to do. I love him like he was my own.”

“Do you want me to talk to him?”

Maisie blew out a breath. “I thought about that, but there’s a problem. He takes exception to ‘people like you’.” Her eyes filled with embarrassment.

Walker smiled slightly. “You mean he doesn’t like men with beards?”

Maisie broke out into a grin, grateful that he wasn’t insulted. “If only it was that easy.” She sighed again. “Actually, you have two strikes against you. You’re white and you’re a cop.”

“Would he talk to Trivette?”

“I thought about Jimbo, but there’s still the Ranger problem. I just didn’t know where else to turn, Walk-Man. What should I do?”

Walker ran a hand across his beard. “Will he listen to you? Do you have some pull with him?”

“He’s still got a soft spot for his Aunt Maisie, if that’s what you mean.”

He nodded. “Then use that. Talk to him, make him see how senseless gangs are. Push that soft spot.”

“That’s what I like about you, Walk-Man, you don’t pull punches.”

“You do whatever works. If you change your mind, want me to meet with him, just let me know.”

“I will. Thanks, handsome.” Maisie stood up and gestured to the sprinkler on the ceiling. “Sorry I interrupted your sparking.” She winked as she turned to walk away, leaving the Ranger red-faced again.

Walker joined Alex at the bar as Trivette hustled inside, bumping smack into Maisie. He was shivering from the nasty weather.

“Jimbo, you’re chilled to the bone. Go stand over there by the fire.” She pointed to Walker and Alex. “You’ll get warmed real quick.”

She left, leaving Trivette scratching his head as he made his way to his partner.

“What did she mean by that?” he asked Walker.

“Never mind,” Walker answered.

“Is she okay?” Alex asked.

“She has a nephew who just moved here. Sounds like he joined the Ravens.”

“Oh man,” Trivette stated, “that’s trouble.”

Walker nodded in agreement.

“Poor Maisie,” said Alex. “She’s such a good person. I hope this nephew doesn’t end up hurting her.”

“I hope not either,” Walker replied, “but I have a bad feeling about it.”

C.D. frowned, knowing to take Walker’s “feelings” seriously. “Cordell, I don’t like this clandestine meeting you’re gonna have with the gang leaders. I don’t think it’s smart for you to go alone.”

“That was their one condition, C.D. I’m not crazy about it either, but they don’t trust anyone else.”

“Not even me,” Trivette added. “Walker’s the one who’s made contact with each leader. They know him, they know he keeps his word.”

“And in return, they promised no weapons, no violence, just talk,” Walker said. “I still don’t like it,” C.D. grumbled.

Alex didn’t either, but she knew nothing would change Walker’s mind. He’d worked so hard to gain the trust of the gang leaders, and if a truce came out of this meeting, then it would certainly be worth the worry she was hiding. And she was hiding it, deep inside. But he knew. And he told her so, although almost never with words. Each time the subject came up, when she couldn’t help the flash of worry that crossed her face, there he was, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze, or letting that half-smile reach her, or convincing her with his eyes that everything would be okay. She sighed inwardly and took his arm.

“Come on, let’s finish our chili.”

C.D. leaned close to Trivette as Walker and Alex returned to their booth. “Jimmy, won’t Cordell tell you anything about this meeting?”

“No, he won’t betray their confidence.”

“Yeah, that’s Cordell all right. Gotta admire him for that.”

“I just hope we can count on the gangs to keep their end of the bargain.”

C.D. nodded, glancing over at Walker, his arm around Alex as they talked softly. Walker was so dedicated to kids, and the gangs had become his personal project. He’d made unbelievable strides in the past months with the gang leaders, and C.D. was still amazed that his former partner had managed to set up the impending encounter. Eight major gangs had agreed to the meet. If it was successful, Walker would have a major coup at hand. But if it went sour...........

C.D. shook the ominous thought away. He watched as Alex laughed at something Walker said, then pecked him on the cheek. C.D. smiled, ecstatic that the two of them had finally sorted things out and seemed so happy together. He glanced up at the fire sprinkler and chuckled at Maisie’s comment.

BJ bounded through the door, followed by Elvin and another man. Maisie reached for a hug from BJ.

“Hi, tough guy. Did you have fun at Kevin’s house?”

“It was great, Maisie. Then Elf and Leon got me ice cream.”

“Yum, where’s mine?”

“We sort of ate it,” BJ snickered.

Maisie laughed, then steered BJ toward the bathroom. “Time for a bath and then get ready for bed.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Maisie smiled at her nephew. “Thanks for picking him up for me, Elf. Hello, Leon,” she added sullenly. Leon was trouble. She’d known it from the first day Elf had introduced her to him. “You boys wants to stay for a while?”

“No, Aunt Maisie, we got something to take care of.”

Maisie took her nephew’s arm. “Leon, will you excuse us a minute?”

Leon nodded and left the house. Maisie pointed to the healing scars on Elvin’s arm.

“I’m not ignorant, Elf. I know what those cuts mean. Please think about what you’re doing. And think about this -- BJ is looking at you as a roll model. He hasn’t had any men in his life until recently. Don’t lead him down the wrong road.”

“Better me as a roll model than that white karate teacher he’s always talking about.”

“Don’t start, Elf. He’s come a long way because of that class and the teacher.” She didn’t tell him that Walker was a good friend. She wanted him to discover that on his own, learn to respect and like the Ranger for who he was, not because she considered him to be a fine person. And, she admitted to herself, she didn’t want to loose Elf. If he knew a white man was one of her closest friends, he’d fly off the handle. The thought made her feel guilty, as if she was betraying Walker. But what else was she to do? Elf was family, blood.

Elvin leaned down to give her a kiss on the cheek. “I don’t want to get into it with you, Aunt Maisie. And don’t worry about me.”

Maisie patted his arm as he left, still worried but not pursuing the argument. She found BJ in his bedroom, idly playing with a Lego set.

“Thought I told you to get a bath, tough guy.”

He looked up at her thoughtfully. “Maisie, does Ranger Walker really like me?”

Maisie sat down beside him. “You know he does, BJ. What brought this on?”

“Well, Elf said that no white person could really care about me.”

Maisie felt anger welling up. She loved Elf, but his prejudice was maddening.

“BJ, Elf is my nephew and I love him, but he’s wrong. Color doesn’t make a difference to most people. Especially someone like Ranger Walker. He knows it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Look at the kids in his karate class -- most of them aren’t white. Would he teach the class if he didn’t care about other ethnic groups?”

“No, I guess not.”

“We’ve been all through this. You judge a person by his actions and intent, not by his looks. Right?”

BJ nodded, but Maisie could tell he was still confused. Well, time would win out. The more BJ got to know Walk-Man, the more he’d see she was right. At least she hope so.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Elvin and Leon pulled into an alley and stopped the car.

“We need to talk,” Elvin told Leon. “I did the hit today on the two kids.”

Leon’s eyes grew wide. “Man, are you crazy?”

“The Toros will get blamed for it and that’ll take care of them. Then we’ll figure out something to take care of the other gangs.”

“What about Midnight? He ain’t gonna let this go. And he’s in tight with that Ranger.”

“He ain’t gonna do shit about it. I got plans for him too.”

“Like what?”

“I think it’s time for a new Ravens leader. One that ain’t afraid of hitting back and ain’t bending over to kiss no Ranger’s ass.”

Leon nodded, intrigued. “Tell me what to do.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

It was late, closing time at C.D.’s, but the semi-retired Ranger didn’t have the heart to let the two lone dancers know it was time to shut down. The jukebox had been spitting out one love song after another, thanks to Trivette’s tinkering, and as the evening wore on, Alex and Walker seemed oblivious to everyone else, focused only on slow dancing and each other.

The last programmed song ended. Walker drew Alex up for a lingering kiss, then continued to sway with her in his arms. Alex, her head against his chest, looked at the bar, where Trivette was asleep and C.D. was putting away glasses.

“The music’s stopped. Want to sit down?” she asked Walker.

“I don’t think I can,” he murmured in her ear.

She giggled, her eyes shining. “I have music at my place.”

He smiled in return and with his arm around her, they headed for their coats. Trivette’s cell phone rang, startling the Ranger from his slumber. He jumped up, knocking over a basket of peanuts. Amused, his friends watched him shake the sleep away and look for the source of the ringing. He remembered his cell phone after a few seconds and fumbled into his jacket pocket for it.

Embarrassed as they chuckled, he got the phone open. “Trivette.”

They saw Trivette’s face turn somber as he listened, then spoke again. “Yeah, he’s here with me. I’ll tell him.” He flipped the phone closed and looked at Walker.

“Midnight was just arrested for murder. I’m sorry, Walker.”

Walker’s face registered stunned disbelief. He stared at Trivette as if he were waiting to hear it was a joke.

“He promised he wouldn’t retaliate,” Walker said quietly.

Alex rubbed his arm. “Oh Walker.”

“This is just what I was afraid of,” C.D. said. “You can’t trust these hoodlums, Cordell. Call off that meeting.”

Walker gave C.D. a searing glance. “Not till I find out what happened.” He turned to Alex, regret on his face, but she shook her head.

“It’s okay. Go on. Just call me later and fill me in.”

He smiled at her, grateful for her understanding, and strode toward the door.

“Hey, wait for me,” Trivette called out, chasing after him.

Midnight was pacing in the interrogation room, holding an ice pack to the back of his head. He showed instant relief when Walker entered the room, but he glared at Trivette.

“Walker, I didn’t do it, man. I was set up.”

“All right, Midnight. Settle down and tell me what happened.”

“Somebody jumped me and knocked me out. When I came to, there was a dead Toro beside me and I had a gun in my hand. And then cops were all over.”

Trivette rolled his eyes. “You can do better than that, Midnight.”

Midnight rushed at Trivette angrily. “It’s the truth. Walker, I’ve been straight with you. This is what happens when I deal with cops.”

Walker held his hand up. “I believe you, Midnight.”

Trivette’s mouth fell open. “Walker.......”

“I believe him, Trivette.”

Midnight pulled his chin up, some dignity restored by Walker’s words. He glared at Trivette again.

Walker put a hand on Midnight’s shoulder. “Cooperate now. Do everything they tell you to do. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”

Midnight nodded, the proud eyes thanking the Ranger.

Walking outside, Trivette glanced at Walker. “Do you really believe he was set up?”

Walker nodded. “Yeah.”

Trivette shook his head. “I hope you know what you’re doing, partner.”

“Goodnight, Trivette,” Walker said tersely.

Walker strode purposefully toward his truck. Trivette recognized the determined look on his partner’s face and followed him.

“Walker, where are you going?”

“To see Pedro and then the Ravens.”

Trivette sighed. He had known what the answer was going to be. “I can’t talk you out of it, can I?”

“Nope.”

“Then I’m coming with you.”

“No, Trivette.”

