UNDER FIRE

by Leigh Williams and Londa Pfeffer

 

Alex entered the offices of Texas Ranger's Company B and strode purposefully to her destination, giving only the briefest of nods in response to the one or two hellos called in her direction. As she'd expected, Walker saw her coming and sat back in his chair with a smile and a greeting on his lips. But it wasn't Walker she had come to see, and if there was one thing she knew for sure, it was that she wanted this over with as soon as possible. Stopping at Trivette's desk, where he was busily searching out case information on his computer, she cleared her throat slightly to get his attention and then began, "Jimmy, I need to talk with you. It's important."

"Sure, Alex, what's up?" the black man said, turning to face her. His smile faded when he saw the odd look on her face. "Al?"

Dropping her voice and averting her eyes from his, Alex felt an unwelcome flush rise in her face. Taking a bracing breath, she continued in her most professional tone, "Not here, Jimmy. I have a conference room down the hall. Let's go." The blonde ADA turned to leave without waiting for his reply, knowing he'd be only a step or two behind her and anxious to get somewhere more private.

Alex felt more than heard Walker as he fell into step beside her, a concerned tone in his voice as he questioned, "Mind if I tag along?"

Not looking at the red-bearded Ranger, she replied, "That's up to Jimmy. I have no problem with it."

"No. I mean... of course I don't mind." Trivette said quietly as he drew up beside the pair, taking the blonde woman's elbow gently and easing her to a stop in the middle of the corridor. "Alex? What's going on here? Alex, talk to me. What's wrong?"

She finally looked straight into his eyes and immediately regretted it. Having requested this duty with a promise that she could maintain her professionalism, suddenly Alex wasn't at all sure she could do that. "Not here, Jimmy, please. I'll explain everything in a minute. Let's just get to the conference room, okay?"

Glancing toward Walker, the black Ranger found his sense of utter confusion was mirrored in his partner's eyes. Finally, nodding slowly at the blonde, Trivette agreed, "Okay, Alex. If that's what you want."

"Thank you," she breathed in genuine gratitude, quickly resuming the short walk to the assigned room. Opening the door, she stepped inside, followed closely by Trivette and then Walker, who quietly closed the door behind them.

Gesturing to the younger man to take a seat, Alex reached over and tapped the record button on a tape player that was resting on the table alongside several file folders. "Ranger Trivette, this is just an informal inquiry," she said slowly, struggling to control a tremor in her voice. "But it could lead to formal charges so if you want to have a lawyer present you may. You may leave at any time and you are not obligated to answer any questions."

Clearly stunned, Trivette sat silently for a moment, allowing her words to sink in before finally finding his voice. "Informal inquiry? Of what? Alex, do I need a lawyer? Am I being charged with something?"

"Not yet," she replied softly, "But a complaint has been filed and the charges are very serious. Right now it's just in the preliminary stages, and I'll be honest, that's the only reason I'm being permitted to conduct this interview. If the allegations against you are found to have any merit, my friendship with both you and Walker will prevent me from being involved. Do you understand what I'm saying to you, Jimmy? You don't have to be here. If you want counsel right now, you are free to wait until someone can be summoned. You don't have to answer any of my questions, and you can leave any time you choose."

"Geez, Alex!" Trivette rose from his seat in frustration. "Quit dancing around this. I know my rights in an inquiry. What I don't know is what's going on? What are you saying to me? What have I been accused of?"

The blonde attorney took a deep breath, steeling herself mentally for a task she now regretted taking. I was wrong to do this, I should have waited until someone else was available. Someone less involved. Touching her forehead tiredly, Alex sank slowly into the seat near the files she had left on the table. "Jimmy, I don't know how to say this other than to just say it. You've been accused of sexual assault. Specifically rape, since the victim is not legally capable of consenting to engaging in a sexual act."

"What?" Trivette and Walker roared at the same time, unable to believe what they'd just been told.

"Jimmy, I know this is ludicrous, but my feelings don't come into play here." Alex's face reflected her own obvious distress, and did much to blunt the sudden anger that had swept through the two men. The complaint has been filed and an inquiry has to be conducted. Beyond this conversation, I won't have any connection to the investigation and my opinion won't be sought or heeded when the decisions are made. I should have let someone else do this prelim, but there was no one else available. That would have meant the investigation proceeding without you even knowing what was happening. I didn't want you to hear something whispered in the halls. I thought this was the best way."

Walker leaned tensely against the wall and listened. Alex's insistence on repeating Trivette's options several times indicated just how seriously she felt his partner should take this "informal inquiry." He kept a concerned gaze locked on the younger man as they both absorbed the implications of what Alex had told them.

Trivette moved stiffly toward the window, staring for several long moments before finally turning back to the table where Alex waited. Releasing a long breath he sat once again while asking in a quiet voice, "Who? Who am I supposed to have done this to?" Then, as her words sunk in, "You said not legally capable of consent, do you mean a child? Someone is saying I molested a child? My God, Alex, you know me better than that!"

"Yes, Jimmy, I do. But the legal system has to do its job," she replied equally quietly, her eyes anguished. "Do you know a Mr. and Mrs. Keith Blane?"

Horror flooded Trivette's face. "Star? They think I hurt Star? God, Al! She's like a little girl! How could anyone think I'd do anything to Star? Oh, Jesus..." Nausea swept through him at the thought.

"She has the mind of a little girl, Jimmy, but her body is twenty-three. And she has been raped, two different doctors have confirmed it. The reports indicate that Star said you did it."

"Oh my God," Trivette whispered, dropping his head into his hands, "This can't be happening. It just can't be. Star couldn't possibly have told them that. It's not true!"

Walker finally left his position by the wall, moving up behind his partner and placing a hand on Trivette's shoulder. "We know it's not true, Trivette. It's some sort of mix up is all. Like you said, Star is like a little girl. She doesn't know what she's said or what it means. We'll get it sorted out."

Alex reached across the corner of the table, taking her friend's hand for a moment. "So how do you want to handle this?" she asked slowly. "Do you want to obtain advice of counsel?"

"No!" the younger Ranger shouted, lifting his head defiantly. "There isn't any need to put this off or talk to a lawyer. The Blanes are wrong. I never touched Star. At least not that way. She's a sweet kid and that's all! Tell me what you want to know. Ask your questions, Counselor. I have nothing to hide and nothing to worry about."

"Okay. Let's get it over with then," Alex sighed, attempting to slip into professional mode as she pulled out a note pad and pen. "How long have you known the Blane family?

"About six months, I guess, give or take a couple of weeks. Their van was disabled just outside of Denton. I pulled over, identified myself as a Texas Ranger and offered to help. We couldn't get it running, so I called for a tow and drove them to a motel near the garage where they could stay while it was being repaired."

Flipping open the topmost folder and glancing briefly at a typed page, Alex continued the interview. "After that, you had frequent contact with the family?"

"Yeah, I had frequent contact!" the Ranger replied, his ire rising again. "They were new to the area. I helped them find a decent place to live, gave Keith some job leads, stuff like that. They invited me over to dinner a few times after they were settled. For crying out loud, Alex, we became friends!"

"Have you ever had opportunity to be alone with Star Blane for any length of time?" the blonde ADA asked, not looking up.

"Geez, Alex!"

"Jimmy," she responded, meeting his gaze, "the questions have to be asked. The answers are up to you."

             Sighing, Trivette nodded, then said, "Yes. I've been alone with Star. I've taken her to the zoo, the movies, brought her here and to C.D.'s with me. I've even 'sat' for Keith and Molly in their apartment so they could have an evening out."

"Have you been alone with Star in the past week to ten days?"

Walker could see where the questions were leading. If Trivette hadn't been with Star at the time the rape was supposed to have occurred, then the accusation would immediately be proved wrong. He couldn't help hoping his partner would say it was impossible.

The younger man also read the implication in her question. He wished he had the answer that would shut this down now, but he didn't. "Yeah," he responded resignedly. "I've seen Star that recently. A week ago Saturday I took her to a matinee at the theater, they were playing that new Disney movie. Then the beginning of this week was sort of crazy for them. Molly's father was visiting when he had a car accident on Tuesday evening. Turned out to be nothing serious but Molly was in a panic, so I stayed with Star that night so Keith could go to the hospital, too. They got home the next morning in time for me to get back to my place and get ready for work. Thursday was their anniversary, and my day off, so I looked after Star again."

"Why?"

"Why? Why?" Trivette shouted, his chair falling backwards to the floor as he jumped to his feet, his face stormy. "Why the hell do you think? Because I was hoping for a chance at her? Jesus!" Pacing angrily around the room, the Ranger glared at the attorney as he continued his tirade. "Because she's a nice kid, Alex! Because her parents are nice people and having an adult daughter that requires the care of a five-year-old doesn't leave them much time alone! Because they don't know that many people in Dallas yet, but they do know me! Because they're my friends. Damnit, Counselor," the stinging tone with which he delivered the familiar term brought an involuntarily flinch from the blonde woman. "How can you even ask me 'why'?"

"Trivette," Walker said quietly. "Ease off, huh?"

The soft words hid nothing of the concern behind them, and it drew the other Ranger up short. Spinning, Trivette walked quickly to the window, leaning the knuckles of his clenched fists heavily on the sill as he took several slow, deep breaths.

Finally he turned back, his tone tightly controlled once more. "Are we done here?"

"Yes, I guess we are, Jimmy," Alex responded, reaching over to shut off the tape recorder.

"Good. I'm outta here. I think I need some fresh air."

The black man crossed the room, brushing past Walker without another word, then pulling open the door and stepping out into the corridor as quickly as he could. The door didn't quite slam behind him.

Walker found himself torn. His partner was obviously shell-shocked, but Alex wasn't in much better shape from the look on her face.

As he switched his gaze from the beautiful ADA to the door, Alex whispered, "Go after him, Walker."

"Alex?" he said with a questioning look.

She lifted her eyes and gave him a small smile. "I'm okay. Go, Walker. He needs a friend right now."

The Ranger studied her a moment longer and then with a slight nod, grabbed his hat and headed out after his partner. Alex waited until the door swung shut behind him, then slowly dropped her head into her hands, shoulders trembling as tears streaked down her face.

 

 

Walker caught up with the younger man at his desk in the office. Trivette had seated himself at his computer and was pounding furiously on the keys, eyes glued to the screen. His face was a mask, and tension radiated from him. Several other occupants of the room were watching curiously, and Walker found himself wondering if it was his partner's unusual behavior that had caught their attention, or if word of the accusation had already begun to spread.

Approaching the desk, he stood at Trivette's back and waited silently. When there was no acknowledgement of his presence, Walker opted for a more direct approach. "Trivette."

"Not now, man," Jimmy growled, never ceasing his assault on the keyboard.

Reaching out to put a hand on his friend's shoulder, Walker repeated, "Trivette."

With amazing speed, the younger man spun in his chair, tossing Walker's hand away and rising to his feet, coming to a halt with his face only inches from the older Ranger. "I said 'not now', Walker," he hissed, deep brown eyes blazing with fury. "I'm not in the mood for a pep talk, and I'm not looking for a shoulder to cry on, so just back off!"

The red-bearded man neither flinched nor blinked as he softly replied, "Who said I was offering either, partner?"

Some of the fire left the black man's eyes as he matched gazes with his friend. A moment later a touch of regret replaced it. Trivette had warned from the beginning that he had a temper; Walker had learned that it usually cooled as quickly as it flared.

Trivette backed off a step, giving Walker room, and then turned to stare out the window. "It doesn't make sense, man. Why?"

"I don't know," Walker admitted. "What I do know is that, right now, asking why isn't going to give us any answers. Meanwhile, Benny Colson is still on the loose, and the lead you picked up this morning could help us bring him in. What do you say we get out there and do some business?"

The younger man turned back from the window and grabbed the white Stetson he'd dropped on his desk. Settling it on his head, he gave a quick nod and headed for the door. "Yeah. Let's get it done."

 

 

Trivette's information proved to be good, leading the team straight to the location of the wiry ex-con who'd been linked to a spree of vicious car-jackings in the Metroplex in the previous two months. By the time they had their man in custody and headed

back for booking and the paperwork, the two Rangers had managed to set the morning's events aside and relax considerably.

The mood couldn't last. Arriving at the lockup, both Rangers were quick to notice the unusual looks and whispers. And both men knew neither the comments nor the stares were directed at Walker. Trivette tensed up again almost immediately.

"Word's out, man," came his grim comment as they made their way back to the office.

"Yeah, sure looks like it," Walker replied, shooting a scathing glare at two overly curious court clerks who scuttled back to their duties. "Don't let it get to you, Trivette. Things will be set right and this will all be over soon."

"You sound awfully sure of that," the younger man responded doubtfully, as they passed the questioning eyes and silent faces of a knot of people that normally would have called out greetings to both men.

Walker stopped in mid-stride, turning to face his friend. "I am sure, Trivette. You're innocent and the investigation will prove that. Just hang in there."

Trivette was about to respond when they both saw Alex leaving the DA's office and going immediately to her own. The young Ranger's thoughts turned to the events of the morning. Playing them back now left a sour taste in his mouth as he recalled the words spoken in anger. Time to set that right.  "Walker, would you mind if I met you back in the office?"

The older man nodded in understanding, he'd known it wouldn't take long for his partner to look for an opportunity to talk to the blonde ADA. "Sure, take your time--"

His words were interrupted by their Captain, who caught sight of them as he stepped out of the D.A.'s office.

"Trivette! My office. Now."

"Yes, sir," the black man responded, straightening his shoulders slightly. "Time for round two, I guess. I'll have to talk to Al later."

"Yeah," Walker agreed solemnly. "See ya in a bit."

As Trivette headed toward the Captain's office, Walker turned to Alex's. With a nod at the secretary confirming she was alone, he tapped lightly on the door. "Alex?"

"Come in, Walker," came the muffled reply.

The bearded Ranger opened the door and stepped inside, closing it again behind him. Alex stood unmoving, staring out the window at the Dallas skyline. Walker wrapped his arms around her tightly from behind. "You okay?"

"I'm fine. It's Jimmy I'm worried about," came her soft answer. "How's he doing?"

"He's... coping. Quieter than usual, but he'll be fine once this is cleared up." Walker moved his hands to Alex's shoulders and gently turned her to face him. "Alex, what can you tell me? How bad is it?"

The blonde in his arms tensed almost immediately, and Walker knew the reply wasn't going to be a good one.

"The evidence is thin. Trauma indicative of a rape in the last five to seven days was discovered during a routine medical exam. Because of Star's mental handicap, Protective Services was called in immediately. All I really know is that the initial

interviews state that the girl said Jimmy hurt her, then told her not to tell. They haven't yet decided whether to file charges, and they'll need a lot more than that to take it to court and win, but the D.A. has decided the allegation warrants further investigation. It's already been turned over to the state Attorney General's office," Alex said quietly.

"Damn," Walker growled, frustrated.

 

 

Trivette made a conscious effort to quit the pacing that he'd been doing since arriving back at his apartment. His meeting with the Captain had been brief, and the result not entirely unexpected.

"I'm sorry, Trivette," the silver-haired man had said almost as soon as the office door closed behind the Ranger. "But the D.A.'s office has decided that in order to avoid any appearance of a cover-up, a formal investigation of the charges against you will be undertaken immediately. It's been handed over to the State Attorney General's office." The Captain looked at the black man with concern, regret tingeing his words as he continued, "Jimmy, I'm sure that these charges will be proved false. But under the circumstances, I'm going to have to suspend you, pending the results of the inquiry."

There hadn't been any need for a response. Trivette had turned in his gun and badge and then headed back to his own desk to collect a few things. Walker hadn't yet returned so he'd scribbled a quick note to his partner:

Suspension. I need to think. Call you later

He'd left the envelope where Walker wouldn't be able to miss it. Then he'd gone straight home. Needing solitude, he'd taken the phone off the hook while he tried to sort out in his mind how people he liked and trusted could accuse him of raping their daughter.

But nearly four hours had brought him no closer to the answer.

Unreal,  he thought, this is all just unreal.  From the minute Alex came in and said she needed to talk to me.  Alex. Damn, I was going to talk to Alex. She didn't deserve what she got this morning. Checking his watch, Trivette realized that the blonde attorney would have left her office by now. She could be with Walker, or at C.D.'s, but maybe she'd gone back to her place. I could call -- and say what? No, this is something that needs to be done face to face. Decision made, the black man grabbed his hat and headed out the door. Couldn't hurt to try there, anyway.

 

 

"Dang it, Cordell," CD muttered for the hundredth time. "How in the blue blazes could anyone possibly think Jimmy could ever do such a thing? I've half a mind to go down and give that D.A. a talkin' to. And your dadburn Captain too, while I'm at it, putting the boy on suspension based on a load of pig slop like that. Damn fool should know the men under his command better than that."

Walker sighed. There wasn't any answer to C.D.'s question, and he knew the ex­-Ranger's threats of facing off with the Captain and the D.A. were just the older man's way of blowing off steam. He'd spent the last several hours wishing he had a way to do the same.

Trivette had taken off and gone into isolation after getting the word of his

suspension. Walker knew that at this point the younger man wouldn't welcome his company. As they left work for the night, Walker had tried to convince Alex to come with him to C.D.'s for dinner, but she'd pleaded a headache and asked for a rain check.

He knew it was really that she was still hurting over the events of the morning, but without her cooperation there wasn't any way for him to help there either.

Suddenly he grabbed his hat and put it on, standing and turning for the door.

"Cordell? Where you going?" CD queried quickly, stopping the Ranger's exit for

a minute.

              "I'm going to talk to the Blanes."

The older man looked concerned. "That might not be the best idea there, son.

You know you'll get skinned alive for interfering with the investigation."

      "CD, I'm not going to interfere in the dang investigation! I just want some

answers!"

                   "Okay, okay, don't go jumping all over me!" the retired Ranger retorted

immediately. Then he reached for his own hat. "I reckon I'll just go along with you.

wouldn't mind hearing what them folks have to say myself. 'Sides, if this is some sort of smear job they've got going, then both of us there will mean they can't claim you tried to

intimidate them into changing their story."

Calling to Bobbi, his head waitress, to take over while he was gone, C.D.

hurriedly stepped from behind the bar and followed his friend out the door.

 

                     Dusk was just closing in as Trivette stepped outside. Alex's building was, at most, a ten-minute drive, but he decided to walk. It would give him a chance to figure out exactly how he was going to apologize. How about... Alex, I was a complete ass this morning? With a purposeful stride he turned in the direction of the ADA's apartment. I just hope she wants to listen.

                     Trivette chose to use the jogging path through the park and, as he'd figured, at this time of evening it was deserted. The Ranger moved along at a quick pace and left the park at the exit nearest to his destination without encountering anyone on foot. He noticed the dark sedan almost immediately, and watched as it slowed and turned off on a side street ahead, though no alarm bells rang until he saw it go by again and knew it had circled around. Two faces peered intently at him from inside the car on the second pass, both the front and rear passengers. And he was fairly sure there were at least two more passengers. Trivette tensed and looked around carefully, scanning for an open store or accessible building. No such luck, damnit.

                     Trivette released a small breath when he realized the vehicle had turned off on the same side street for the second time, but this time didn't return. Maybe it was just my nerves getting the better of me, he thought. Nevertheless the black man remained cautious and alert as he crossed the street the car had turned down, half expecting to see it parked and waiting. Nothing. When he crossed an alley between the two buildings just beyond with no incident, he breathed an audible sigh of relief.

 

A moment later, five figures emerged from the shadows of the alley and tell into step behind the Ranger.

"Hey, ain't that the cop they had on the news tonight?" one voice loudly questioned. "The nigger that got himself in tight with a good, decent white family and then decided to get himself a piece of their daughter?"

"Yah, that's the stinking scumbag that's been passing himself off as a Texas Ranger," another voice responded angrily. "Texas Rangers are the best of the best. Someone like him makes them all look bad. Dirty piss-ant raped her, they said. Raped, and her being retarded, she didn't even understand what the bastard was doing."

A third voice chimed in, and this time Trivette could clearly hear the slur caused by too much alcohol, "My Susie's like that little gal they talked about today. She don't know nothing about a man. Just knows to play with her dolls or at skipping rope or some such. Any man ever laid a hand on her, I'd rip his heart out, cop or not."

Trivette could tell the footsteps behind him were closing in. Alex's building was close enough to see, but they'd be on him before he got there, and there was nowhere else to go in hopes of discouraging them. Nothing for it but to turn and hope that a face to face wasn't what they really wanted. If he could reason with even one, maybe he could avoid the fight he could feel they were looking for.

He halted and turned sharply, the unexpected move bringing the five followers to a quick stop as well. They were less than six feet back, and their faces reflected an irrational rage. Shit.   Holding his hands upward in a non-threatening manner, the young Ranger tried the reasonable approach. "Look, guys, I don't know what you heard on the news tonight. But I didn't rape anyone. Why don't you just head back to your car and go on home. There's no sense going this route."

One man, large and heavily muscled, stepped forward slightly. "Oh, it was you all right. 'Ranger James Trivette' they said on the news. You remember me, Ranger? You busted me once and had me tossed in a cell just cause me and a couple of my buddies decided to have some fun after a hard day on the site. I lost my job cause of you."

Edging closer still, the leader of the group continued, "And there you were, all high and mighty, talking to me about setting examples for my kids! What kind of example have you been setting? Taking advantage of that gal? I mighta tore up a little bar, but I sure as hell didn't force myself on anyone, especially a retarded kid that don't even know how to fight back! I think maybe me and the boys should show you what we do to niggers that rape white gals. I think we should show you real plain just how we feel about someone like you!"

Realizing that there was going to be no way to avoid a confrontation, Trivette took a defensive posture. "You do not want to do this, man. You don't have the facts and it's clouding your judgment. Walk away now and we can all forget this ever happened."

Suddenly the big man standing closest lunged, taking Trivette down with a head butt to the midsection. "I don't think so, Ranger. I think this is just what I want to do," he snarled as they both rolled to their feet.

Trivette edged into better position, with his back to the wall, hoping to avoid the possibility of being completely surrounded. Though he kept his focus on the surly man who'd made the first move, he was aware that the other four were circling round, obviously planning on joining the fun. "Back off, man," he warned again.

Unheeding, the brawny man lunged again. But this time Trivette was ready, pivoting and at the same time launching a swift kick to the jaw that sent the man flying backward. Thank you, Walker he thought, glad for the martial arts lessons that had given him the move that left one of the five lying still on the pavement.

For an instant the others faltered, then they all dove in at once. Keeping his back to the wall, the Ranger held his own, managing to inflict more than a little damage on his attackers. But fueled by anger and alcohol, the men kept coming back, and when the first man that Trivette took down finally came back into the fray, he spotted an instant’s opening and used it to smash a bottle across the side of the black man's head.

Stunned momentarily, Trivette dropped to his knees, blood flowing freely, before struggling back to his feet once more. But the blow slowed his responses and the blood impaired his vision. The five attackers, sensing victory, closed in with a flurry of pounding fists and kicking feet. In the center of the melee, Trivette found himself unable to do more than attempt to block some of the assault. In a moment he'd go down he knew. God help me when that happens.

Then, almost shockingly, it was over. A police cruiser rounded a corner, headlights illuminating the scene, and gave a brief blast of the siren. The five assailants scattered and ran down the nearest alleyway as the car skidded to a halt.

Trivette, his head swimming, slumped backward against the brick building before sliding to the ground. Blackness rushed in, and he relaxed gratefully into its grip.

The senior officer, McLaughlin, leapt from the driver's side of the vehicle and rushed toward the man he'd watched collapse in a heap. They hadn't seen much of the beating, but what he and his partner had witnessed was enough to tell him that the victim was going to need some medical attention. The anonymous 9-1-1 call had come in with them nearly ten minutes from the scene.