“Either I go with you, or I’ll follow you in my car, or I’ll call in DPD.”

Walker stopped, passing Trivette a menacing stare. The younger Ranger was like a snapping turtle sometimes -- he bit down and wouldn’t let go until lightning struck. Or until he got his way. Who do you think he learned that from, Alex had teased one time.

Walker’s glower softened. “All right, but you stay in the truck while I go in.”

Trivette nodded. It was a compromise he could deal with.

It was 1 a.m. but the Toros headquarters was alive with activity. There were muttered words and grumbles as Walker pushed his way past the guards stationed at the door and approached Pedro. Guns and knives were everywhere. The Toros were obviously bent on revenge for the death of their comrade. Pedro put a pistol in his belt as Walker stopped in front of him.

“Don’t do it, Pedro. Midnight was framed.”

“Says who?” Pedro asked defiantly.

“Me,” Walker responded quietly, but the command of his voice chilled the Hispanic youth. “Now someone is setting you up, Pedro. Be smart. You’ll be playing right into their hands.”

Pedro wavered. Walker had always been fair with him, and to be honest, Pedro admired the way Walker could fight an army with his martial arts training. If he could have found Walker and his Kick Drugs class when he was younger, maybe.........

Pedro held his hand up at the threatening gripes around the room. “Okay, Walker. We’ll give you a few days to find out who killed Jose. But if you don’t come through........”

Walker nodded. “Fair enough.”

As the Toros began to talk among themselves, Pedro leaned close to Walker. “What does this mean for the meet?”

“It’s still on.”

Walker turned and shoved his way through the crowd of bodies that knew better than to challenge him. He found Trivette outside the door, gun drawn.

“You said you’d stay in the truck.”

“I did. For about thirty seconds.”

Walker rolled his eyes. “Come on.”

A few miles away, at an abandoned warehouse that the Ravens claimed as their headquarters, Walker gave Trivette a warning glance.

“Okay,” Trivette said. “I won’t come in unless I hear trouble.”

Walker again met guards, who unwisely blocked his entrance into the building. Trivette watched from the truck as Walker easily punched the first one and sent the second one flying through the door with a spin kick.

“The hard way again,” Trivette chuckled, shaking his head,

Inside, Walker picked out Midnight’s right hand man, Jamal, and walked up to him.

“What happened tonight?” Walker asked him.

“I don’t know, Walker. Midnight was out by himself.”

“You got some balls coming in here,” said a voice Walker didn’t recognize.

Walker turned to face a set of hate-filled eyes. He knew it was Elvin -- the resemblance to Maisie was there. Walker turned back to Jamal, ignoring Elvin’s comment.

“The Toros aren’t going to move on this, Jamal. I want your word that you won’t either, not until we get it straightened out.”

“You ain’t gonna get nothing from us,” Elvin growled, moving to face Walker.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Walker replied. He stared into the angry eyes, catching just a hint of uncertainty whisk across Elvin’s face. Walker purposely looked away, denoting that Elvin wasn’t important.

“Jamal?” Walker questioned.

Jamal shook his head. “Okay, Walker.” Jamal then looked Elvin’s way and Walker saw fear. A struggle for leadership was under way -- that was Walker’s guess.

The Ranger turned to go, but Elvin and another man stepped in front of him.

“There’s never been a white man in here who’s lived to tell about it, has there Leon?” Elvin said.

Leon grinned. “No, and I’ve never been beaten in a fight.” He poked a finger into Walker’s chest. Before he knew what hit him, Walker bent the finger back, Leon went to his knees, then Walker kicked the man backwards. Elvin watched, measuring up the Ranger.

“First time for everything, huh Leon?” Walker said.

The youths were quiet as Walker passed through them and left the building. He climbed into the RAM, where Trivette was waiting.

“How’d it go?” Trivette asked.

“Something’s going on in there. I met Elvin. I think he’s making a move to take over.”

“Think he’ll win?”

“I don’t know, but I think it’s mighty convenient that Midnight got arrested today.”

“You’re thinking Elvin had something to do with it?”

“Could be. He’s bad news, Trivette. Real bad news.”

The Raven members were muttering, a few cussing Walker, most snickering at Leon. Elvin pulled Leon to his feet, then shot a fierce look toward Jamal. Jamal smiled wryly and left the room. Pinching his bleeding nose, Leon followed Elvin outside.

“I’m gonna kill that Ranger.”

Elvin set his jaw. “I got a plan, Leon. We’re gonna take over the Ravens, and then we’re gonna crush the other gangs like they was bugs.”

“How you gonna do that?”

“By finding out when that meeting is, and hitting it. With all the leaders dead, the gangs won’t know what to do. We’ll step in and take it all.”

“You and who else, Elvin? And how you gonna get the Ravens to follow you? They’re loyal to Midnight and Jamal.”

“Trust me. I know how to turn ‘em. We gotta find out where and when that meet is.”

~~~~~~~~

Walker drove toward Ranger HQ where Trivette’s car was parked. Trivette was pensive.

“Walker, tell me something. I’m the black guy here, yet Midnight won’t give me the time of day. I can understand how the other gangs accept you, especially the Asians once they’ve seen your martial arts, but what gives with the Ravens?”

Walker looked at his partner, the earnest face in a frown. “I saved Midnight’s butt one night.......literally.”

“Huh?”

“A new black gang had formed, and they grabbed Midnight, were going to make an example out of him. I happened to stumbled into it, rescued him, but not before they had taken a knife and marked his backsides with their logo. He was pretty embarrassed, wouldn’t go to the hospital because the word would get out, so I took him to my ranch and patched him up. He stayed there for two days. We’ve had an ‘understanding’ ever since.”

Trivette looked at Walker in amazement. “You never told anyone?”

Walker shook his head. “I got to know him a little bit. He’s a tough character, but he has honor. I know he didn’t kill the Toro.”

“I keep saying it. You never cease to amaze me, Walker.”

Walker pulled up beside Trivette’s Mustang and the younger Ranger hopped out of the truck.

“Are you still going ahead with the meeting?” he asked.

Walker nodded. “It’s more important than ever now.”

“Who’s going to represent the Ravens?”

“Jamal knows about the meet. He’ll come.”

“So the one and two men in each gang knows?”

Walker nodded.

“Can I change your mind about letting me in on it?”

“No, but thanks, Trivette.”

Shrugging, Trivette waved goodnight and got into the Mustang.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

The next evening, Walker finished up his karate class and presented belts to those who were moving up. The gym was crowded with parents and friends of the proud youngsters. Alex, Trivette and Maisie sat together, cheering as each child was given a new belt by Walker. BJ was next. Maisie had watched the boy’s face all during the class, had seen him peer at Walker with doubt when class started, but now, as the yellow belt was being wrapped around his waist and Walker leaned down to whisper a few private words to him, a huge grin spread across his face. BJ was gazing at Walker with adoration. Maisie sighed with relief.

A year ago, on Christmas Eve, BJ was hanging onto life by a thread. Walker had come across a gang fight, and BJ, a bystander, had been stabbed as the melee reached its peak. The gangs scattered as police and rescue units arrived. Maisie had been the first on the scene, found Walker doing CPR on the boy. She joined in and together they kept his heart going until they got him to the hospital. They discovered later that the boy’s parents were dead. He lived with his older brother who was killed during the gang fight. Maisie had been taken with the child right away and petitioned the courts to be his foster mother. A word from Walker to the judge was all it took and the child was hers. She had cut back on her hours with the squad at first to be with him more, and had put him in the karate class as soon as he was healed enough to work out.

Now, staring at the sunny face smiling up at Walker, Maisie wiped away a tear.

“He’s come a long way,” Alex said to her. “You’ve done a wonderful job, Maisie.”

“So has Walk-Man,” she replied. “Look at that face.”

Maisie meant BJ’s face, but Alex only noticed Walker’s. He was beaming, his eyes full of the joy he received by helping kids. Alex smiled too.

Elvin had slipped in the gym and stood silently by the door. He also observed BJ’s face. Elvin felt a pang of jealousy stab through him. Although he was fond of BJ, he didn’t really like kids, but to see the boy idolizing a white pig, well, something needed to be done.

Trivette had noticed Elvin come in. After Walker’s brief meeting with the man and his feeling that trouble was brewing, Trivette had pulled Elvin’s file and studied the photo. Recognizing him now, he left the bleachers and worked his way around to the black man. Thinking about it for a second, Trivette took off his badge and put it in his pocket. He came up beside Elvin.

“Hi, I’m Jimmy Trivette. Haven’t seen you here before.”

“I came to watch BJ.”

“He’s doing great. Look at the pride on his face.”

Elvin took a closer look at Trivette. “You run this place?”

“No, but I help out when I can. I think it’s important to keep these kids off the streets and out of gangs.”

“Gangs are family to some of us.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought when I was in one.”

Elvin was surprised. “You wore colors, man?”

“Sure did, back in Baltimore.” Trivette pulled up his sleeve and showed him a burn scar on his forearm -- a gang marking.

Elvin was impressed. “You got out?”

Trivette nodded. “I wised up. Saw there were better things to do than fight other guys just because they were a different color from me or came from a different background. And they weren’t there for me when I really needed them. I have real friends who are now.” He gestured to Walker, who was still presenting the new belts.

“That white pig?” Elvin snarled.

“No, that bearded guy over there.”

Elvin sneered at Trivette. “He ain’t your friend.”

Trivette considered that. “Yeah, you’re right. He’s my partner, which makes him like my brother.”

“Only a black man can be your brother,” Elvin said, raising his voice. His eyes flared angrily at Trivette, then he turned and walked out. Trivette felt an involuntary shudder. Walker was right, this man was more than bad news.

~~~~~~~~~~~

It was sleeting again the next morning. Ah, Christmas in Dallas, Walker thought sarcastically as he made his way into the courthouse, sliding across the icy steps. He stepped into the crowded elevator, his mind running in several different directions. The gang meeting was today, Christmas Eve. He’d chosen this day for several reasons --- no one would suspect such an important encounter to occur on a holiday, thus hopefully providing secrecy and safety for those who attended, and Walker had a hope that sentimentality would come into play. They were hardened and vicious youths, but Walker felt he could reach them today. Peace at Christmastime. If he could make it happen.......

And Midnight was on his mind too. The case against him was tight. What Walker needed was a witness. And then there was Maisie --- how could he tell her about Elvin, how he’d looked into the young man’s eyes and seen a dark, black, redemption less soul.

And finally there was Alex, occupying a major space in his mind. This would be the first year they’d spent Christmas together as a couple. In previous years they had gone their own ways -- she with friends, or with her father the past few years, and he at the reservation or by himself. Trivette usually flew to Baltimore and C.D. spent time with his niece. But this year, they were all staying in town and C.D. was throwing a huge Christmas Eve party. Walker smiled at the thought of Christmas with Alex. The first of many, if he had anything to say about it. He thought about the present he’d gotten her --- when should he give it? At the party among their closest friends, or later, when they were alone, when he could selfishly be the only witness to her reaction?