"Todd," he shouted back over his shoulder. "Call for an ambulance. Now!" The where the man lay was shrouded in shadows, the nearest streetlight merely flickering and casting no true light. McLaughlin checked the pulse and airway by feel as he waited for his rookie partner to finish on the radio.

"Ambulance is on the way, Mac," the younger man said as he approached. "And I called in an APB on the guys we saw taking off. Probably not much chance of finding them without clear descriptions, though."

"Good," the senior officer replied. "Now bring your flashlight over here. I can barely see and I want to get a better look at this guy, make sure a beating is all he got."

Todd directed the beam of his light to the downed man's face and quickly sucked in a startled breath. "Geez, that's the Ranger that raped the retarded girl! We shoulda let those guys finish the bastard off!"

McLaughlin tensed at the words, but merely grabbed the flashlight and finished checkin the condition of the prone man in front of him. A few moments later however,

the ambulance arrived and the EMT's took over, he stood abruptly and hustled his partner toward their car. "So," he queried sharply, "you heard that he'd raped a girl?"

Surprised at the tone, Todd nodded. "Yeah, it's all over the department."

"And you think we should have left him to be beaten to death? What evidence do you have of his guilt?" McLaughlin continued his questioning.

"Ev…evidence?" the young man stumbled, realizing he'd definitely made a misstep.

"Yeah, evidence. You've tried and convicted him, apparently. I want to hear what you know that I don't. Because the words I heard were accused and investigation not guilty."

Todd's face took on a slightly guilty look of his own as he replied, "None, Mac. But everyone knows..."

McLaughlin got right into the younger man's face. "Everyone... knows... nothing! That man over there is Jim Trivette. When he was a rookie, he was one of the finest and most promising young officers I ever had the privilege of working with! He has common sense and restraint, and would never consider judging a fellow officer, or anyone, based on rumor and accusations! More than that, I know the man and he's not capable of raping anyone, let alone a retarded girl who'd been entrusted to his care. His code is too strong and simply wouldn't allow it!"

The senior police officer took a deep breath, keeping his anger under control by sheer force of will as he glanced over to where they were just loading the still unconscious Ranger onto a gurney. Then he looked back at his partner once more.

"Todd, if you were the one lying over there, Trivette would be looking for the men who'd put you there. Not wishing they'd finished the job. If you were accused of rape, or any other crime for that matter, he'd wait until he had all the facts before making a decision. I'll tell you right now, when they finish the investigation, Jim Trivette is going to be cleared one hundred percent. And when that happens, I want you to remember tonight. I want you to think about your reactions and your words. Then I want you to think about this -- the DPD has no place for a man on the streets who rushes to judgment or approves of vigilante justice. Now get in the damn car!"

McLaughlin waited as they finished loading Trivette into the ambulance, then spoke to the nearest EMT, a brunette woman of about thirty. "How's he doing?"

"He took one hell of a load of punishment," the woman replied carefully. "There's a nasty head wound, and the fact that he hasn't come around yet is what's worrying us most right now."

"We'll be following you in. Where are you taking him?"

"County," the EMT said. "We'll see you there." With those final words she climbed in behind the wheel of the ambulance, turning on the lights and siren as they drove away.

The police officer stood silent for a moment, watching them go before turning back to his own vehicle. Once they got to the hospital, he knew he'd need to find a land line. Jim Trivette's partner, Cordell Walker, was also the man's good friend and was going to have to be contacted. McLaughlin knew Walker wasn't going to like this. He wasn't going to like it one bit.

 

O      O      O

 

                    Having fed and groomed his horses, Walker planned on spending a quiet evening alone. A hot shower washed away the day's accumulation of dirt and sweat, leaving him somewhat refreshed.

               As he stepped out of the bathtub, he grimaced at the pile of laundry in the corner. He'd have to attack it soon. With a frown, he tugged at an unfamiliar piece of clothing before recalling Trivette had changed at the ranch the other night before they'd gone out to dinner with Alex and one of her friends. Trivette and the lady had seemed to like each other, though the younger man hadn't shown any sign of pursuing her.

                    Thoughts of his partner brought a frown to Walker's face as the events of the day replayed through his mind. How in the hell could Star Blane name Trivette as her attacker? It doesn’t make sense.

                    The red-bearded man toweled his hair as he walked out into the bedroom. Staring at the phone, he considered calling Trivette to make sure he was okay. Being suspended pending the results of the investigation left the younger man too much time to think.

               As if in direct response to his thoughts, the phone rang, startling him out of his reverie. It rang a second time before he moved to answer it. Grabbing it on the third ring, he said, "Trivette?"

               "No, uh. . . Ranger Walker? This is John McLaughlin, DPS. I thought you'd want to know that we just responded to a call involving your partner."

               "Damn," Walker swore, sitting heavily on the edge of his bed. Wonder if he tore up the same bar as last spring? "What happened?"

                    "Looks like he was out for a walk over on Tremont and ended up on the receiving end of a mighty lopsided fight. We're at County Hospital right now."

               "How bad is he hurt?" Walker clenched his fist, waiting for the response.

                    "He was unconscious when we arrived on the scene, bleeding from a head wound. The medic says he took a hell of a beating." McLaughlin paused. "I'm sorry. I don't know more than that."

                    Anger surged through the Ranger. "Did you catch the guys who did it?"

               "No. But my partner had an idea we're going to check out. I wanted to call and let you know first."

                    "I appreciate it, Officer. Thanks. I'm on my way." Without waiting for a response, Walker disconnected and quickly dialed another number.

 

                    After reading the same page three times without comprehending a word, Alex almost welcomed the distraction of the ringing phone. Picking up the cordless unit next to her chair, she thumbed it on. "Hello?"

               "Alex--"

               "Walker?" The blonde attorney straightened. He sounded... odd. "What's wrong? What's happened?"

               "It's Trivette. I just got word he's at County Hospital."

               Now Alex understood the tone of voice. When emotions threatened his control, Walker shut down. Then his words truly registered. "Oh my God .. Walker, what happened? He didn't--" She found she couldn't even finish the sentence. No, not Jimmy! Please...

Her memory flashed to the previous spring, when their friend had thought he'd shot a little boy. The press had crucified Jimmy throughout that incident, with only a passing word when he'd been exonerated. He'd barely gotten over that when Angel, his college sweetheart, had arrived to wreak havoc. Once the press had gotten word of his former romantic ties, they'd had a field day with the information. Both times Jimmy had recovered his sense of humor afterward, but it had clearly been a struggle. Could this have pushed him over the edge?

"Alex?" The Ranger guessed at the rest of her words. "It's not self-inflicted. The officers on the scene said he was the victim of a beating. The guys ran when the car arrived. Apparently Trivette was in bad shape and they didn't want to leave him."

A tear rolled down the attorney's cheek. A beating. Jimmy had again been judged and convicted, with sentence passed. At least in public opinion.

Public opinion. The phrase still had a bitter taste from the very first time Jimmy had been put through the media circus. That had been several years ago when he'd been suspected of stealing millions of dollars worth of counterfeit money. Why him? What is it about Jimmy that makes him a magnet for this kind of attention? It's not fair!

"God, Walker, why can't Jimmy ever get a break?" Her voice cracked as she spoke.

"I don't know, Alex." He sighed heavily. "I'll pick you up in half an hour."

"I'll be ready. And Walker? I'll call C.D. while I'm waiting."

 

 

 

The slightest of movements and a murmur of pain from his partner brought Walker to his feet and to the ER treatment table where his friend lay. For the moment they were alone except for a nurse, who also glanced up at the stirring and then headed out the door to find the doctor.

The Ranger laid a gentle hand on his friend's forearm, which caused Trivette's eyes to suddenly snap wide as he attempted to raise his hands into defensive combat positions. Walker recognized the delayed reactions immediately and quickly restrained the younger man while speaking in low tones, "Easy there, Pard. It's over. Your back is clear. Just relax."

For an instant longer the younger man lay tense, then a clearer focus began to come into his eyes. "Walker?" he asked raspily.

Walker smiled as he released his hold. "Yeah, it's me."

"Where am I?" Trivette questioned, then grimaced. "And can you do something about the jackhammer in my head?"

"You're at County Hospital, and I'm afraid you're going to have to wait for the Doc to do something about the jackhammer. Do you remember what happened?"

The injured man paused a moment, then replied, "Yeah. Five guys decided they didn't much like the idea of a black man taking advantage of a white girl, and figured

they'd demonstrate their displeasure." Reaching up slowly, he gently fingered the

bandage that covered most of the left side of his head. "Guess I lost, huh? How long have I been here anyway?"

                Walker allowed a small chuckle. "You've been here almost two hours. C.D.'s about ready to storm the gates. As for losing, I wouldn't exactly put it that way."

                The younger man looked confused. "I think you're going to have to explain that one, Walker."

                "An old friend of yours was here not long ago," the red-bearded Ranger began. "You remember a John McLaughlin?"

                "Sure, he was one of my training officers when I was just starting out on DPS. Why?" Trivette responded.

                The older man's answer was interrupted by the entrance of a short, balding man of about fifty-five wearing a white lab coat. "I'm afraid the rest of this will have to wait, Ranger Walker," Doctor Raye said. "Now that my patient is awake I need to complete my examination and conduct some tests. Would you wait outside with your friends, please?"

                     Nodding at the doctor, Walker turned back to his friend for a moment. "We'll finish later. Take it easy, partner." Then he strode out the door to join Alex and CD in the waiting room. 

 

               

                All three stood when they saw the doctor approaching about an hour later.

                "Well, Doc?" CD questioned anxiously. "What's the word? Cordell said Jimmy seemed okay?"

                "Ranger Walker was correct," the balding man replied with a smile. "There are some nasty bruises, a couple of cracked ribs and a pounding headache to go with the gash on his head. But it looks like there's no lasting trauma. Because of the head wound, we'll be admitting him and keeping a close watch tonight, but the neurological tests have all come back normal thus far and my guess is that he'll be released tomorrow Alex turned to hug Walker as she breathed a sigh of relief. CD pumped Doctor Raye's hand and grinned. "Reckon I coulda told ya that, doc. Jimmy... well, he's got a head like a rock. That's the last spot anyone is gonna hit him and do any damage!"

                     The white coated man laughed, then continued, "We'll be moving Ranger Trivette to a room shortly. He's been given something for the pain now that the assessments have been completed, so he'll probably be asleep, but you can stop in after he's settled if you like."

                Walker, one arm still wrapped around Alex's shoulders, reached out and shook   the doctor's hand as well. "We appreciate that. Thanks for everything, Doc."

 

 

                 "Ranger Walker?" the matronly nurse queried as she stepped into the third floor waiting area where the friends had stationed themselves. Seated on one of the room's several couches with Alex curled comfortably against his side, the bearded man

acknowledged her with a nod. "You have a phone call, Ranger. You can take it at the nurse's station if you like."

Alex sat up with a smile, allowing Walker to extricate himself easily as he rose to take the call. Less than five minutes later he was back. "That was John McLaughlin again. Taking the two guys they picked up at Methodist downtown paid off. We have an address on the other three suspects. They're putting together a warrant now."

"How long before you have to be there?" the blonde queried as she looked at him expectantly, knowing that Walker would want to be in on the arrests.

"I'll need to leave now. The rest of the team will meet me at the location."

"Well don't just stand there, Cordell," C.D. interrupted. "Go bring those sonbitches in!" The ex-Ranger put an arm around Alex's shoulders as they watched Walker stride toward the exit. "C'mon, honey. How about you and me checking on Jimmy?"

Alex nodded. "Okay."

C.D. kept a supportive arm around her as they headed down the corridor. Together they paused at the nurse's station long enough to confirm the room number, walking away as the woman turned to answer the once again ringing phone. The elderly man was just reaching out to pull open the door to Trivette's room when the nurse's voice called out behind them.

"Mr. Parker? You have a phone call at the desk."

The gray-haired gentleman turned back. "Okay. You tell 'em I'll be right there." Looking at Alex, he said, "You go on ahead and look in on Jimmy, I'll be along in just a minute."

The attorney watched as C.D. returned to the nurses' station and then reached for the door handle herself. The moment's hesitation brought back memories of her last meeting with Trivette. Alex hugged herself tightly and crossed to the other side of the hallway, unconsciously chewing on her lower lip. Suddenly she wasn't at all sure Jimmy was going to be thrilled with seeing her. Maybe I’ll just wait for C.D., she reasoned.

"Alex?" C.D. questioned in surprise a few minutes later. "What are you still doing out here? Was Jimmy sleeping?"

"Uh.. ..... . "she faltered, feeling the color rise in her cheeks. "I mean--I don't know.. . It's just that... that I thought I should wait for you."

Hooking his arm through the blonde woman's, C.D. steered her toward a pair of chairs a short distance away. "Okay, darlin', spit it out. Something's been eatin' at you all night."

For a moment longer Alex hesitated, then taking a deep breath she began, "This whole case exploded this morning, C.D.. A preliminary interview needed to be done with Jimmy, and I was the only one available. Waiting would have meant the investigation going forward without him knowing. I didn't want that to happen. The risk was too great that he'd hear something through the grapevine, so I had to tell him about the rape charges, and I had to do it officially. I just don't know--"

"Alex. You and Jimmy have been friends a long time now!" the older man stated firmly. "No official interview or anything of the sort is gonna change that!"

"I... I don't know, CD," the ADA stumbled as she turned her head away, trying to hide the tears she could feel threatening once more. "You didn't see the look on Jimmy's face. You didn't hear his voice, or see his eyes."

CD shook his head as he turned the younger woman to look at him once more.

"Alex, you can't let something like this tear apart a dang good friendship. You need to go in there and talk with Jimmy, get this sorted out before it snowballs into an avalanche."

She managed a wavering smile. "I wish I had your confidence, C.D. Right now I think I'm probably the last person he wants to see."

"Honey, you know that ain't so. You gotta remember that Jimmy... well, that boy’s got a short fuse and a nasty habit of exploding on whoever's closest when it gets it. I'm sure he's feelin' as poorly about it as you are. And since he can't come to you right now, you have got to go to him."

"But what about you?" Alex gently squeezed the ex-Ranger's hand. "I know you've been anxious to see him."

"Well, now I know he's gonna be alright, I can afford to wait. It's more important for you and him to get this sorted out between you, sweetheart. You can tell him I'll see him tomorrow after he's been sprung from here."

"You're sure?"

"Course I'm sure! Wouldn't have offered otherwise. Now you go and patch it up between you, hear me! Go on, now." He stood up, drawing her to her feet with him.

Hugging him tightly, she said, "Thanks, CD."

Embarrassed at the display, he shrugged out of it quickly. "You save them for Cordell, Missy! I'll be at the bar if you need me, okay?"

 

Moving to one side of the door of the basement apartment, Walker waited for the other officers to take position. While McLaughlin covered the rear fire exit with his partner, several other officers ranged in the vicinity in case one or more of the suspects broke free. When the signal came that all exits were covered he pulled his gun free of '5 holster, releasing the safety, then reached out and rapped insistently on the door. "Texas Rangers! Open up!"

Sounds of scraping furniture and scrambling feet indicated that the occupants intended a hasty retreat. Stepping back, the Ranger easily kicked the door open before dropping low and somersaulting into the apartment. He rose to his feet almost instantly, taking aim at a man standing to one side of the door with a piece of lead pipe in his raised hand. He'd obviously intended to strike at the first man through the door, but Walker's maneuver took him by surprise.

"Drop it!" Walker commanded. "Or I'll drop you!"

The large man wavered for a moment, debating but motionless as two more Rangers hurried through the door and began a cautious search. But faced with the image of one clearly annoyed lawman holding a large gun less than six feet away he soon made his decision and the pipe clattered uselessly to the floor.

 

 

"No problem, Ranger," the suspect said agreeably, eyes shifting as he took in the events unfolding around him while placing his hands on his head in gesture of surrender. "What's this all about, anyway?"

Just then McLaughlin and Todd came in through the open fire escape window, a cuffed suspect between them. An instant later the other two Rangers reemerged from the rear area of the apartment, prodding a third, limping, man sullenly ahead of them.

Giving the man in his custody another nudge forward, Ranger Joe Edwards grinned. "We found this one hiding in the bathroom, Walker. Guess he couldn't run with his bum leg and thought we'd never look for dirt in the shower." Edwards smile grew even larger as he noted the man the two uniformed officers were escorting. "Looks like we got 'em all. Trivette's gonna be real surprised."

Nodding slightly, but never taking his gaze from the man who'd held the lead pipe, Walker holstered his gun, stepping forward while reaching for the handcuffs on his belt.

The brawny man lowered one hand to rub his bruised chin, an angry gleam creeping into his eyes. "Walker? You're Walker? You're that dirty nigger's partner!" Almost without warning he leapt forward, launching a blow that would have been powerful if the bearded Ranger hadn't dodged it so easily. Turning quickly, Walker smiled as the man spun into the wall with a bang.

Signaling the other officers to hold their positions, Walker stood motionless. When the enraged suspect turned and lunged again the Ranger released a snapping spin kick that caught the man on the opposite side of his jaw from the deep bruising he already sported. A moment later the stunned man found himself lying on the floor with handcuffs being snapped around his wrists. He tried to snarl an insult, but the effort sent a jolt of blinding pain through his battered jaw and he opted to stay quiet.

Seeing the aborted attempt, the Ranger grinned as he grabbed the burly man by the arm and hauled him to his feet. "Good choice. You have the right to remain silent…"

Ten minutes later the dark-hatted Ranger studied the suspects as they were loaded aboard police transport. The stench of alcohol was almost overwhelming, their clothing dirty and torn, and all three sported a variety of scrapes and bruises although only the one had resisted arrest. Walker fought to repress a chuckle of satisfaction. Trivette sure did a number on these boys before they managed to take him down.

 

 

Trivette eased his eyes open slowly. Thanks to the medication he'd been given, the headache had dulled considerably, but he didn't want to risk the bright lights setting the pounding off again. He was surprised to find himself no longer in the ER, but instead in a comfortably dim private room. Guess the meds put me back out.

A faint swishing noise from the doorway, accompanied by a slight increase in the light caught the black man's attention. He looked over to see Alex peeking in through the barely open door. Lifting a hand in greeting, he said, "It's okay, Al. I'm awake. C'mon in."

The blonde made no move to enter the room, instead merely whispering, "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I didn't mean to wake you. I just wanted to see for myself how you were."

He reached out toward her. "I'm gonna be fine. Come on in, will ya? The light from the hall's a little bright."

Alex quickly slipped inside, allowing the door to close silently behind her, but remained near it. "You're sure?" she asked softly.

"Sure I'm sure," the Ranger replied, confused by her reluctance to enter. It took him a minute to understand what the problem had to be. Nice job, Jimmy, he berated himself. You were such an ass you've made one of your best friends think you don't want her in the same room. Jerk.

"Really, Alex, please come over here and sit down. I wanted to talk to you earlier, but got, uh, waylaid." Tapping the blankets with his hand, Trivette smiled when she finally stepped closer. "That's better." He reached out again, and Alex took his hand as she perched on the side of the bed.

"Jimmy, I'm really sorry--" the blonde began.

"Hold it right there, Al. You don't have anything to be sorry for, but I do. I was a complete idiot this morning," he said with conviction.

"You'd just been blindsided, Jimmy, it's not like you just went over the edge or something," Alex almost whispered, squeezing his hand tightly. "You'd just heard that you'd been placed under investigation for a serious felony."

"That didn't give me any right to treat you like the enemy. Don't go making excuses for me, Counselor. I know when I'm wrong," Trivette insisted, pleased to see the strained look already fading from Alex's expression. "Sorry this apology of mine came a little later than planned."

A look of understanding crossed the blonde's features. "Walker said that you were attacked on Tremont. That's just a few blocks from my apartment. You were--?"

"I was on my way to see you," the Ranger finished for her. Unable to resist a lopsided grin, he explained, "To plead temporary insanity and throw myself on the mercy of the court. Unfortunately, being on the losing end of some mob mentality kept me from getting there."

Alex giggled lightly, a twinkle forming in her eye. "I wouldn't exactly say you lost, Jimmy."

The black man cocked his head slightly. "Now, you're the second person to say that. Care to clear the mystery up for me a little bit? Walker said it had something to do with John McLaughlin?"

The lovely ADA smiled. "That's right. Sergeant McLaughlin and his partner were the ones who responded to the assault in progress call. After they got you some medical attention, Todd, the partner, suggested that maybe you'd gotten a few licks in of your own. So they decided to canvas the local ERs and clinics. They hit the jackpot less than an hour later at Methodist Hospital. A couple of men came in while McLaughlin and Todd were talking to one of the doctors. One had a broken nose and the other was holding his ribs pretty tight. According to McLaughlin both looked like they'd seen better days.

 

"The two officers waited until the men had been taken care of, and then asked a few questions about what had happened to them," Alex continued. "Both men claimed they'd been drinking, and had been fighting with each other. But they were obviously spooked by the police being there and asking questions. McLaughlin decided that the answers didn't jibe quite well enough, and one of the men was dressed very similarly to one of the suspects seen running from where you'd been attacked, so he placed them under arrest and took them downtown.

"The D.A. put them in separate rooms and offered both the same deal, first come, first served, reduced charges for whoever gave the straight story and the names of the others involved. It wasn't long before they got a taker. Walker left to help with the arrests of the other three. He called just a little while ago. The two men that were picked up at the hospital weren't the only ones hurt, they all had be escorted to the ER to be patched up before they could be taken for booking."

Trivette found he couldn't help grinning. Somehow knowing that he'd managed to inflict some pain on his attackers made his own just a little more bearable. And the idea that while he was lying in a comfortable bed, they were getting the insider's tour of the lockup made him feel better still.

"I can't believe they've all been picked up already," the black man marveled. "One of them knew me, said I'd busted him once, but I didn't recognize him. Figured I'd be spending some time sifting through old files to find the name."

The blonde attorney laughed. "Well, it looks like you get a break from the paperwork for a change! You'll need to make a statement, of course, and at some point I'm sure they'll call you in to make I.D.'s. But for the most part the work of this case is finished."

 

 

"Ready to get out of here, Partner?" Walker asked the next morning as he strolled through the door, pleased to see his friend already dressed and sitting in a chair near the bed. "The doc says the last of your tests came back with the all clear, so we can hit the road as soon as the paperwork is signed."

Trivette grinned. "Sounds good. I can't wait to get back to my place."

Crossing the room, the red-bearded Ranger sat down in the chair opposite the younger man. "I'd like to talk to you about that."

"About what?"

"Going back to your apartment. It's not the best idea right now," Walker replied.

Concern furrowed the black man's brow. "Spit it out, would ya? Why would going back to my place be a bad idea?" A possibility brushed his mind. "Ah, man. don't tell me more hotheads decided to vent their frustrations there, did they?"

Walker blew out a long breath. "No, but the press has been camped out in front of your building. And here at the hospital most of the night, too. They were already trying to find you when the word that you'd been assaulted hit the wire. In fact, the only way we got them out of the hospital was to talk the administration into taking a little creative liberty about your release time. I figure we've got about an hour to get you out and clear before they start showing up."

"Oh, great," Trivette sighed, a pained look crossing his face. "I'm in the middle of another feeding frenzy." He slumped back in the chair slightly, then looked back at Walker. "Is that where C.D. and Alex are? Running interference?"

"Yeah. They're at your place putting on a show of getting ready for you to come home. In a while they'll drive over here to 'pick you up'. By then, with luck, you and I will already be on the ranch. Alex and C.D. will join us later.