“Walker?” A hand on his arm snapped him out of his thoughts. Jessica, Alex’s assistant, was nudging him. The elevator doors were open, the car empty. “This is as high as this elevator goes. Unless you’re planning to ride up and down all day.” She snickered and got out.

Walker felt the maddening flush spreading up his neck and over his face. He stepped off of the elevator and tossed Jess an embarrassed smirk, then made his way to his office.

Christmas lights surrounded the doorway and decorations hung off of lamps, ceiling fans, and desks. The secretary was wearing a Santa hat and half the Rangers were decked out with holiday ties, and the room was noisy with the added excitement of the season. Walker sighed wistfully. After the meeting today, maybe he could let some of that Christmas spirit find its way inside him. But for now, he wanted to follow up on the drive-by shooting and Midnight’s case.

Trivette was already at his desk. “Hey Walker. You look like you could have used a few more hours of sleep.”

Walker mumbled an agreement as he poured a cup of coffee. “Ballistics report yet?”

Trivette shook his head. “No, not yet. I’m going to call them again. Must be too many Christmas parties going on in the lab.”

Walker picked up the file on his desk. The car used in the drive-by shooting was stolen and found abandoned later. Pedro had an alibi, but Walker didn’t believe Pedro would shoot children anyway. If provoked, the Hispanic leader would retaliate in a flash, but sacrificing kids was not his style.

“Walker, I get the feeling something’s going to blow soon with these gangs.”

“I know. I’m tired of walking on eggshells around them.”

Trivette chuckled. “I saw you break a few eggs outside the Ravens’ headquarters the other night.”

Walker let a smile slip, shrugging at his partner. Trivette perched on the corner of Walker’s desk.

“Should be a great party at C.D.’s tonight. The kids from the Children’s Home always look forward to your stories.”

Walker nodded. Alex always teased him that he was a such a man of few words, but when it came to telling tales to kids, she heard more of his voice in one story than she’d heard all year.

“So what are you giving Alex?” Trivette asked.

Walker didn’t answer, just continued to smile.

“Okay, what are you getting me?” Trivette tried again, laughing.

“Computer paper,” Walker replied.

Trivette rolled his eyes, then pressed on. “I noticed the duty roster -- this is the first time in years you haven’t volunteered for Christmas Day duty.”

“I have plans.”

“That’s funny, Alex said the same thing.” Trivette let a huge grin overtake his face. He knew very well the two of them were spending the holiday together, but Walker hadn’t admitted it in so many words.

Walker smacked Trivette’s rump with the file. “Get off my desk.”

Laughing, Trivette stood, but then leaned close to his partner, lowering his voice. “I’m really happy for you.” He smiled sincerely and returned to his desk.

Walker appreciated his partner’s sentiments. He sometimes felt so close to Trivette, as if this is what it would be like to have a brother. Once recently he had almost said as much to the black Ranger, but held back for fear Trivette would laugh. No, Trivette wouldn’t laugh. Then why did I hold back?

He turned his thoughts to Alex. He’d given her a quick call, around 2 a.m, the night after he’d talked to Midnight and the two gangs. She’d picked it up on the first ring --- not asleep, waiting for the call, he knew. She asked how it went, then said she’d get the full story in the morning and that was it. The unspoken message was passed --- you’re home safe, now I can sleep without worry. At her insistence he had stopped hiding the worrisome things from her --- near misses, injuries, even emotional concerns --- unless he could get away with it.

Walker was jarred from his thoughts by Ranger Mark Sheridan, who stepped into the office, ice-covered, and burst into song:

Oh the weather outside is frightful,

But the fire is so delightful,

And as long as you warm my feet,

Let it sleet, let it sleet, let it sleet.

An uproar of laughter rose from the office.

“Warm your own feet,” someone called out.

Sheridan took off his coat, shaking the sleet away. “Don’t y’all wish that just once we’d get some snow here?”

“Dream on,” Trivette said.

Walker, heading for the door, nodded. Cold rain was the Dallas standard. Snow would be incredible.

“Hey Walker,” Sheridan called after him. “Be careful if you’re headed to the DA’s office. Someone brought in a whole bunch of mistletoe. Or maybe that’s why you’re headed there!”

There was more laughter as Walker rolled his eyes at Sheridan and left the office.

Alex was just hustling in when Walker got there. The sleet crystals were scattered in her hair like shining stars. God, she was gorgeous, he sighed to himself. She shivered and reached for his coffee mug and took a swallow.

“Oh, that’s better. Good morning.”

“Morning,” he answered.

“Anything new on Midnight?”

“No,” he said dejectedly.

“I’m sorry. I know you trusted him --- to a certain extent anyway.”

“I still do.”

She gazed at him, wondering what it was he knew about Midnight that gave him such faith in the Raven leader.

“You look nice,” Walker said, taking in the hand-knitted Christmas sweater she was wearing.

“Thanks,” she smiled. “I figured we’d go right to C.D.’s from here. Do you have the presents?”

“They’re in my truck. I’ll have to keep Trivette out of there today.”

“I think he’ll love it.”

Walker nodded, then headed for the door. “See you at lunch?”

She followed him to the doorway and stopped, looking upward. He traced her gaze. Mistletoe hung overhead. Teasing, he reached up and pulled it down.

“You should call maintenance, Alex. There’s mold growing in here.”

She scowled and went to pinch his arm, but he quickly held the mistletoe over her head and gave her a gentle kiss. There was a sigh from the next room. Walker blushed when he saw Jessica staring from her desk. Alex giggled, enjoying his embarrassment.

“See you at lunchtime,” she said.

He flashed her a smile, putting the mistletoe in his shirt pocket. “For future use.”

“You’d better be careful with that,” she grinned. “It’s powerful stuff.”

“I’m counting on that,” he winked.

Alex watched him go, her gaze lingering on the doorway even after he’d disappeared. Things were so good with them. It was if a dam had burst and Walker was suddenly making up for lost time. And now Christmas together. It was almost too good to be true. She couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy.

Jessica sighed again, bringing Alex out of her thoughts. She grinned sheepishly at her assistant and returned to her desk. Jessica smiled. She’d seen that same starry-eyed look on the Ranger earlier in the elevator. Some kind of virus was going around and Alex and Walker had it bad, she laughed to herself.

~~~~~~~~~~

Elvin and Leon walked into the Ravens’ headquarters. Most of the teens were still asleep, sacked out in sleeping bags in corners and niches. Elvin clapped his hands and whistled loudly, rousing them. Jamal appeared from another room.

“I got news,” Elvin said. “Get up.”

They peered at him curiously.

“I got a buddy on the inside at county. He said the word is out that Walker planted the gun on Midnight. Set him up.”

“Come on, man,” Jamal said. “Walker would never do that.”

“He did it! He’s white --- he don’t care about us. This big gang meet of his will make him look good, advance his career. He ain’t doing it for us. He set up Midnight, now the Toros are coming for us -- and you know they will. Just like they did last Christmas Eve.”

“You weren’t even here last year,” Jamal said.

“It don’t matter, I can figure out what happened. Walker was there last year too. Think about it! This is what he wants --- for us to fight and get killed.”

Some whispers and rumblings began among the Ravens.

“I say we have a talk with the Ranger,” Leon said. “Midnight trusted him, and look what happened.”

Elvin smiled inside. He and Leon continued, stirring up the ire of the Ravens. They were being swayed, convinced Walker had framed Midnight. Even Jamal saw the advantage for Walker to have Midnight out of the way. And rumors in the joint were almost always based on fact.

“I say we do something about it today,” Elvin said.

There were shouts of agreement.

Jamal spoke up suddenly. “No! Not today.” He searched for an excuse. “I...I have to be somewhere later. And we need to be sure about this.” Jamal planned to ask Walker point blank at the meet.

Elvin raised an eyebrow. What could be so important to pull Jamal away from his brothers, especially when they needed him most? Nothing --- except the gang meeting! Walker’s meeting.

Elvin and Leon stepped outside.

“The meet is today,” Elvin stated.

“Yeah, but where? We could grab Jamal, beat the answer out of him.”

“No, too many of them are loyal to Jamal. I have a better idea.”

~~~~~~~~~~

“You said we were going for ice cream,” BJ said to Elvin as they pulled up to a phone booth.

“BJ, I need you to call Ranger Walker. Tell him to meet you here.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

BJ frowned. “What are you gonna do to him?”

“Just talk.”

“About what?”

“About the big gang meeting, BJ. It’s time you started learning this stuff. Walker knows where it’s being held. I’m just gonna ask him if I can go along.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Elvin reached over and grabbed BJ’s shirt. Time for different tactics. “Listen to me, boy. Your brother died a year ago from a bullet --- a cop’s bullet. I heard it was Walker’s bullet.”

BJ was stunned. He knew Walker had been the first on the scene and he knew there had been shooting, but he also knew what Maisie had told him --- Walker had saved his life. BJ wavered.

“He killed your brother, man! Why don’t you ask him? Call, tell him you’re in trouble and to meet you here.”

BJ trembled. He loved his brother and no one had ever told him the facts about his brother’s death that night. What if it was Walker who killed him?

BJ picked up the phone.

Walker drove into an alley and stopped. It was 10 a.m. --- BJ had called fifteen minutes prior. Walker had then tried to call Maisie, but she was out on a call with the squad.

He got out of the truck, his senses alert for danger. Seeing BJ behind a dumpster, Walker relaxed a bit.

“BJ, what’s wrong?”

BJ stood, a strange expression on his face, a mix of anger and confusion. His eyes flicked toward a pile of boxes. Walker felt a chill run up his spine. Something was very wrong here.

Someone jumped him from behind. Walker threw the attacker over his shoulder, then another figure pounced on him, and another. Walker fended them off, spinning and kicking, punching hard and bashing bodies to the ground. More assailants came forward, but Walker held his own against them. In quick flashes he recognized them as Ravens, some of them just kids, but they fought as adults and he defended himself fiercely, breaking one’s arm and crunching ribs of another. In a few minutes, six Ravens lay on the ground, a seventh was swinging his fists at the Ranger.

Leon rolled over, moaning. Next to him, a young teen was holding a bloody nose. “He’s gonna take us all,” the teen uttered. “We can’t stop him.”

“Oh yes we can,” Leon muttered, pulling a gun.

Standing next to the open door of his truck, Walker knocked the last Raven down. He heard the gunshot but never saw the shooter. A searing pain threw him backwards, against the truck door. He fell to the ground, stunned, as if a baseball bat had slammed into his chest.

The teen stared in disbelief at Leon. “No! We need him alive.”