"It won't work, man. They'll keep looking until they find me out there. I might as well just go home and face the sharks," the younger man argued, but without much force. He'd been down the 'crucified in the press' road before, and wasn't looking forward to another trip.

"Maybe," Walker acknowledged, "But at least the ranch is private property. It's not like they'll be able to just set up shop in the front yard. So you'll get some privacy and a chance to rest up. Besides," the older man grinned slightly, preparing to play his trump card, "C.D.'s dang proud of the job he did slipping in to your apartment last night, packing you a bag, and getting it out again right under the noses of the reporters. You wouldn't want to disappoint him by depriving him of the chance to tell the tale now, would you?"

In spite of himself, Trivette couldn't hold back the laughter that the image of C.D. on a night raid into his apartment brought. Holding his sore ribs he finally managed to spit out between chuckles, "Okay, I give. I'll go to the ranch. For a few days at least."

Laughing himself, Walker nodded, then stood to go find the doctor and arrange for his partner's medical release.

 

 

Accepting the cup of tea CD handed him, Trivette turned back to his partner with a slightly stunned expression. "I can't believe the two of you went over to talk to Keith and Molly. The Captain will kill you if he finds out you tried to get in the middle of it.''

The red-bearded Ranger shook his head. "We weren't trying to get into the middle of it, Trivette. I needed to hear for myself what the Blanes had to say. I had to look into their eyes and see if I could understand why they'd point the finger at you. We'd already been cut out of the loop. Going to see them was the only way."

From her seat on the couch next to Walker, Alex broke in, "It was still a terribly risky move. The Blanes could claim you tried to intimidate them into changing their story. You might wind up in almost as much trouble as Jimmy."

"That was one of the reasons I went along, Darlin'," C.D. said as he took his own seat. "We didn't go as Rangers at all, took off our badges and Cordell even left his weapon behind. We knocked on the door and asked if we could talk, that was all. They

could turn us away and that would be the end of it. Them folks chose to let us in."

            "Okay," the black Ranger interrupted, curiosity getting the better of him. "For the

moment, let's assume that Walker isn't gonna lose his badge over this, too. What did

you find out? What the hell made them decide to accuse me?"

The bearded man's face took on a decidedly perplexed look. "That's the strange part, Trivette. I was sure they were playing some sort of scam. That they were using

what had happened to their daughter to set up a lawsuit, or that for some reason they were trying to smear you."

"But, that isn't what is going on?"

"No. We talked to them for quite a while, partner. It's not a con, the Blanes truly believe that the charges are accurate."

"They can't," Trivette protested. "They can't possibly believe I'd do that to Star. They're... they're my friends."

CD reached over and lay his hand on the younger man's arm. "Jimmy, right now they just don't know what to believe anymore. They've found out their little girl has been raped. She's been taken away from 'em and put in temporary care until this is all sorted out. And they've been shown a video tape where Star said 'Jimmy' hurt her."

Trivette just shook his head mutely, still unable to accept what Walker and C.D. were telling him. Finally he stood and went to the fireplace, staring into the cold grate as though the flames were there. "How could she possibly say that?" he asked softly. "She doesn't even know how to lie. How could Star tell anyone that I raped her, when I didn't? Why would she give them my name, and not the person really responsible? It just doesn't make sense."

His friends exchanged glances. They didn't have the answers their friend needed either.

Finally the blonde attorney decided to ask a question of her own. "Jimmy? What are you going to do now?"

The troubled Ranger turned to face her, confused. "What?"

Alex took a deep breath, mentally crossing her fingers before standing and going to his side. "I know you haven't been formally charged with anything. But you are under investigation. You should consider finding yourself a good defense attorney."

"I don't need a lawyer, Alex," the black man rumbled, tension flooding back into his stance. "I'm not going to be charged because I didn't do anything wrong. The investigation will clear me and this will all be over."

When he began to turn away, Alex took his arm. "Jimmy, please, just hear me out. After that any decision you make is fine with me. Deal?"

A quick glance at his partner drew a barely perceptible nod. Then C.D. added his thoughts to the issue as well. "Go on and let Alex speak her piece, son. Surely it won't do any harm to listen, now will it?"

Sighing in resignation, Trivette leaned back against the wall, arms folded across his chest. "Okay, Alex, I'll listen. But I don't need a lawyer, and I think hiring one now would just make it look like I am guilty."

"I understand your feelings. And I promise, whatever you decide -- and when, or if, you do hire an attorney -- is entirely up to you," Alex began slowly. "Consider this though, you're under investigation for a felony. And the people conducting the investigation are really concerned with only one thing. Is there enough evidence to warrant filing formal charges?"

"What they're not looking for," she went on, "is another possible solution. If they happen to clear you completely, they'll announce that. But, if they simply decide there isn't enough evidence to indict -- that's all they're going to say. That means unless someone else is later charged and convicted, the shadow will always be over you. No charges may be filed. You may be returned to duty. But there will always be people out there who believe you got away with raping Star Blane."

Although Trivette remained expressionless, Alex hoped he was truly listening to what she had to say and continued her argument. "A defense attorney, on the other hand, is hired to protect your rights and interests. Jimmy, you know as well as I do that the defense isn't always representing a guilty person. And sometimes the information they bring forward keeps a serious miscarriage of justice from happening."

Finally Alex paused, giving the Ranger a moment to absorb the information she'd presented him with before finishing. "I don't want to put any pressure on you to go just one way or another. What I said before holds. If you don't want to hire a lawyer, I'll still be standing beside you. I just want you to know that if you do decide, either now or a month from now, that you want to find one, I have some names for you. Good people who are very skilled at their jobs. You say the word, okay?"

The younger Ranger remained immobile for a few minutes before nodding stiffly. "I appreciate that, Alex. Thank you."

Suddenly CD stood, rubbing his hands together briskly and deliberately breaking the serious silence that had settled over the room. "Well, I don't know about you folks, but all this talkin' has made me forget what time it is. I think I'll just go see what I can rustle up for grub around here." As the retired Ranger turned and made his way into he kitchen he called over his shoulder, "Cordell, I sure hope you've got something in this place besides sour milk and moldy bread!"

Alex giggled, then followed the older man. "I'll give you a hand, CD."

 With the others gone, the two partners remained quiet for a few minutes, until Trivette moved to a seat facing his friend. "Walker, maybe you can answer a question that's really been bothering me."

"If I know the answer, sure, Trivette," came the unhesitating response.

"This is a rape case. So why hasn't anyone asked me for blood or hair samples?" the younger Ranger queried. "A DNA screening against the trace evidence would prove immediately that I never touched Star. So why no request for a voluntary submission? That's usually the first step."

Walker rubbed his beard, trying to find a way to phrase his answer. He'd known the question would have to come up sooner or later. "I wondered the same thing, pard, so I asked. You haven't been asked for samples to compare with the physical evidence because there isn't any."

The younger man looked shocked. "What? Nothing? That can't be right, man. here has to be something."

"I'm sorry, Trivette, there isn't," the red-bearded Ranger confirmed. "The evidence of the rape was discovered during a routine medical exam. When the doctor saw the bruising and tearing, he called Protective Services in. They know for a fact that Star was sexually assaulted, probably somewhere between three and seven days before it was detected. And during an interview with a child counselor, she said you did it.  Right now, that's all they have. It doesn't condemn you, but it won't clear you either."

Seeing his partner trying to process this latest revelation, Walker stood and headed for the door. "I should see to the horses before it gets too late."

"Walker, wait," Trivette called after his friend.

The older man stopped with his hand on the doorknob. "Yeah?"

"Uh . .. why don't you let me take care of the animals tonight?" the black man began.

"You're volunteering to muck the stalls, partner?" Walker questioned, a grin beginning to spread across his face. "They must've hit you harder than the docs realized."

"Very funny," Trivette groused good-naturedly, smiling himself as he stood. Then he sobered slightly. "I could just use the time alone, that's all."

The older Ranger nodded, understanding perfectly. "Okay, you look after the horses tonight. But I was kidding about cleaning the stalls. That was done this morning. They really just need to be fed and maybe given some attention."

Walker opened the door and waited, reaching out and touching the younger man's elbow as he passed. "Trivette? Go easy, huh? Those ribs of yours are gonna take some time to heal, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't go busting one by trying to lift anything too heavy. I wouldn't much like having to try and smuggle you out of the hospital again."

"Right," Trivette grinned, shaking his head. "I'll be careful. Thanks, man."

 

 

Alex rose early, stepping out onto the porch to listen to the early morning bird songs as she sipped the coffee she'd gotten in the kitchen. She knew that Walker was up and moving already, having heard him go out the front door nearly half an hour before, but finding Jimmy on the porch swing was a surprise. Usually he preferred sleeping in.

"Mornin'," he greeted her with a smile. "Come on over and have a seat. Nice day, huh?"

"It's beautiful this morning. Is Walker still in the barn?" the blonde asked as she sat beside her friend.

Trivette chuckled. "Yeah. You know, all that 'morning on the ranch' stuff. Always makes me grateful I live in the city. I'm glad you're up though, I was hoping to get a chance to talk with you."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I've been thinking about what you said yesterday afternoon," the Ranger said, his expression turning serious. "Al, do you really think I should get a lawyer now? Won't it look to the press and everyone like I know I'm guilty? Wouldn't it be better to wait and see what happens with the inquiry first?"

Pleased he was at least willing to discuss the possibility, Alex leaned forward to set her mug on the porch railing before turning to face the young Ranger fully. "Jimmy, I understand your reservations. And you're probably right. Hiring a lawyer will make some people think you're admitting guilt. But then again, many of those same people have already decided you are guilty. So what difference does it make what they think?

"On the other hand, you have a right to try and protect yourself, and to know exactly what you're up against. Defense counsel can do that for you. And will know what you're entitled to and see that you aren't simply railroaded. So, yes, I guess you could say I do think you should get someone now. But the decision is still yours. You have to do what feels right to you."

"Okay," Trivette responded thoughtfully. "For argument's sake, let's say that I did want to talk to someone now. What do I do?"

"Find someone you can talk to. If you need to, visit several different people for consultations," Alex spoke earnestly, touching his arm lightly to emphasize her words.  "It's very important that you can work with the person that you'll be entrusting yourself to, so you'll need to see how they would approach things. Then go with your instincts."

"All right, Madam Assistant District Attorney Cahill," Jimmy said with a small grin. "I know you've seen all sorts of different defense attorneys and how they work. Who would you recommend I talk to? The least I can do is take my favorite lady lawyer's advice and ask for a consultation."

The blonde attorney sighed inwardly, feeling a release of tension at his words. At least he's willing to consider the idea. "I can give you several good names. But if you want to know who's on the top of my list, it's Hank Burgess. He's one of the best, and an old friend. If you like, I'll call and arrange for him to meet with you."

Trivette grinned again. "Okay, set it up and I'll talk to the man."

"That's great, Jimmy," Alex said, leaning over to give him a quick hug. "You won't be sorry. "

The Ranger returned her hug. "I know I won't, Al. You've never steered me wrong yet."

 

"The good news, Ranger Trivette," Hank Burgess was saying, "is that there's no physical evidence to link you to the rape of Star Blane. That means they have nothing tangible to present to a jury. Unfortunately, as I'm sure you're aware, that's also the bad news. Without it we also can't prove that you weren't the assailant."

Trivette leaned forward in his chair, studying the man opposite him intently. Burgess was not an imposing looking man, standing barely five-nine and with thinning brown hair just beginning to show traces of gray. And yet Alex had told him that Burgess was a powerhouse in the courtroom, one of the few defense attorneys she always worried about squaring off against in a legal battle. For his own part, Trivette already trusted the man, and found himself impressed with how quickly Burgess grasped the details of this particular situation, and was already presenting possible courses of action.