Leon knew that, but his anger had won out. But then he watched in amazement as Walker hauled himself up.

“Get him!” Leon yelled.

BJ was screaming in the background. “No! You said you were only going to talk to him!”

Walker fought the pain coursing through his body and kicked the Raven who lunged for him. He tried to follow through with a punch but his right arm wouldn’t commit, so he kicked again, toppling the attacking youth. He reached for his gun but three Ravens were on him by then, forcing him down on the ground, two of them sitting on his legs as he desperately tried to kick them off. He managed to flip one of them over, then got his left arm around the neck of another. Leon scrambled with the gun and charged Walker, hitting him on the side of the head with the weapon. Walker slumped over and blackness closed in.

The Ravens tried to regroup. They were all bleeding, moaning, slow to respond.

“Tie him up, quick,” Leon said, still in disbelief that one man could have whipped them.

Leon then turned to BJ, who was cowering, crying. “Come on, tough guy. Elf is waiting for us at the hideout.”

BJ didn’t answer. He watched as the Ravens tied Walker, swallowed hard as he saw blood running through the Ranger’s shirt.

Leon slapped the boy on the back. “This is your first fight for your gang. You did good for your brothers.”

BJ’s tears gushed. It sure didn’t feel good.

~~~~~~~~~

“It didn’t go as planned,” Leon stammered to Elvin. “We had trouble.”

“What do you mean? What happened?”

“I had to shoot him.”

Elvin jumped up, enraged. “Shit, man! I needed him alive.” He almost punched Leon.

Leon quietly put the gun on the table. Elvin’s eyes grew wild. “You used my gun! It can be traced!” This time he slugged Leon.

Putting his hands over his face in defense, Leon babbled. “He’s still alive, Elvin. We brought him here. I couldn’t help it --- he was taking us all down. Keko’s got a broken arm, Rashim’s still out cold. It was the only way to stop him.”

Elvin paced, cooling down and thinking. “How bad is he hit?”

“I don’t know. Looks bad.”

“We’ll keep him alive long enough to find out where the meet is.” He looked behind Leon expectantly. “Where’s BJ?”

“I put him in your room upstairs. He ain’t taking it so good.”

“He’ll get over it,” Elvin said, picking up his cell phone and punching in a number. “Aunt Maisie?”

~~~~~~~~~

Walker came around slowly, his head aching, trickles of blood rolling down the side of his face. He was on his left side, on the floor, legs bound and his left wrist cuffed to a cold radiator. It looked like a basement or cellar. He tried to move his right arm and a jolt of pain sliced through him. Lifting his head, he tried to get a look at the bullet wound. It was high up on the right side of his chest, about two inches below the collarbone. He could feel blood oozing slowly, warm on his skin against the chill of the room, but he couldn’t get either hand to the wound to staunch the flow. He pulled at the cuffs, then moved his legs to test the strength of the rope. Too tight, he’d never work his way out of them. He stopped struggling against the bindings to conserve his energy. Where was he? He couldn’t hear any sounds or voices. Why had the Ravens jumped him? He didn’t remember seeing Jamal in the alley. Leon was there, and that probably meant Elvin was in on it too. What did they want with him? And BJ --- he had tricked him with the phone call, lured him into a trap. But Walker thought he recalled the youngster screaming during the fight, sounding upset. Maybe BJ was tricked too.

Weakness and another wave of pain washed over him. He closed his eyes, knowing his ordeal was just beginning.

~~~~~~~~~~

Trivette had just finished taking a burglary report when his radio crackled. He picked up the receiver.

“Go ahead, dispatch.”

“Trivette, DPD officer requests you meet him in the alley at 7th and Broadway, ASAP.”

“On my way,” Trivette responded.

~~~~~~~~

Trivette arrived at the scene, wondering how Walker had beat him there. His partner had left earlier to check out a problem BJ was having. Trivette had gotten up from his desk to go with him, but Walker had shaken his head.

“I’ll handle it, Trivette. You keep the fort down.”

Steve Malloy stood beside the RAM, a harried look on his face. Trivette scanned the area for Walker but his partner was nowhere in sight.

Getting out of his car and moving closer, Trivette felt alarm wrench his stomach. Graffiti, gangland graffiti, was spray painted on Walker’s truck. An upheaval had struck the alley --- boxes, trash cans and crates were strewn and broken. A massive upheaval --- or a Walker fight, Trivette thought.

Malloy’s face was rigid. He gestured to the open door of the truck even before speaking to the Ranger. Dread filled Trivette --- the truck door was splattered with blood. More was visible on the ground.

“I’ve called for forensics,” Malloy said. “I took a quick look around the alley before calling you. Nothing.”

Trivette started to pace, the knot in his stomach pulling tighter. He studied the graffiti --- it could be Toros, maybe the Red Dragons. He knew this summit meeting Walker had put together was going to cause trouble. Walker put too much faith in the leaders. Trusts breeds trust, he had rationalized to Trivette. Apparently all it had bred was trouble.

With great reluctance, Trivette took out his cell phone and called Alex.

“Jimmy,” she said, not giving him time to speak. “The ballistics report is back on the drive-by shooting. You’ll never believe this. The same gun that killed the two boys also killed a man in Brownsville four years ago.”

“Trivette’s mouth dropped open. “The man Maisie’s nephew killed?”

“Yes. I’ve got an APB out on Elvin now. Poor Maisie. You think Walker will break the news to her?”

Trivette was silent.

“Jimmy?”

“Alex, something’s happened..........”

Trivette went back to the open truck door, suddenly noticing a bullet embedded in the vinyl covering. Blood and bits of flesh surrounded it, implying it went through its victim. As the forensics unit drove up, Trivette waved them over.

“I want this bullet. Now.”

~~~~~~~~~

Maisie pulled up to the address Elf had given her over the phone. She knew he and Leon were renting a house together, but this place looked abandoned, condemned. She had let BJ spend the day with Elf. Maybe that was a mistake by the looks of this neighborhood.

Elf had asked her to hurry over, that a friend helping to fix up the house had fallen off a ladder and hurt himself. Because of outstanding traffic tickets, the friend wouldn’t go to the emergency room, thinking he’d be turned in.

Maisie grunted to herself. She’d heard better lines in a B movie. Whatever had happened here involved more than traffic tickets. She’d help the injured friend, then decide whether or not it needed reporting.

Entering the house and carrying her medical bag, she was met by Leon and led through a room full of battered Ravens.

“You boys been in a rumble?” Maisie asked. She figured as much and started to open her medical kit, but Leon motioned her out of the room, down some steps to a basement. Elf was waiting.

“Elf, what’s going on here? And where’s BJ?”

“He’s fine, he’s around.”

“What’s this all about? Who’s hurt?”

“Aunt Maisie, I’m sorry. I had to lie to you. We have a prisoner --- I need for you to fix him up.”

“A prisoner? Elf, what in the hell have you gotten yourself into?”

“There’s no time to argue, Maisie. This guy’s gonna bleed to death. I need him alive.”

Maisie wanted to leave, to go for help, but the thought of an injured, bleeding person needing her skills stopped her. “All right. Where is he? But then we’ll talk about what to do next.”

Elf set his jaw, knowing this was going to be more difficult than he planned. He took Maisie to a small room. From the doorway, Maisie saw a figure, his back to her, lying on the floor. Blood covered the back of his shirt. She looked at Elf, her eyes flaring.

“What happened?”

“Leon shot him. It was an accident. I swear, Maisie.”

Maisie wanted so badly to believe him. She had taught him not to lie when he was growing up. She continued to gaze at Elf’s face, until he looked away.

“Do what you can,” was all he said as he turned to leave.

Maisie stepped into the chilly room, hearing the shallow, erratic breaths of a person in severe pain. She hurried to the man, stopping in her tracks when she recognized the muscular form, the red hair. Still not believing what she was seeing, she took a tentative step forward and from that angle the red beard came into view. She quickened her pace and stepped over the still form.

“Dear Jesus in heaven,” she uttered tightly. She knelt down in front of Walker. “Walk-Man?”

He opened his eyes, finding Maisie beside him. “Maisie,” he said, his voice strained with pain. “How.......”

“Shhh, hush while I check you out.”

She opened his shirt, finding the entrance wound, then checked his back, observing an exit site. “We got to get this bleeding stopped.”

She dug in her bag and pressed bandages against the wounds. Walker squeezed his eyes shut and groaned.

“I know it hurts, Redbeard. Just take it easy. You couldn’t give me a bullet bite this time, could you? You had to have one go all the way through you.”

He couldn’t answer. He concentrated on controlled breathing to deal with the pain.

“That’s good. You keep doing your Lamaze.”

She tried to keep things light, to ease his worries and to hide hers, but the inside of her mind was in turmoil. What had Elf done? And why to Walker? What did he mean by his “prisoner?”

“Walk-Man, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m gonna get you out of this mess.”

He raised his head and met her eyes. “Get out now while you can.”

“I am, and I’m taking you with me.”

“He’s not going to let me go, Maisie.”

“Why? What does he want with you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Something must have happened. Elf said it was an accident.”

Walker shook his head, then dropped it to the floor again. “It was a trap.”

“No, it couldn’t have been. He said it was an accident!”

Her hands reacted as she spoke, unintentionally jolting Walker’s shoulder. He sucked in a painful breath. New beads of sweat broke out on his face. Maisie gasped.

“Oh Walk-Man, I’m so sorry.” She agonized inside, knowing all along it was no accident. Elf was in bad trouble --- but so was Walker. How was she going to rectify the situation?

They were silent as Maisie kept the pressure on the wounds, finally easing up a few moments later.

“I think we got it under control.” She added more layers of gauze, then taped it down. “I’m going to take care of this now,” she said with determination and stood up.

“Maisie,” Walker said, “go, if he’ll let you.”

“Not without you. Sit tight.”

Maisie found Elf in the next room. She stared at him in fury.

“You get an ambulance here now. He needs to be in a hospital.”

Elf shook his head.

“Elf, do what I say.”

“Not this time, Aunt Maisie. He’s got information I need.”

“He’s not going to tell you anything if he’s dead.”

“That’s why I brought you here.”

“Elf, I don’t have what I need to treat a wound that bad.”

“Then do the best you can with what you got.”

Maisie gawked at her nephew, then turned to leave. “I’m going to the police.”

Leon blocked her way. She turned back to Elf with a questioning look in her eyes. He shook his head.

“I’m sorry, Maisie. You ain’t going anywhere except back to the prisoner.”

“So that’s how it is,” she said gruffly. “Tell me again how it was an accident?” Her gaze sent darts of anger to Elf. “What are you going to do with him after he gives you the information?”

Elvin shifted his weight. “Then you can take him to the hospital.”

She put her hands on her hips. She didn’t like this one bit, but if Elf would let Walker go, then she’d take the compromise.

“All right, here’s what I need. Get him off that floor, get some blankets and unlock the handcuffs.”

Elvin nodded to Leon. Maisie, giving Elf one last dubious look, hurried back to Walker.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Trivette rushed into the ballistics lab. Christmas music blasted from a radio. The four scientists were laughing, tossing things at each other and eating decorated cookies.

“Hi, Jimmy” Jean, the microscopy tech said. “Merry Christmas.”

Trivette didn’t smile. He held up a plastic bag containing a bullet. “Jean, I need a report done on this right now.”

“It’s Christmas Eve, Jimmy. We’re closing down half day.”

“Walker’s in a jam,” he said in a tightly controlled voice.

“Walker’s always got something going on,” one of the others said.

Trivette shot him a piercing glance. “He’s missing. I think this bullet went through him.”

Their faces went sober.

“Oh God, I’m sorry, Jimmy,” Jean said. She took the baggie from him. “I’ll do it right now.”

Trivette nodded and handed her a card. “Here’s my cell phone number. Call me as soon as you know anything.”

~~~~~~~~~

Alex tried not to worry. Walker liked to tell her that there were three kinds of people during a crisis situation --- those who walked on water, those who treaded water, and those who passed water. She liked to classify herself as a member of the first two categories, but when it was a situation involving Walker, well.........

Jimmy would call again in a few minutes and tell her he’d found Walker and all was well. Walker was always leaving his truck to search for something or to chase a suspect. Besides, it was Christmas Eve --- the gods wouldn’t do this to them.

But the graffiti upset her. It was a gang sign, a message. They had attacked Walker for some reason. She had mixed emotions about the meet, knowing how vicious the gangs could be, but also knowing what it meant to Walker to reach them, to actually have them thinking about peaceful solutions and alternatives. He had been so hopeful, so optimistic.

Alex suddenly thought about Midnight. Maybe he would know what had happened, would have heard some hint about why this went down. She picked up the phone.

“This is Alex Cahill. I need Midnight Phillips brought to the interrogation room right away.”

A short time later, Alex faced Midnight, his face wary and decidedly unfriendly. A guard remained in the room with her.

“Midnight, I need your help.”

He let out a sarcastic chuckle. “Keep dreaming.” He looked away from her.

Alex continued. “You know Walker is trying to make peace between the gangs. Do you know which gangs have been resistant, which ones have opposed him?”

Midnight suddenly looked back at Alex, staring, recognition setting in. This was about Walker. A subtle change came over his face. “You’re his lady.”

Alex blinked in surprise, a tiny ray of hope crossing her face. “How do you know that?”

“I seen your picture at his.........” He trailed off, not wanting to say he’d been to Walker’s ranch.

Alex pressed. “Midnight, I know there’s something between you and Walker, some kind of truce. I think you respect him, maybe even like him. But that’s something you can’t admit in your position and I understand that.”

Midnight met her gaze but remained silent.

“He’s in trouble,” Alex continued. “We found his truck, sprayed with graffiti. We think a gang has kidnapped him.”

Midnight allowed a flash of worry to escape his eyes. Alex pushed harder.

“Do you know who would do that?”

Midnight hesitated, looking as if he wanted to tell her.

“Please, Midnight.”

He glanced at the guard. Understanding, Alex turned to the guard.

“Would you let us have some privacy?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Miss Cahill.”

“It’s okay. Just wait outside.”

The guard was reluctant but left the room. Alex approached Midnight.

“You’re right, I am Walker’s lady. And I’ll do whatever it takes to get him back safe and sound. Do you know anything?”

“The big meet --- it’s today. Four o’clock. Could be some don’t want it to go down.”

Alex allowed more hope to surface. “Where is the meet, Midnight?”

Midnight paused. He’d be breaking his word if he told the location --- the promise he’d made to Walker --- but if Walker was in trouble........

He owed the Ranger, as much as it grated against his pride sometimes. Walker had let him hole up at his ranch to recuperate from the knife wound. Not even his own gang members --- his brothers --- knew about the humiliating injury. Walker had fixed meals for him, changed the bandages, helped him get to and from the bathroom. He wouldn’t forget that. But here was a way he could pay off the debt.

And there was something about this woman that swayed him. Her eyes, pleading, openly displaying her worry for the Ranger. When he’d been at the ranch, he’d seen several photos of the ADA and had asked Walker about one of them. The Ranger had tried to suppress a smile, but it showed through as he told Midnight she was someone special. That’s all he’d say, but the smile remained long after the explanation.

“Okay,” Midnight said. “I’ll tell you.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

Walker slowly pulled his mind back from unconsciousness. Pain was his first sensation, then cold. A shiver shook him, then a hand was tucking a blanket tighter around him. Cracking his eyes open, he met Maisie’s face. He was on a cot, the handcuffs now replaced by a blood pressure cuff. A stethoscope was draped around Maisie’s neck. She smiled at him.

“Walk-Man, you’re giving a whole new meaning to the words ‘pale face’.”

Walker returned a wan smile. He knew he’d lost a lot of blood.

“It’s a nasty wound,” Maisie continued, “can’t feel too good, especially with a hole coming out through your shoulder blade. Try to keep your arm as still as possible.”

“Don’t worry,” Walker responded, his shoulder on fire. He knew her casual demeanor was meant to allay his worries.

“The bullet probably took out a rib in the front, but I don’t hear any bad sounds...” she fingered her stethoscope, “.......so I think it missed the lung. Looks like it sure tore up some muscle, though.”

Walker grimaced, not sure if he wanted to hear anymore, then he glanced at the closed door. Maisie knew what he was thinking.

“There’s three or four of them in the next room. You’re not in any shape to take them on.”

“They wouldn’t let you go?”

“Not yet. Elf says he wants to ask you something, then he’ll let us both go.”

Walker almost rolled his eyes. “Maisie, you can’t believe that.”

She wavered, looking away from him. “I don’t know what I believe right now.”

Walker started to sit up. Maisie put her hand against his arm.

“Don’t, sugar. You’ll start bleeding again.”

Walker propped himself up on his elbow, immediately setting off stabs of pain in his shoulder.

“What time is it?” he asked, grimacing.

“A little after one. Looks like we missed lunch.”

Walker had to get out. The meet was at four --- he had to be there, bullet wound or not. The gang leaders were counting on him. If he didn’t show, everything he’d worked for would crumble into pieces. He glanced at the door again, pushed the blanket aside, then swung his feet to the floor and sat up. Nausea washed over him and he shivered from the chill in the room. Maisie put a hand on his arm.

“Walk-Man, just wait, please. See what Elf wants, then we’ll walk out of here.”

Walker gazed at her with pity. Maisie was not naive, but apparently she had a blind spot when it came to her nephew. He knew she would find out very soon how wrong she was and he knew it would crush her. And what if it came down to Elf or him? Could he expect Maisie to go against her own flesh and blood, to side with him? But if he could get out now, avoid a confrontation, maybe that question would never have to be faced.

Maisie grabbed his arm as he rose, faltering. “You’re as stubborn as they come, you know that?”

“Yeah, I’ve been told that before,” he answered, making his way unsteadily to the door. “If I get stopped, run for it.” He reached for the doorknob but the door swung open before he touched it. Leon, Elf and three other Ravens sauntered in. They were bruised and scraped up, Walker noticed with smug satisfaction.

“Going somewhere?” Elf asked.

“Elf,” Maisie said, “just ask him your question and let me get him to a hospital.”

“BJ needs you, Aunt Maisie. He’s up on the second floor. You go see him while the Ranger and I talk.”

Maisie let go of Walker’s arm, giving it a pat. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Elf gestured for one of the Ravens to go with her. Walker stared into Elvin’s eyes, reading hatred and heartlessness there. He knew their “talk” would be anything but.

Elf closed the door as Leon and the two others moved toward Walker. The struggle didn’t last very long. Too weak and light-headed, Walker couldn’t shake them as they grabbed his arms and held him up in front of Elf.

Elf gave him a sinister smile. “I know the meet is today. I need to know when and where.”

Walker tried not to show the surprise and alarm he felt. How had he found out? What was he planning to do if he got to the meet? Walker steeled himself. They wouldn’t find out the location from him.

“I can end it for you quick, pig,” Elvin continued. “Or I can make it linger if you don’t talk.”

Elvin made the mistake of getting too close. Walker swung his leg up and hammered Elvin in the chest. Leon retaliated with a fist to Walker’s stomach. As Walker doubled over, Elvin got up and approached menacingly. He looked at Leon.