For now he and the lawyer were alone in Walker's living room, the others having made themselves scarce to give the two a chance to talk privately. The black Ranger was still a little surprised at how quickly this had all happened. Not only had Burgess agreed to meet with Trivette, he'd made time the same day. In addition, the lawyer had declined the offer of Trivette traveling into Dallas for the consultation, opting instead to drive out to the ranch, away from the press furor that had already taken over the headlines of the local papers and become the top story on local radio and television newscasts.

"What would you like to do next, Ranger Trivette?" the attorney said as the younger man returned his focus to the moment at hand.

"Well, sir, if you're willing to take me on, I'd like to ask you to represent my interests. Alex is convinced it's the right thing for me to do, and I've always trusted her judgment," the Ranger replied seriously. "I've also spent more than a little time learning to rely on my own instincts, and right now they're telling me that I couldn't find a better person to do the job."

Burgess nodded, then stuck out his hand. "I'd say you've found yourself counsel, Ranger. Right now, there isn't a lot I can do for you officially. But I'd like to remind you that my job is to be there when and if anything happens. If you're contacted and asked for anything, I want you to call me first." Holding up his hand to forestall the protest he could see forming on the younger man's lips, the defense lawyer continued, "I know you feel like that will make you look guilty, but if I'm going to represent you, then you have to trust my decision here. I need to be there to do my job effectively, so call me, okay?"

Trivette took a moment to consider Burgess' words, and then nodded. "Okay."

The two men rose, Trivette reaching to shake Hank Burgess's hand once more. "I appreciate your taking the time to come all the way out here to talk with--"

The rest of the comment was interrupted by a sharp knock on the door. Jimmy had just put his hand on the doorknob as C.D. entered from the kitchen area. "Now who in tarnation could that be?" the retired Ranger wondered out loud.

"Guess there's only one way to find that out, Big Dog," the younger man joked as he pulled the door open, his smile evaporating as he found himself facing two State Police officers wearing grim expressions. Behind them he could see their vehicle, along with a second car that held two more waiting officers. He also noticed Walker and Alex hurrying toward the house from the barn, obviously surprised as well.

Trivette turned his eyes back to the uniformed man who stood a step or two closer to the door, a tall black man with salt and pepper hair. "Can I help you?"

"James Trivette?" the man queried with a look that almost said he hoped the answer would be 'no'. "Texas Ranger Sergeant James Trivette?"

"Yeah, I'm Jimmy Trivette," came the confused answer. "What can I do for you?"

Reaching behind his back the officer released a resigned sigh as he produced his handcuffs. "James Trivette, I have a warrant for your arrest on suspicion of felony sexual assault. Please step outside."

Thunderstruck, Trivette mutely followed the instructions he'd been given. He didn't resist as he was turned, patted down, and then told to place his hands behind his back. Handcuffs were then snapped around his wrists, and over the blood roaring in his ears, he could hear Burgess protesting, trying to convince them to allow his client to come down on his own and surrender for booking and arraignment, but the officers were adamant.

 

"I'm sorry, sir," the state policeman apologized sincerely, turning to face Burgess for a moment. "Believe me, arresting a fellow officer is not something any of us enjoy.  But I have to carry out my orders. You're free to follow us in."

Still in a fog, Trivette allowed himself to be led to one of the waiting cruisers and belted in. As they drove away, he twisted to look back for a moment. Walker, Alex and C.D. were already in the Ram and driving close behind. He could just see Burgess climbing into his own car to follow as well.

 

 

Walker pulled to a stop in front of the courthouse only a moment or two after the cruiser holding his partner turned into the basement entrance to the holding cells and booking area. Dammit.  Who in the hell thought it would be a bright idea to make an arrest? Trivette would have surrendered. All they needed to do was make a call.

Since Hank Burgess was right behind them, and would be representing Trivette, the three friends waited until he arrived before making their way inside. The attorney immediately went off in search of his client, leaving them behind. When Alex and Walker might have followed after the man, C.D. stopped them with a few simple words.

"Cordell. Alex. I know how bad the both of you want to go see after Jimmy, but I just don't think now would be the time," he told them. "Jimmy's a good man, and a proud man, and right now he's just been arrested from the front porch of his best friend's home. All the people he normally works with are about to be officially told that someone believes he raped a retarded girl that he was taking care of. He's being put through booking like any number of low-life scum that he sent there himself. To tell you the truth, I think right about now the last people Jimmy is going to want to see walk through the door is gonna be any of us. Why don't we all just sit on down and wait for Mr. Burgess to tell us what's going on? And give Jimmy a little time to take this all in?"

Knowing their friend's words made sense still didn't make it easier to wait, but Walker and Alex both nodded.

 

Footsteps echoing down the hall caused Walker to turn for what seemed the millionth time. But this time he saw who he'd been watching for and hurried forward, quickly joined by Alex and CD. Burgess was back.

The smaller man spoke immediately, forestalling the flurry of questions he anticipated. "Ranger Trivette is being arraigned shortly. As you know, that's a formality, and in a very small way the arrest is a blessing. Formal charges give me the right to request discovery, so soon we'll have a much clearer picture of what's going on and exactly how much jeopardy he's in."

Mention of his partner's arrest brought a stormy look to Walker's face. "What the hell was that about? Trivette's been cooperative, he's let them know where he's staying, everything. So why drag him down here like he'd been running?"

"That would have been the decision of Hal Webster," Burgess explained. "He's the state prosecutor who's been assigned to this case. A good man, one hell of a lawyer, but a bit of a glory hound. Allowing Ranger Trivette to come in voluntarily wouldn't grab the same headlines that bringing him in wearing handcuffs will."

The red-bearded Ranger bit back the opinion he was about to give of Webster when he caught sight of Alex's face. Though she maintained her composure, her eyes glittered with fury.

"Do you mean to tell me," she began angrily, "that Jimmy was arrested strictly for the press value? Is that how Webster wins his cases? By trying them in the papers? How can you refer to anyone who works like that as 'a good man' and 'one hell of a lawyer'?" The blonde paused, considering, and then continued in a quieter but somehow more dangerous tone. "Or is it more than that? Is he trying to make this political? Is it that he thinks a case where the defendant is a Texas Ranger will score him points for a career move later, if he can make a big enough show of it?"

Burgess backed off a step reflexively. "Alex, he is a good lawyer. Webster just loves the limelight. He won't create a media circus, but if he finds himself in one, he'll make sure he looks good in the center ring."

"Mr. Burgess?" A young woman interrupted before Alex could retort. "Excuse me, but you asked to be told. They're bringing Ranger Trivette up to the courtroom now."

The lawyer turned immediately and headed down the corridor, the others quickly falling into step behind. When they entered the courtroom, Burgess went toward an empty seat beside the black Ranger as Walker, Alex, and C.D. found chairs on the opposite side of the room. None of them missed Burgess' sudden stiffening as he reached his client's side, nor the hurried conversation that took place between them, although the lawyer seemed to be doing most of the talking. Trivette kept his face forward and merely shrugged once or twice, muttering a few words and then shaking his head slightly. The three friends exchanged glances worriedly. What now? they each wondered.

The seats were nearly all taken, and while there were several defendants and their counsel waiting, Walker also recognized a few familiar faces from the Dallas press corps, not common at arraignment proceedings. It would take something special to bring them out for this. The Ranger knew the 'something special' had to be his partner's case. One or two of the reporters were accompanied by sketch artists, their pencils busy on oversized pads while their eyes flicked quickly back and forth between the paper they held and the seat where Trivette waited quietly.

For what little Walker could see of his partner's face, the younger Ranger maintained a mask-like expression. Trivette had glanced at Burgess as the lawyer took his place, but other than that kept his gaze forward or occasionally down to study his hands. He kept rubbing his pant legs, and with a start Walker realized his friend was probably trying to wipe away the traces of the fingerprinting ink that still stained them.

Further study of his friend was halted when the bailiff called for all to rise as Judge Edwards entered. Edwards was a familiar face, an experienced older man with a thick shock of pure white hair. He had a reputation of being tough but fair and Walker, Alex, and C.D. each released an unconsciously held breath upon seeing him. Judge Edwards was trusted by them all, and wouldn't allow media hype to influence him.

After the preliminaries were conducted, Walker allowed his attention to once again wander to Trivette as other defendants and their counsel were called to approach in turn. Though the older man was sure his partner was aware of the scrutiny, Trivette seemed to be deliberately refusing to turn and acknowledge him or any of his friends. Walker's gut tightened. There's more going on than just embarrassment. Something's happened. But what?

The present intruded on his ruminations as the bailiff called, "State of Texas versus James Trivette."

Burgess and the Ranger rose immediately and approached the defense table. But Walker's attention was caught by an unfamiliar figure carrying a legal briefcase who followed close behind. Walker's eyes narrowed as he studied the man who took position at the prosecution table. He realized this must be Hal Webster, who'd ordered the arrest of his partner and friend.

Webster was relatively young, perhaps thirty, but carried himself with the confidence of a well-seasoned media darling. Tall, with wavy blonde hair that was neatly styled, he was immaculately put together right down to his manicured nails. Walker would bet the man never did his own filing or typing, let alone the heavy research. Webster's playing field was in front of the bench, and in front of the cameras, not in dusty libraries or cramped file rooms.

The bearded Ranger tried to swallow his contempt, hoping against hope that Burgess was right and that the prosecutor would do his job without deliberately creating opportunities to showboat for the press. He forced his gaze from Webster, to focus on the proceedings as the judge quickly flipped through the folder handed to him by the bailiff.

Clearing his throat, the white-haired jurist asked, "Mr. Burgess, do you waive formal reading of the charges?"

"Yes, your Honor."

"Mr. Trivette, you are charged with felony sexual assault and rape. How do you wish to plead?"

Trivette straightened his shoulders minutely. "Not guilty, your Honor," he said clearly.

"Very well," Judge Edwards replied. "A plea of not guilty will be entered. Now, turning to the matter of bail. Mr. Webster, do the people wish to make a recommendation?"

"The people do, your Honor," the prosecutor indicated with a nod. "We feel the seriousness of this offense, and the fact that the accused is not a native of Texas, compel us to request that Mr. Trivette be held without bail until such time as trial can be held."

As soon as the judge turned to the defense table, Burgess began his response. "Your Honor, Ranger Trivette is not a flight risk. He has strong ties to the community, and has served as a member of Texas Ranger's Company B, based here in Dallas, for more than six years with a sterling record. Furthermore, he adamantly denies any wrong-doing in this case and is strongly motivated to see his name cleared. He has been completely cooperative and has kept the investigating team apprised of his whereabouts at all times. I request that Ranger Trivette be released on his own recognizance or that, in the alternative, reasonable bail be set."

Judge Edwards nodded to both the prosecution and the defense tables, then spent a moment perusing the file in front of him, finally he looked back up. "It is the ruling of this court that Mr. Trivette be released on his own recognizance pending trial. He is instructed not to leave the county without the consent of the court. Furthermore, I'm prohibiting Mr. Trivette from having any contact with the victim or her family until such time as this matter is concluded." The white-haired jurist looked steadily at the younger Ranger. "Mr. Trivette, be assured that if you violate these conditions you will be remanded to custody pending trial, is that understood?"

The black man nodded solemnly. "Yes, your Honor, I understand."

The man reached next for his copy of the calendar of courts. "Now as to setting a trial date."

"Your Honor, the defense is requesting a Preliminary Hearing."

"Very well. We have an opening in three weeks from Tuesday, is that acceptable to all parties?" the judge asked next.

Webster replied first. "The people will be ready, you Honor."

"The defense has no objection, you Honor," Burgess stated.

The judge wrote quickly on the calendar. "So noted, Prelim will be set for the twenty-first. This proceeding is concluded. Bailiff, next case."

 

 

Alex let out a startled gasp as she noticed Trivette approaching, and when he followed her gaze Walker suddenly understood why the black man had refused to turn and look at them in the courtroom. A bandage, stained slightly indicating that the bleeding had not halted completely, had been placed over Trivette's bruised left eye. And though he wasn't sure if Alex or C.D. noticed, Walker also saw a tear in his friend's deep blue shirt, edges darkened and moist, that had been temporarily patched somehow. He also could see that Trivette was unconsciously holding a protective hand to his sore ribs. Knowing that his partner wouldn't complain, the older Ranger looked straight into the other man's eyes, gauging the extent of the injuries there. What he saw didn't reassure him.

"Dagnabit, Jimmy!" C.D. immediately began. "What the Sam Hill happened to you?" The retired Ranger placed what was meant to be a supportive arm around the younger man, bringing a quickly masked grimace to Trivette's face as C.D. unwittingly put pressure near the patched tear.

Trivette bit back a groan at the touch, not wanting to worry the older man, and forced himself to respond as normally as possible. "I'm fine, Big Dog. Just ran into some old friends. One of the guards downstairs, a new guy, thought it would be okay to put me in the general cell. My company wasn't appreciated. But it's no big deal, a night's sleep and a fresh band-aid on this scratch over my eye and I'll be as good as new."

"Well," the ex-Ranger rumbled, "I think we'd better just have a doc look you over to be sure. And then I'm gonna go find out what dang fool thought putting a lawman in with a bunch of scoundrels was acceptable behavior and set him straight."

"CD, let it go," Trivette almost pleaded. "It's over and done with. I'm fine and all I want to do right now is go get cleaned up. Just leave it alone, okay?"

Walker interrupted before the elderly man had a chance to respond again. "I think Trivette's right, C.D.," he commented, earning himself a startled glance from his partner. "I'll drop you and Alex off at your places, then Trivette and I will head back to the ranch. We'll get together tomorrow and figure out where we're going to take this from here."

With Walker lending his support to Trivette, C.D. was convinced to let it be for the night. Half an hour later Walker climbed back into the cab of the Ram and glanced at his partner, looking him over critically. Trivette had remained silent during much of the drive first to return C.D. to his home, and then to bring Alex to her apartment. He'd waited in the truck while the older Ranger walked the blonde to her door and saw her safely inside. Now the black man rested, head back on the seat, eyes closed.  Trivette was obviously in some pain, his arm curled protectively around the ribs that had been cracked two days before. Walker also couldn't help wondering exactly what kind of damage had been done to cause the blood-stained tear in the shirt he wore.

Trivette opened one eye and peered over at his friend, wondering why he hadn't yet started the truck and pulled out. "What are you doing?"

"I'm wondering how you really wound up in the general cell in the lock up," the red-bearded man responded, his gaze never wavering.

The younger man sighed, "I told you--"

"I know what you told me," Walker interrupted. "But now I want the truth, Trivette."

Blowing out a long breath, Trivette opened his other eye as well and rolled his head to face his partner. There would be no getting out of this. Walker wouldn't move until he had the answers he wanted, and right now all the younger Ranger wanted was to get clean and into a comfortable bed. "Okay. Fine. Have it your way," he seethed. "It was deliberate, Walker. The guard in charge of the holding area recognized me. He told me his niece was raped when she was fifteen. She never got over it, killed herself a few months later. Then the guy opened the door to the general lockup, shoved me inside and walked away. It didn't take long for the fun to begin.

"I lived through it because Jake Peterson happened by about fifteen minutes later. He pulled me out of the cell, helped me clean up some. Then they called for my arraignment. No way I was going to miss it." Trivette closed his eyes once again, rolling his head back to look out the window. "Now you know. So can I go home and get some sleep, please?"

The older Ranger had listened with rising shock and anger to the tale, now he turned to face forward in his seat, reaching for and fastening his seatbelt before starting the engine. "No," he replied.

Trivette's eyes popped back open as he turned to face his friend again. "Whaddya mean, 'no'? I gave you your damned answer. I'm not pressing any charges. And if you try to, I'll deny everything I just said. Just take me home, Walker."

"Not until we get someone to check you over," Walker said with resolve. "You're more hurt than you're letting on."

The black Ranger's eyes flashed with anger: "Damnit, Walker, I'm not going back to the hospital. The press would just love that! You try it and they'll have to drag me outta this truck kicking and screaming. Wonder what kind of air-play that would get?"

"Fine," Walker hissed in frustration. And CD says I'm stubborn! Changing lanes and heading in a new direction he continued speaking, "We'll skip the hospital. But you are going to have someone look you over. And if she says you need to see a doctor, I'll drag you to one, 'kicking and screaming' or not!"

"She?" Trivette queried. "She who?"

"Maisie."

The younger man closed his eyes again wearily. Shit.   I should've stuck with the hospital.

 

 

Walker drove the Ram slowly around the corner, peering into the open bay doors of Company Six. He blew out a low breath of relief as he noted the squad parked in its usual spot. Pulling into the parking area in the rear of the building, he stopped the Ram and shut off the engine.

"Come on," the Ranger told his partner as he opened the door and climbed out.

The younger man shot Walker a glare. "Who named you my mother, anyway, Walker?"

The bearded man chuckled. "R.H.I.P., pard."

"Rank has its privileges, my ass. Technically you don't outrank me. We're both Sergeants."

Walker rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "Okay, I don't outrank you. Let me put it this way. Either Maisie takes a look at you, or I drop you at C.D.'s to spend the night. Take your pick." The older man knew the inevitable answer. No way could Trivette hide his injuries from C.D. for very long.

"You wouldn't!" Trivette protested, then slumped back in his seat as he saw the older man's remorseless stare. With a heavy sigh, he capitulated, pushing his door open and easing gingerly out of the truck cab. "Yeah, you would. Let's go."

The two men walked silently into the truck bay, Walker automatically shortening his stride to match his friend's slower than normal pace. The two engines that usually occupied positions near the rescue squad were absent and the station house was relatively quiet, though the sounds of a TV or radio could be heard coming from somewhere in the crew's quarters.

Walker indicated a bench near the squad. "Wait here, Trivette. I'll be right back."

"Wait here, he says," the black man muttered under his breath, sinking onto the wooden bench while throwing an angry glower at his friend.

The bearded man ignored the barb, turning instead and striding off in search of the paramedic.

 

 

Walker made his way silently into the living quarters of the station and looked around. Maisie was plopped down on the couch in front of the television with a bowl of popcorn, her feet propped up on the coffee table. There was no sign of her partner, although the Ranger knew he had to be around somewhere. Clearing his throat slightly, he spoke, "Maisie."

The rotund black woman turned quickly in surprise, then hopped from her seat and hurried toward him, looking him over critically as she came. "Redbeard! What are you doing here? You okay?"

The Ranger smiled, not surprised at her reaction, one of his visits usually meant he needed a patch job. "I'm fine, Maisie. I do have a customer for you, though. He's out by the squad."

With a lift of her eyebrows, the paramedic headed for the door to the truck bay, stopping short when she caught sight of Trivette. "Hells bells, Jimbo! What have you done to yourself?" She hustled across the floor, stopping at the squad to grab her treatment kit. By the time she reached the younger man's side, she'd already begun to assess the visible injuries.

"I fell off my tricycle," the black man muttered sarcastically with a glare at his partner. "Nothing to be worried about. In fact, I think I'll just go wait in the truck." With that Trivette began to pull himself to his feet, but was stopped by Maisie's firm hand as she guided him easily back onto the bench.

"Don't you cop an attitude with me," she told him forcefully. "I know pain when I see it, and you, Jimbo, have got some pain. Unless you want me to add to it, you'll sit still and let me do my job."

Opting to begin with the most obvious wound, the black paramedic peeled off the bandage over Trivette's eye and began swabbing the ragged scrape clean with an antiseptic-soaked sponge. The younger Ranger tensed at the sting, but didn't move. Turning her attention to Walker standing nearby, she asked, "This have something to do with that cock and bull story I've been hearing about Jimbo here?"

Walker nodded grimly. "The state prosecutor picked today to file formal charges.  Trivette was put in general lockup to wait for arraignment."

Faltering in her ministrations, Maisie's eyes flashed. "What horse's ass stuck a Texas Ranger in general population? Especially one that hadn't been out of the hospital much more than a day?" Not waiting for an answer, she turned toward Trivette and finished placing the fresh dressing over the wound. "Open your shirt," she directed once the first task was complete. When it looked like Trivette would balk again, she fished a pair of scissors out of the kit on the bench and held them threateningly. "Open your shirt or I'll cut it off you! If you think I don't see that bloodstain you're not as smart as I thought. And Carol and Sam over at Twenty-one's told me about scraping you off

the pavement a couple of nights ago. The words 'cracked ribs' figured in the conversation somewhere and I fully intend to make sure that hasn't been added to!"

                With a resigned sigh, the younger Ranger unbuttoned the dark blue shirt and pulled it open, revealing a hastily taped bunch of pink-stained gauze bandages on his right side, just above the waistband of his jeans. Over the ribs on his left side was a mass of deep, mottled bruising and Trivette's hand moved instinctively to guard the site.

                Firmly moving his hand and arm out of the way, Maisie began to probe the ribs, searching for breaks. She didn't miss it when the black man stiffened, wincing at the touch, and her face softened considerably. "I'm sorry, Jimbo, but I've got to check them good. If you've got a full break in there, it could cause some real damage."

Gritting his teeth, Trivette nodded understanding and the paramedic continued her examination, trying to complete it as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. In spite of all her care, the battered Ranger signed in relief when she withdrew her hands at last.

"Well, the good news is I can't find any breakaways," Maisie reported, her voice uncharacteristically gentle. "But, Jimbo... you've gotta go easy. Another pop could snap one loose in a heartbeat." Without waiting for a response, she began to pull away the bandages on Trivette's right side. "This is some kind of amateur band-aid you've got on here. Looks like something BJ coulda done when he was studying for his scout's badge. You should've seen some of the rigs he done first off, but we worked together and he got that badge just a few weeks ago. I tell you, I coulda just popped with pride when he stepped up to take it."

The distracting conversation continued as she cleaned the wound, used surgi­strips to hold it closed and then redressed it. The prattle suddenly stopped in mid-sentence as she taped the last bit of the fresh bandage in place.

"Finished," Maisie reported, then patted his arm as she went on. "You know, Jimbo, everyone here knows that those charges are just so much garbage."

The black Ranger stopped re-buttoning his shirt, giving the paramedic a surprised stare. ....... thanks, Maisie, that means a lot."

She chuckled at his stunned expression. "I know, I know. I usually ride you long and hard, but that doesn't mean I don't know you for a fine Ranger and one damn fine man. That manure the press is shoveling stinks to high heaven, and anyone who knows you should know that. You just remember there's a whole bunch of folks behind you and don't let the fools get you beaten down. You fight 'em every step of the way and when this mess is cleaned up, you're gonna be the one standing on top still smelling like a rose." Suddenly, the black woman turned to the other Ranger. "Walk-man, you take this boy home and make sure he gets some sleep, you hear?"

"I hear you, Maisie. Thanks for the time, and the patch job. I owe you ... again."

Smiling broadly, the paramedic reached up and gave Walker's beard her trademark pat. "Promises, promises, handsome. Now get out of here and let me put this stuff away."

 

                      0                      0                    0

 

   They drove back to Walker's ranch in silence. The older Ranger occasionally glanced over at his partner, but did nothing to disturb the quiet. Trivette's eyes were closed, his head once again leaned back against the seat, and while the breathing patterns weren't deep or regular enough to indicate sleep, the younger man at least appeared more relaxed.

Walker turned the Ram down the long dirt drive, going slowly to avoid as many potholes as possible before finally stopping the vehicle as close to the door as he could.  Without a word, the two men climbed out of the truck and went into the house, Trivette going straight to the downstairs bedroom that he'd occupied the night before.

A few minutes later Walker tapped lightly on the door. "Trivette?"

The black man opened the door with a questioning look. "I'm fine, man. I'm just going to sack out early tonight."

Nodding, Walker replied, "I figured. I just thought you might want these." In his hand the bearded Ranger held a glass of water and a small amber vial of pills. Seeing the younger man’s confusion, he explained, "The pain meds the doc sent from the hospital with you. I know you didn't want them last night, but …."