“Make it linger.”

~~~~~~~

Maisie found BJ crying. He told her how he’d called Walker at Elf’s request but how they’d planned to hurt him all along. Maisie hugged him close.

“It’s not your fault, BJ. Ranger Walker will know that.”

“Elf said Walker killed my brother. Is that true, Maisie?”

Maisie shook her head. “No, no, BJ. Walker never fired his gun that night. He was too busy trying to save the life of a little boy --- you, BJ.”

Maisie was furious. How could Elf have said that to BJ? And tricked the child into calling Walker, baiting him. This was beyond head games. Elf needed more help than she could give him.

She remained with BJ until he calmed down. “You stay here. I’m going to get Walk-Man, then the three of us are leaving.”

Maisie noticed that her appointed chaperone locked BJ in the room, then he followed her back to the basement. Elf, Leon and the others were coming out of the room as she approached. Elf had a wild look on his face, his eyes fiery with anger. He roughly grabbed Maisie’s arm.

“He didn’t want to talk. Maybe you can change his mind.”

She touched his hand gripping her arm and frowned. He loosened his hold.

“I’ll try, Elf. Then you’ll let us all out of here, right?”

Elf laughed cruelly. “Sure, Aunt Maisie.”

Maisie watched him go up the stairs, followed by Leon. She wondered what it was Walker didn’t want to tell them. Maybe she could work out a compromise. She entered the room and stopped in her tracks. Walker was on the floor, unconscious. He’d been beaten, his shoulder wound bleeding again as well as his nose and lip and a bad cut over one eye. Maisie rushed to him and knelt down, feeling for the strength and speed of his pulse. Then she bolted to the door.

“Elf!” she shouted, but he continued up the stairs.

She tried to follow but a guard pushed her back in the room. She lashed out at him in fury, then grabbed his shirt. Her voice quavered with anger.

“You....... help me get him on the cot.”

The Raven complied indifferently, then left the room, locking the door behind him. As Maisie sat beside Walker, tears welled up. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d really cried. Yes, she could -- the squad had responded to an accident scene. A child, not in a safety seat, had been thrown out of the car and crushed. But she cried later, hours later, when her work was done and there were no more injuries to deal with.

She wiped her eyes now, pushing emotion aside as far as it would go. Walker needed her. She did quick vitals --- blood pressure, pulse, respirations, pupils, then went into her injury assessment. There were lots of red marks on his ribs, but no apparent breaks that she could feel. Internal injuries were a worry but there was nothing she could do about that. The bullet wound was bleeding and as she applied pressure front and back, something moved under her hand. Lightly tracing his right collarbone with her fingers, she felt a break. It had probably been fractured by the ripple effect of the bullet. All it took was one punch to break it in two. She concentrated on stopping the bleeding, then she’d deal with the break.

As cold rain hit the outside of the tiny window in the room, Maisie looked at Walker’s bruised and lacerated face. “Oh Walk-Man, I’m so sorry,” she whispered, “please forgive me.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Trivette made his way to C.D.’s to meet Alex. He rushed in, soggy and cold from the weather. A few of C.D.’s employees were decorating the bar in anticipation of the Christmas Eve celebration, but none of them seemed very enthused. The news of Walker’s disappearance had put a damper on any cheery thoughts. But the party would go on as planned for the kids from the Children’s Home. C.D. still had a hope that Walker would be there to tell a new tale, but as the hours passed, his hope plummeted.

Trivette saw C.D. in a booth, a consoling arm around Alex. Their faces were somber. Alex looked up expectantly, but Trivette shook his head.

“Nothing yet. He just seems to have vanished. I had units check all the gang hangouts and headquarters. No witnesses, no Walker. I’ve been cruising the back streets since I left ballistics.”

“What’s the forensics report?” C.D. asked.

“So far they only determined the blood type.” He didn’t need to say it was Walker’s type. “I’ve got an APB out on BJ too, since he was the last one to call Walker.”

“What about Maisie?” Alex asked.

“No one’s seen her since her shift ended. She’s probably out Christmas shopping with BJ.”

Trivette sat down as Billie brought him a mug of coffee, then warmed up Alex and C.D.’s.

“The gang meet is today.”

C.D. frowned. “That has to be why someone snatched Cordell. They didn’t want this pow wow to happen. If Cordell doesn’t show, the meet falls through.”

Trivette looked at Alex. “How do you know it’s today?” He knew Walker would never tell her, would never put her at risk by her knowing.

“I went to see Midnight. He told me.”

Trivette’s mouth dropped open. Midnight was pure hostility to outsiders. He understood the uneasy truce between Walker and the Raven leader, but now to learn he’d talked to Alex, an ADA? And had actually told her the sworn secret?

“How in the hell did you get him to talk?” Trivette wondered.

“I think he respects Walker and wants to help --- although he’d never admit it. And somehow he knows about Walker and me. So he told me.”

Trivette was still amazed. C.D. put down his coffee.

“Maybe someone at the meet knows something.”

Trivette perked up. “That’s a damn good idea. Alex, when and where is it?”

“It’s at 4 o’clock, in the back room of Eddie’s gym. I already called them --- they closed at noon today so the place will be deserted.”

Trivette looked at his watch --- 3:30. He stood up to go.

C.D. did too. “I’m going with you.”

“So am I,” Alex stated.

Trivette wanted to argue, but their faces put the thought out of his mind. They looked just as he felt --- helpless and frustrated.

He nodded. “Okay, but you both stay in the car. One outsider will be more than they want to see.”

“I’ll drive,” C.D. said, rushing to get his keys.

Alex went to the coat rack and picked up her jacket. It was downy fleece, warm and cozy, decorated in a southwestern pattern, the colors as soft as a Texas sunset. Walker had given her the jacket. She touched it against her face as dread and sorrow welled up. Tears spilled unimpeded. Trivette was suddenly behind her. He pulled her to his shoulder.

“Oh Jimmy, why now? Why when things are going so good for us?”

“Why anytime?” he answered softly, just as mystified as she was.

C.D. put a hand on both their shoulders. “Because it’s Cordell, that’s why. He never quits, he never backs down and he fights for the way things should be. Those things tend to get a fella in a few jams.”

He helped Alex put on her jacket, patting her back. “We’ll find him, honey.”

Trivette nodded, trying to keep her spirits up. “I’ll deliver him to you myself -- a Christmas present, with a big red bow on his head.”

Alex tried to smile at their attempts to cheer her. She’d never wanted a Christmas present so bad in all her life.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Maisie had stopped the bleeding once more, then aligned the clavicle as best she could, folding Walker's arm across his chest and wrapping it to him, hopefully immobilizing the entire shoulder. He needed attention soon, more than the small medical kit she'd brought could give him. What she wouldn't give for a few bags of IV Ringer's, pressors to raise his blood pressure, pain meds and pre-warmed blankets. And some whole blood would help things along too.

As she cleaned up the facial cuts, Walker stirred. His head was spinning with vague memories of the beating --- of Elvin demanding to know where the meet was being held, of a fist balling up each time he refused to answer. Unconsciousness had been welcomed, a blessing.

He tried to focus on the figure beside him. For a second it looked like Elvin and he tried to sit up, but a hand pressed firmly against his chest to hold him still.

"No, Walk-Man. Don't move." Maisie's voice was quiet but Walker could hear the anguish in it.

"You okay?" he whispered.

She chuckled softly in amazement. "You're asking me?"

He grimaced as a sharp surge of pain shot through him, followed by a wave of nausea. Maisie rubbed his arm.

"I wish I had some good juice for you." She blotted the sweat breaking out on his forehead, then shook her head. "Walk-Man, I'm so sorry. I just didn't want to believe Elf was capable of this."

"It's not your fault," he answered. He knew Elvin would be back soon. If he could hold only out till five o'clock or so, after the gang leaders had given up on him and gone their separate ways.......

"What time is it?" he asked her.

"Almost four. Why? Does it have something to do with what Elf wants to know?"

He nodded, shifting his position painfully.

"You can't just tell him, I suppose," she said. "It involves others, doesn't it? You're protecting someone from him."

Walker didn't have to answer, she already knew it was true. He sighed. Maisie was such a good person --- she didn't deserve this.

"I guess deep down I knew he was bad," she said "but some things you try to keep buried."

Walker nodded his understanding.

"I wonder if he hadn't gone back to live with his momma, would he have turned out like this? We grew up in a mean time, in a mean place --- Alabama wasn't exactly progressive in the race relations department. My sister, she fell into the trap."

"How did you escape it?" Walker asked her.

"I found somebody who cared." She smiled at the memory. "I was ten or so and I fell at school, scraped my knees up. We had a new school nurse, Miss Hudson --- a white lady. Word was she'd requested to be put in a colored school. Imagine that. She befriended me, Walk-Man. She took an interest, counseled me when I had problems, led me in the right direction. She put herself there --- hands on --- so she could make a difference." Maisie smiled again and gave Walker's arm a gentle pat. "That's one reason why I took to you right away. It's the same thing with your Kick Drugs program. You go out and find the ones who need help, and you make a difference. Those kids listen to you, they avoid the trap. You're so much like Miss Hudson. Except her mustache was dark."

Walker chuckled, but Maisie's words had touched him. "Thanks, Maisie. I think I would have liked Miss Hudson. What happened to her?"

"She stayed on at the school, way after I graduated. She got me interested in medicine and even helped me enroll in nursing classes, but I dropped out after I got married. One of those silly things you do for love."

"You were married? Tell me about him."

Maisie looked at Walker. He was in considerable pain, was shivering from the dampness and could hardly hold his eyes open, yet he wasn't thinking about those things, he was thinking about her instead. She sighed in quiet awe and told him the story.

"He was my childhood sweetheart. I was seventeen, he was eighteen. He was a farm hand and I got a job cooking in a diner. All I ever wanted to be was a wife and mother, and to be happy. A few years passed and the babies didn't come, but Hank and I were so much in love, and we were getting ahead. I was going to go back to nursing school. But then there was an accident. The bus he was riding went off the road, he and others were trapped inside. Police and firemen came. They got the white folks out from the front of the bus first, then the bus caught on fire. None of them tried to get to the rest of the trapped people. Except one passerby, a white man. He wasn't from Alabama. He smashed through the bus window and started hauling people out. Colored people. Witnesses said no one else helped him. He got everybody out except Hank, who was trapped under a seat. That man climbed inside the burning bus and tried to free Hank, but......." She paused and shook her head sadly. "They both died in there, Walk-Man."

Walker's heart went out to her. He sighed softly. "I'm sorry, Maisie."

She nodded, holding back tears. "Soon after that, I took Elf in, but when he went back with his momma, I moved here, to Dallas, and worked my way through night school, got my paramedic degree."

"Why Dallas?"

She smiled. "The man who tried to save Hank --- he was a Texas Ranger."

Walker blinked in astonishment. Maisie continued to smile.

"Yep. I figured if that's what all Texas Rangers were like, that's where I wanted to be. And I haven't been disappointed."

Walker gave her an appreciative smile, then replied. "There are good people all over, Maisie."

"I know. And bad seeds too."

Walker sighed. "He'll be back in soon. Make a run for it."

"I told you I wasn't leaving without you. And he'll have to go through me before they lay a hand on you again."

"Maisie......."

"He won't hurt me, Walk-Man. I know he won't."

He shook his head, not convinced of that. From what he'd seen of Elvin, sentimentality ranked low on his list.

Maisie walked to the small window, watching sleet hit it and bounce off. "I hate cold rain, I hate sleet. I've never seen a white Christmas. Not here, and never in Alabama. Have you?"

He nodded. "On the reservation."

"Christmas snow," she murmured. "That's what we called miracles when we were growing up. It would be a miracle to get snow on Christmas in Mobile."

"I'm sorry Christmas snow didn't happen for Hank," he said with meaning.

She turned from the window and sat beside him again, smiling. "The Christmas snow was that I had Hank at all. I found my true love early in life and I feel lucky to have had it." She gave his arm a gentle pat. "Some of us find our one true love a little later in life, but it doesn't matter when you come together. It's the being together that counts."

Walker closed his eyes as thoughts of Alex filled his head. Her smile, her laughter, her intelligence, her sense of humor, her silky hair, that swish when she walked, and the way she fit perfectly in his arms, her head snuggling against his chest, finding that perfect spot. Finally, a Christmas together......

He opened his eyes and moved his hand to his shirt pocket, but sucked in a breath when he realized the shirt was gone. He tried to sit up.

"Where's my shirt?"

"Easy, Redbeard," Maisie said. "I had to cut it off of you to wrap your shoulder. It's over here." She picked up the pieces of the blood-stained fabric.

"The left pocket," he grimaced as another bout of pain racked him.

Maisie unbuttoned the breast pocket and pulled out a wilted sprig of mistletoe. Tied among the leaves and berries was a ring.

"Is this what I think it is, Walk-Man?" she asked, placing it in his palm.

He nodded, but pushed it back into her hand. "Maisie, if something happens...........will you see that Alex gets it?"

"Ain't nothing gonna happen to you, Walker."

"Maisie, please......." His voice was strained with emotion.

She suddenly realized what he was thinking---that he wasn't leaving here alive. And subconsciously, she feared the same thing --- for the first time ever she'd just called him "Walker."

She gently pushed him back down on the cot. "Okay. Lie down and be still." She pulled the blanket around him, her eyes moist. "I'll take care of it."

He settled back, eyes closing against the weariness overtaking his body. Elf and Leon would be back soon. It would take Christmas snow to ever see Alex again.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Christmas traffic was maddening. C.D. blew his horn as the light turned green but the car ahead took its time moving. Finally around the slow poke, C.D. sped up. Trivette, sitting in the back, looked out of the window at the decorated shops and buildings.

"There was a new saddle in the back seat of Walker's truck. It had a ribbon wrapped around it. My name was on the tag."

C.D. and Alex exchanged smiles, then Alex looked at Trivette.

"We wanted you to be all outfitted for when Cookie delivers the foal. It was Walker's idea."

"I told him to get me a jazz c.d. He said okay."

"That's Cordell," C.D. chuckled. "Always so confounded stoic on the outside, you'd never know how much he loves to surprise ya with the unexpected. He's like a little kid that way."

"That's why he wouldn't let me go with him when BJ called. He knew I'd see the saddle." Trivette looked up at the gray sky, trying to figure out why the fates had worked the way they had today. Uncle Ray had often said not to worry about Walker because the spirits were with him. Were they with him today, Trivette wondered?

"I still don't have him a Christmas present, just can't think of anything. I was going to go out later today to look for something."

Alex smiled warmly at Trivette as she blinked back tears. She had asked Walker a few weeks ago what he'd like as a present. He had pulled her into his arms and smiled that he was looking at the best present he'd ever gotten.

The cell phone rang. Trivette pulled it out of his coat.

"Trivette," he said.

Alex watched as Trivette's eyes grew round, then angry.

"Oh man. Thanks, Jean."

Closing the phone, he sat up straight. "That was Jean from ballistics. They got a match on the bullet in Walker's truck. It was fired from the same gun that killed the boys in the drive-by.

"Elvin!" C.D. exclaimed.

Trivette nodded.

"Jimmy, what if Elvin's there, at the meet?" Alex asked.

"He shouldn't be. Walker said only Midnight and Jamal know from the Ravens."

"What if it leaked out?" Alex continued, worried.

C.D. agreed. "Jimmy, I think we'd better call for backup."

"No. Walker promised them no cops, no interference. The least we can do for Walker is to honor the terms of the meet."

"He's right," Alex told C.D.

"I still don't like it," C.D. grumbled.

They arrived at Eddie's gym ten minutes late. Trivette, knowing the gangs had promised no weapons, left his gun in the car against C.D.'s wishes. But again, Trivette felt he had to uphold Walker's word. He entered the back door of the gym and was met by fifteen pairs of fierce eyes. Paired off by gangs, they stared at him. The tension was thick.

"Que pasa?" Pedro blurted out. "Where's Walker?"

"What is this?" Jamal added.

They all began to yell.

"He's a cop."

"It's a double-cross."

"Walker double-crossed us!"

"We should have never trusted a pig."

"I can't believe I agreed to be in the same room with niggers and chinks."

Jamal jumped at the white speaker, fist balled. Trivette intervened.

"Hey! Listen up! Shut up, all of you and listen!"

They quieted down, glaring angrily at the intruder.

"I'm here in Walker's place, " Trivette began.

"This wasn't important enough for him, man?"

"Yeah, he had to get a hair cut."

They began to gripe again.

"Listen!" Trivette shouted again. "Walker's in trouble. He's been kidnapped. I need your help."

"Why should we help you?"

"Because I know you respect Walker and what he wanted to accomplish here today."

"So? That's Walker. What's it got to do with you?"

"He's my partner," Trivette said.

"So what? That don't mean shit."

"It does," Trivette stressed, desperately searching for a way to reach them. "Jamal, do you consider Midnight to be your partner?"

"He's more. He's my brother, man."

"Why?" Trivette asked.

"Because he's there for me, he never turns his back on me."

"Pedro," Trivette continued. "What about you and Jorge? Do you consider him your brother?"

"No shit, gringo."

"Why?"

"Because we watch out for each other. We know each other's secrets and we'd die before we told them."

Trivette went on, pointing to another pair. "Sean and Patrick, why are you brothers?"

"Because we'd die for each other," Sean answered as Patrick nodded.

Trivette gazed at them. "Everything you've said applies to Walker and me. We're brothers, just like each of you. We may be different colors and different in our styles, but we feel the same way. When he hurts, I hurt, and vice versa. What affects him affects me. We're there for each other, through good times and bad, we trust each other with our lives everyday."

Trivette paused, feeling the emotion of his impassioned plea. "When he bleeds, I bleed..........and he's bleeding now." He continued to gaze at them, imploring their understanding. When he continued, his voice cracked with anguish. "He needs my help. My brother needs my help. What would you do?"

They were silent, the hardened shells suddenly vulnerable. Trivette had found a way in.

Pedro shuffled his feet and said quietly, "What could we do? We don't know what happened."

Trivette swallowed the lump in his throat. "I think I know who got him. I think it was Elvin."

Jamal's mouth dropped open. "You sure?"

Trivette nodded. "Do you know where he hangs out, a hideout maybe?"

Jamal's chin shifted from side to side, hesitant.

"He's in trouble, Jamal. Please help."

Jamal set his jaw forward, then nodded.

~~~~~~~

BJ picked the lock on the door. He had gotten Walker into this mess with the phone call, now it was up to him to get him out of it. Silently he crept downstairs. One of the Ravens was on a couch, asleep. His gun was on the floor beside him. BJ slipped into the room and picked up the gun, then continued toward the basement.

~~~~~~~~

Maisie tried to keep Walker warm but was failing miserably. There was little or no heat in the room and cold air seeped in from around the window. The sleet continued to fall. Walker had stopped talking for the most part, a fact that greatly concerned Maisie. His blood pressure was dropping slowly and the first stage of hypothermia had already set in. She knew she'd have to take drastic measures and soon. She had no plans to be the one to give the ring to Alex.

Walker tried to remain coherent. If he could fight them off long enough for Maisie to run out, maybe she'd have a chance. He shook his head --- his eyes kept closing against his will. He shifted his shoulder on purpose, hoping the subsequent pain would keep him alert. A low groan escaped as a streak of fire went through his body. It worked, he thought sardonically.

Elvin, Leon and three others entered the room. Maisie readied herself and stood, getting between the cot and Leon.

"Elf, I won't let you touch Walk-Man."

"Walk-Man?"

"He's my friend, has been for a long time now."

Elf glowered. "Stand aside, Aunt Maisie."

"No."

Leon took a step toward her. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared him down.

Walker summoned his reserves and sat up. "Leave her alone. It's too late, Elvin. The meet is over."

Elvin's eyes flared as Leon looked at him.

"We missed it! Man, what do we do now?"

Elvin looked past Maisie at Walker, who was struggling to remain upright. It was all his fault. He'd won over BJ, brainwashed Maisie, and now they'd missed the meet because of his stubbornness. Elvin pulled out a gun.

"No!" Maisie screamed.

A sudden shout of alarm came from upstairs. "Cops!"

Elvin gestured for Leon and the others to go. "Take care of it."

He aimed his gun at Walker.

"Elf, no!" Maisie cried again.

BJ suddenly bolted into the room, bashing into Elvin, knocking him down. He then ran to Maisie and handed her the gun he'd taken from the sleeping Raven. Walker tried to stand but fell to his knees. As Elvin picked himself up, he stared into the barrel of a gun held by his aunt. Still clutching his own gun, he stood slowly.

"You're gonna have to choose, Aunt Maisie. Blood or white man."

"No, Elf. I'm choosing between right and wrong."

Walker knew Elvin would kill Maisie. He was unreachable now, even for her. In a matter of seconds his gun would raise up and she would have to defend herself. Walker couldn't let her make that choice. If she killed her own nephew, she'd have to live with that horror every day of her life. He couldn't let that happen. If he could take Elvin down, or get him to turn on him before it came down to the choice.......

Gunfire could be heard outside and in the upper floors of the house. The sound made Elvin appear more desperate. Walker, trying his best to stand, finally got up on wobbly legs and moved toward Elvin.

"Give it up, Elvin. It's over."

"It ain't over till one of us is dead, pig. And I know my Aunt Maisie --- she can't hurt me. She raised me."

Maisie still had the gun pointed directly at Elvin. Indecision flashed across her face. Walker moved within reach of Elvin. The black man suddenly popped an evil smile, then pulled his gun up to Walker.

"No!" Maisie cried and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened --- the gun was empty.

Stunned that she'd actually tried to shoot him, Elvin gawked for a second, giving Walker time to gather his strength for one well-placed kick. The gun went flying. But Elvin lowered his head and rammed it into Walker, who went down hard. BJ and Maisie leaped on Elvin. He threw them off and went for his gun.

Trivette dashed through the door, gun drawn. "Freeze, Elvin!"

Elvin stopped, staring at Trivette. For a tense second he considered going for the gun anyway, but then he went limp, resignation setting in.

"On the floor!" Trivette ordered. "Hands behind your back."

Maisie ran to Walker. He was doubled up in pain.

"Stay with me, Walk-Man."

He nodded and spoke through clenched teeth. "I'm still here."

"Jimbo, we need help now."

Trivette nodded as he finished cuffing Elvin, then scrambled to Walker. "There's an ambulance on the way." He pulled Walker's head and shoulders into his arms.

"Hey, partner," Walker said weakly.

Trivette shook his head, emotions rushing out. "Walker, I........." He trailed off, the lump in his throat growing.

Maisie patted Trivette's arm. "Help me get him on the cot, Jimbo." She then motioned for BJ to come next to her. She hugged him tightly.

Backup Rangers and DPD filled the house. Mark Sheridan entered the room.

"Mark," Trivette said. "Get the paramedics down here as soon as they arrive. And get him out of here." He pointed to Elvin.

Sheridan knelt beside Walker, taking in the injuries and grimacing. "Hang in there, Walker. There's someone topside anxiously waiting for some news." He winked at the bearded Ranger. "I'll send her down."

Sheridan jerked Elvin to his feet. The black man stared at Maisie in disbelief.

"You didn't choose blood."

"No, Elf, I didn't. I chose honor, integrity and friendship, things you know nothing about. Blood is just something you spill."

Elvin's face went blank. Sheridan shoved him to the door and led him away.

Trivette took off his coat and covered Walker, trying to add extra warmth to the blanket Maisie was wrapping around him. BJ looked down at the Ranger, his chin quivering.

"I'm sorry, Ranger Walker. I didn't know they were going to hurt you."

"It's okay, BJ," Walker replied. "You did a brave thing in here today. I'm proud of you."

BJ's face lit up. He looked at Maisie and broke out into a smile.

Alex ran down the basement steps and rushed through the door. "Walker?"

Trivette moved aside as she ran to the cot. She burst into tears, not able to speak, but she took his hand, kissed his forehead, then put her head onto that perfect spot against his chest.

Outside in the driving sleet, the gang leaders waited. They had all followed Jamal as he led Trivette to the house. C.D. had come out with the report that Walker was hurt but alive. A dozen Ravens, all under arrest, stood under the guard of DPD officers, waiting for transport. Now, anxious and antsy, the gang leaders began to trade insults and toss accusations to each other and to the Ravens.

Trivette followed Sheridan outside with Elvin and Leon.

"Break it up," Trivette said to the gang leaders. "These two are responsible."

Elvin growled. "Walker did this! He made you look like weenie ass fools, meeting together to talk. I'm surprised no one served tea."

The leaders considered this and began to grumble again. Trivette wanted the truth to come out to calm the situation. He poked Leon.

"You're an accessory to murder and attempted murder of a Ranger, Leon. If you talk, it'll go a lot easier for you."

Leon glanced at Elvin. The gang leaders got louder, angrier. Leon spoke up.

"Elvin killed the two kids in the drive-by, then set up Midnight and killed Jose."

"Shut up!" Elvin yelled.

Trivette shoved Elvin to quiet him.

Leon continued. "Elvin snatched Walker to get him to talk about the meet. We were going to bomb it, kill all the leaders and take over. But Walker wouldn't talk. We shot him, then beat the hell out of him, but he wouldn't give you up."

The gang leaders were stunned into silence, and Trivette relaxed, but suddenly Jamal made a move toward Elvin.

"I'm gonna kill you for this, man."

The other leaders jumped forward as the Ravens got ready to fight. The DPD officers went for their guns. A major battle was about to erupt.

Trivette jumped into the fray. "Stop!" He held up one hand to the officers and the other hand to the gang leaders. "Don't you get it? This goes against everything Walker was trying to do. He wanted to restore peace and dignity to your neighborhoods and homes. He wants the killing of innocent kids to stop. He cares about you, he cares about what becomes of your lives. Don't do this --- for the sake of peace, and for Walker's sake."

Jamal shook his head. "They hurt Walker. You said he was your brother."

"He is," Trivette said, "just like you and Midnight. And there's nothing I'd rather do right now than rip these guys apart for what they did to him, but I won't, because I'm honoring what Walker wants. Don't you guys see? You can still be brothers, but be brothers in peace."

There was silence again as the leaders considered Trivette's words.

Pedro dropped his fists, a ray of enlightenment crossing his face. "Brothers in peace --- like you and Walker."

Trivette felt the lump threatening again. He nodded. The gang leaders backed off and for a moment the only sound was the sleet hitting the tin roof of the house.

C.D. put a hand on Trivette's shoulder and smiled. "I'm mighty proud of you, Jimmy. And I'm sure your brother's going to be too."

A transport unit pulled up and the Ravens were taken away. All that was left now was the rescue squad. They had been in the house for ten minutes now, working on Walker under Maisie's direction. She had dosed him with morphine as soon as the paramedics arrived, telling him, "This is the best Christmas present I can give you, Walk-Man. Good juice."

The gurney was brought outside and rolled on the sidewalk toward a waiting ambulance. Walker was drifting in and out, the pain medication finally allowing his body a respite. Alex held his hand tightly as they passed by the gang leaders, lined up beside the walk.

Jamal suddenly stepped forward and raised two fingers in a peace sign. Pedro did the same. In seconds, every gang leader raised a peace sign as the gurney was wheeled by. C.D., his mouth agape with wonderment, raised his fingers too. There was total silence. Alex stopped the gurney and leaned down to Walker, her eyes shining with tears.

"Open your eyes, Walker. See what you've done."

Walker forced his eyes open, and in the fading light of a gray day, saw the fiercesome gang leaders promising a vow of peace. He looked at Trivette, who was holding back tears, then glanced up at Maisie.

"Christmas snow," he whispered to her.

Trivette smiled, thinking the pain medication was clouding his mind. "No, partner, it's still rain and sleet."

But Maisie grinned at Walker and nodded. "It's a miracle indeed."

Smiling, Walker fell asleep. The gurney was loaded into the rescue squad. BJ, sticking close to Maisie, suddenly spoke up.

"Look! It is snowing."

The gang leaders, dispersing, stopped and looked up. So did Alex, C.D., Trivette and Maisie. Snow was falling in huge flakes.

"Well, I'll be damned," Maisie said softly.

~~~~~~~

By eight o'clock in the evening, Walker had been stabilized and was tucked into a hospital room. Sedated, he floated in and out, occasionally answering a question or squeezing a hand in response. The heated blankets were the best things he'd ever felt --- except for Alex's hand in his.

Satisfied that Walker was okay, C.D. and Trivette left for the Christmas Eve party to entertain the children.

"Come with us, Maisie," Trivette said. "It'll help get BJ's mind off of everything."

"Thanks, Jimbo, but I think we'll go home," she answered, drawing BJ up into a hug. "We have a lot of things to talk about. Besides, you might get dangerous with all that mistletoe hanging up there. I might have to hurt you."

Trivette shook his head, not attempting a comeback. Alex giggled and left Walker's side to see her two friends out. Seizing her chance, Maisie quickly went to the bed.

"Walk-Man, can you hear me?"

His eyes fluttered open. "Yeah."

She held up the sprig of mistletoe with the ring. "See what I got? I'm gonna put it under your pillow."

He nodded as she did so. "Thanks, Maisie." He wanted to tell her how he felt, that her decision to pull the trigger was one he'd never forget, and that the fact the gun was empty was another Christmas snow. But the words wouldn't come. The sedatives interrupted most of the flow from brain to mouth. His eyes fell closed again. "Thanks, Maisie," was all he managed to mumble again.

Alex lightly touched his forehead. "Maisie's gone. It's me."

He opened his eyes and gazed at her with longing. "You're the real miracle," he whispered, then dropped off to sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~

Trivette and C.D. gathered the children in a circle. C.D. started out.

"Okay, kids, I know you've been waiting for Ranger Walker cause you all love his stories, but he can't be here tonight."

A chorus of disappointed cries rang out.

Trivette raised his hands. "Now hold on. He's not feeling too good right now, but he passed along a story for us to tell."

Now the kids grinned and squirmed, anxious to hear. Trivette continued.

"Once there was a country with eight castles. The people in each of these castles were different from all the others. Some had dark skin, some light, they had different hair and eyes, different religious beliefs. And for these reasons, the castles didn't like each other."

C.D. took over. "For many years the castles were at war, and lots of people died, including innocent children. But one day a brave man came into the country, and brought together the leaders of the eight castles. He sat them down together and made them talk, made them get to know each other. And guess what kind of things they found out?"

The kids called out answers.

"That people are the same all over."

"That your color doesn't mean anything."

"Just because someone's different doesn't mean you won't like them."

Trivette grinned at them. "Those are all good answers. They also found out that you should make your own choices. Don't dislike someone because you're told to dislike them."

"But back to the story," C.D. said, "A bad dude decided he didn't want peace among the castles, so he captured the brave man and hurt him, and tried to start the wars all over again. But guess what happened? The man's friends and the leaders of the castles got together and saved the brave man. They kicked the bad dude out of the country forever."

"All right," said one child.

"What happened to the brave man?" a young girl asked.

"He lived happily ever after with his princess," Trivette told her.

"Yuck," exclaimed a boy.

"But his friends were with him too," C.D. added.

"That's better," the boy replied.

Trivette smiled. "Yeah, we think so too."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alex had fallen asleep, her head on the bed beside Walker. She awoke the next morning to an unusual brightness. She glanced at Walker, his eyes closed, then made her way to the window, blinking in surprise at the snow-covered ground. She couldn't remember the last time it had snowed in Dallas on Christmas. Miracles did happen. She'd witnessed several in the last 24 hours.

She turned back to Walker. He was awake, watching her. She walked to the bed, suddenly giggling.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

She reached to the top of his head and removed a red bow from his hair. "Jimmy must have sneaked in here last night."

He gave her a perplexed look.

"Never mind," she laughed. She stroked his beard.

"I kind of messed up our first Christmas together," he said.

"Hey, we're together. I'm not going anywhere."

Trivette and C.D. came into the room.

"Hey, partner," Trivette smiled. "How do you feel?"

"Warmer, that's for sure," Walker replied, "and lucky. I hear my brother stuck up for me last night."

Trivette smiled, then shuffled his feet, a bit embarrassed.

C.D. shook his head in amazement. "I admit I was a skeptic, but thanks to you two, there's a truce among the gangs, at least for now."

"It may be tentative, " Alex added, "but it's a start."

Walker smiled, catching Trivette's eye. He liked the idea of having a brother, and he planned to tell Trivette that soon. No more holding back.

Trivette handed Walker an envelope. "Merry Christmas."

"From me too," C.D. grinned.

Walker opened the envelope. It was a Christmas card with a slip of paper inside. On the paper was written "good for a new paint job." He looked at them, puzzled.

"Paint job?"

"Yeah, for your truck," Trivette said.

"What's wrong with my truck?"

Trivette and C.D. looked at each other, then Alex.

She shrugged. "I didn't have the heart to tell him."

"Tell me what? What happened to my truck?"

C.D. cleared his throat. "Well, you could say it got decorated for Christmas. With spray paint."

Walker groaned.

"But it kinda looked nice," Trivette said. "It covered up the mud."

Walker glared at him, then gestured to the card. "Thanks you guys."

"We'll have a proper gift-giving party when you get home. How about that, Cordell?"

"Sounds nice," he answered, then subtly gestured with his head for them to leave. Guessing what was coming, they made an excuse about going for coffee and left the room, but hung around outside the door.

His right arm and shoulder were immobilized, so with his left hand he reached under the pillow, trying to remember on which side Maisie had left the mistletoe.

"You want me to fluff up your pillow?" Alex asked.

"No," he said, finally finding the sprig and pulling it out.

"Walker," Alex giggled. "How did you hang on to that?"

"I had some help," he answered, holding it up to her as she bent down to kiss him. Then he handed the sprig to her. "Your turn."

She smiled and took the mistletoe, suddenly noticing the ring tied to the stem. Her eyes grew wide, her voice dropped to a whisper. "Walker?"

He took her hand. "I want to make sure we spend every Christmas together, from now on."

"Oh, Walker....." He pulled her close in a long, passionate kiss.

In the hallway, Trivette and C.D. snickered.

"That sounded like a 'yes' to me," C.D. grinned. He peeked into the room, seeing them still locked in an embrace. "Better get ready to call 911."

"Why?" Trivette asked.

"There's a fire sprinkler over the bed, the heat's rising fast.............."

THE END