Trivette allowed a small smile to slip. "But it's been a long day, right?" Reaching out he took both the vial and the water. As Walker turned to leave the younger man suddenly added, "Walker? Thanks, man. For this, and... and for the loan of Maisie."

Looking back, Walker grinned. "Anytime. Night, partner."

The black man allowed a beat to pass, then replied with a grin of his own. "Night...Mother!"

 

 

Alex stepped off the elevator and turned down the hall distractedly, trying to work through some kinks in a court presentation she would be making later in the afternoon.  Trouble was, her thoughts weren't on whether Clive Peters should have his bail revoked. They were centered on Jimmy and the accusations that he faced. Not for the first time she wondered if she should just take some time off, go out to the ranch, and at least be there for him. Lost in thought, she rounded a corner and suddenly stopped in surprise as she almost ran into a pair of workmen lugging a desk into one of the conference rooms. Curious, she peeked inside, noting the other furniture that was waiting to be arranged about the space.

Continuing on her way, Alex arrived outside her own office a minute later and stopped at a law clerk's desk. "Cole, what's going on down the hall?"

The young man gave her a quizzical look, then realized what she was talking about. "Oh! Sorry, Miss Cahill," he responded. "They're setting up an office for Mr. Webster while he's in town preparing for Ranger Trivette's trial. Sure is something having a big name from the State Attorney General's office setting up business right here alongside us, isn't it?"

     The lovely ADA turned to stare back down the corridor. "Yeah," she agreed sourly. "It's something alright."

The activity in the hall kept the blonde constantly aware of the State Prosecutor's    presence. And the more she thought about him, the angrier she grew over his tactics of the day before. She'd arrived in the morning incensed enough by the needless arrest, and still horrified by the memory of Jimmy's condition upon his release. That feeling had been exacerbated when she'd learned what had really happened in the holding area before his arraignment.

After unconsciously snapping her fourth pencil, Alex called the secretary into her office. "Carol, please find out what extension has been assigned to Hal Webster, then see if you can arrange for him to see me for a few minutes before he leaves this afternoon."

With a nod, the young woman left, returning less than ten minutes later. "Miss Cahill? Mr. Webster will be available around four-thirty, is that all right?"

"That's fine, Carol. Thank you."

At four-thirty on the dot, Alex was outside the converted conference room. She noticed a temporary nameplate had been attached to the wall sometime during the day. Guess he wants to be sure the reporters come to the right door when they need their sound bite for the evening news. Knocking briskly on the frosted glass of the window she then entered immediately, finding Webster shuffling through a pile of folders at his desk. Alex also noted that the room had been divided somewhat to provide a separate area for the desk of a personal secretary, or perhaps a law clerk, though she was pleased to see the desk currently unoccupied. What she had to say would be best said in private.

Seeing her enter, the visiting prosecutor rose from his seat and extended his hand with a perfectly practiced smile. "You must be Alexandra Cahill," he greeted the blonde ADA. "I've heard a great many good things about you and your work here as Assistant District Attorney. It's a pleasure to meet you at last."

The lovely ADA reached out and took his hand perfunctorily. "Mr. Webster."

"Please, have a seat," he offered next as he settled back into his own chair. "How may I help you?"

Alex took the seat he indicated, but her posture didn't relax. "Mr. Webster, I feel I must tell you up front that it is not as a representative of the Dallas District Attorney's office that I've come to speak with you. My motives are purely personal."

His smile fading slightly, Webster responded, "Well, I'm certainly willing to listen to a member of the general public as well. Please, call me Hal. And I may call you?"

"Miss Cahill," she informed him somewhat frostily, erasing the last of his smile. "Mr. Webster, I'd like to speak with you regarding the investigation and charges against Ranger James Trivette."

"Ah, of course," the wavy blond-haired man replied. "You're curious as to the status of the investigation. If I recall correctly, you were involved in the early stages? Conducting the preliminary interview with Mr. Trivette?"

"Ranger Trivette," Alex corrected him. "Yes, I conducted the first interview and informed him of the accusations that had been made. Because Ranger Trivette is a close friend of mine I found it a difficult, but necessary, duty. But what I wanted to speak with you about has nothing to do with the progress of the investigation or the trial you have pending now. I wanted to ask you personally if you plan to conduct the remainder of this matter in the same manner you began it?"

"Excuse me?" he queried, with a look of confusion.

"I found your handling of the matter yesterday to be unprofessional, reprehensible and irresponsible, Mr. Webster," Alex began. "Ranger Trivette is a valued member of a highly valued Texas institution. His record is unblemished and his arrest and conviction rate is outstanding. He has cooperated fully with the authorities, and ensured that his whereabouts were known from the moment these charges were brought to his attention. In spite of all that, you ordered State Police officers to arrest him from the front porch of his partner's home. Why did you choose to handle it in that way, Mr. Webster?"

For the first time, the state prosecutor looked a little rattled, and more than a little surprised that anyone would question his methods. "I had . . . I ordered. . . I--"

Alex, just beginning to work up a good head of steam, stood once more. "You ordered him arrested, Mr. Webster. Generally someone with Ranger Trivette's background, and who had been supplying his level of cooperation, would have been informed of the forthcoming warrant and given the chance to turn himself in voluntarily. You didn't extend him that opportunity, and I'd like to know why?"

The now thoroughly flustered prosecutor could only open and shut his mouth soundlessly like a fish out of water as the blonde continued her verbal attack. "Or do I need to ask why, Mr. Webster? Perhaps I already know the answer? Is it that having an accused Texas Ranger brought to the courthouse in handcuffs looks much better in the press? I saw your little impromptu news conference on the television more than once last night. You were very impressive. But... the six o'clock news is not where you need to win this case!"

Alex stopped suddenly, watching his reactions intently. In a much quieter and more controlled voice she went on, "Were you aware, Mr. Webster, that Jimmy was the victim of a brutal attack brought on by the media coverage of these charges just a few days ago? The same day, in fact, that the allegations were first made?"

"I was given to understand that Mr. Trivette had been involved in some sort of altercation," Webster responded, finally finding his voice.

"Ranger Trivette," the blonde woman corrected him again, "was attacked by five men as he walked down a public street, and as a direct result, spent the night in the hospital. Do you know what happened yesterday, less than two days later, after Ranger Trivette was arrested and brought in for booking?" Without waiting for an answer, she continued, "He was placed in the general holding cell, Mr. Webster. While there, he was once again attacked. Had it not been for the fortuitous passage of another police officer, he might have been seriously injured, perhaps even killed. And for that, Mr. Webster, I hold you and your handling of the situation directly responsible!"

Webster's face had grown redder as the assault continued, and Alex's final comment brought a defensive glare to his eyes. "Now, hold on just a minute, Miss Cahill! The manner in which I conduct investigations and prosecutions has never been called into question and--"

"Perhaps it's time someone did, Mr. Webster," she interrupted him smoothly.  "I've been told that you're a very talented prosecutor who would rather lose a case than see an innocent person railroaded through the system. I sincerely hope that is truly the case, and that from now on your prosecution of Ranger Trivette will be conducted in the courtroom and not the newspapers. Now, I've taken too much of your valuable time. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice. Good evening, Mr. Webster." Without another word, Alex turned and strode out the door, closing it firmly behind her.

 

 

Walker stepped through the door of C.D.'s Bar and Grill, nodding to his ex­-partner behind the bar before continuing to the booth where he had spotted Alex waiting for him.

She looked up at his approach, then behind him. "Jimmy didn't come with you?"

"No," Walker confirmed with a shake of his head as he slid into the seat beside the ADA, sliding an arm around her shoulders as he did so. "Trivette decided to stay on the ranch today."

The blonde's eyes took on a look of concern. "He is all right, isn't he? You did make sure someone took a look at him last night?"

The Ranger's slightly startled look elicited a decidedly serious stare from his dinner companion. "Walker. You didn't honestly think I bought that story, did you? I saw that tear in his shirt as clearly as you did. And it was pretty obvious by the way he was protecting his side that he was hurting."

Walker shook his head with a chuckle. "You knew. I should've figured."

"Of course I knew," she stated firmly. "And it wouldn't surprise me at all to find C.D. knew as well. You two are stubborn as the day is long when it comes to admitting you need medical care. But that doesn't mean we don't see right through you. If Jimmy wanted to salvage a little pride by letting us think he hadn't been hurt again, I was willing to go along with that. But only because I was sure you'd get him taken care of. So, did you go over to County after you dropped me off?"

"No. He wouldn't go," the Ranger responded, holding up a hand to stop her from interrupting as he continued. "We stopped in for a visit with Maisie instead."

Alex couldn't repress a giggle. "Maisie? I thought she was your personal physician! And Jimmy went along with that?"

"Not at first, and not willingly," Walker admitted. "I didn't give him much choice. Told him it was either Maisie or C.D. He picked Maisie. Anyway, she looked him over. Changed some bandages and checked his ribs, then sent us home."

The lovely blonde smiled in some relief, then looked serious again. "Walker? How's Jimmy handling this whole thing? I know he's been under investigation before, but this... this is something different."

"I know, Alex." The Ranger sighed. "He seems okay, but you know Trivette. He's not talking about what's going on in his head right now. And much as I'd like to, I can't push him on it. I owe him that a dozen times over."

Sighing herself, Alex leaned closer into the red-bearded man's arm. "I know. Sometimes you two 'strong, silent' types just drive me crazy. Does it really have to be that hard--" Alex's words trailed off as she caught sight of a familiar face near the door and she stiffened reflexively.

"Alex? What's wrong?" Walker questioned, twisting to try and see what had caught her attention.

"Hal Webster just came in," she told him, pulling out of the Ranger's comforting embrace and straightening up. "They set up an office for him just down the hall earlier today. Before I left this evening I stopped in and gave him my opinion on his handling of Jimmy's case so far. I don't think he counts me among the 'good-guys' just now."

The Ranger grinned. "That's my girl! Really gave him what-for, huh?"

Alex blushed slightly. "I pointed out some professional conflicts we had between how we each would have dealt with the situation." The blonde woman shook her head. "I probably should have stayed out of it, but--"

The conversation was interrupted by the perfectly modulated tones of the state prosecutor. "Miss Cahill?"

Walker rose immediately from his seat, keeping his expression neutral as he faced the younger man. Alex reached out and touched his arm as she rose herself.  "Walker? Have you been introduced to Mr. Webster from the state Attorney General's office? Mr. Webster, this is Ranger Walker."

The blonde man offered his hand, but kept his own face impassive as well. Ranger Walker. I've heard a great deal about you."

The Ranger shook Webster's hand without a change in expression. "Mr. Webster. I'm afraid I can't say the same. What brings you to C.D.'s?"

Webster looked around somewhat warily. It was obvious a local hangout wasn't his usual environment, and he couldn't miss the hostile looks on more than a few faces, correctly reading them as friends of the man he'd been sent to investigate and prosecute. "Actually, I’m here because this is where I was told I might find Miss Cahill.  We had a discussion this afternoon, and I was hoping for an opportunity to finish it."

Walker's chin lifted slightly, his stance tightening and his eyes shifting rapidly as he sized up the somewhat taller man standing in front of him. Just then C.D. made his way over from behind the bar after noticing the tension brewing. "Hey, Cordell," he called. "Alex, darlin', how are you tonight? This fellah isn't givin' you any trouble now is he? "

The lovely ADA took the opportunity quickly. "Not a bit, C.D. This is Mr. Webster. He just came to talk with me," she responded. Then turned to the newcomer.

"Mr. Webster, please, have a seat. Would you like a drink? Or coffee perhaps?"

"No, nothing," the blonde man replied, obviously relieved as he slid into the booth. "Thank you for being willing to speak with me."

Alex sat down in the seat opposite him. "I think I owe you that much, Mr. Webster."

The red-bearded Ranger touched her shoulder. "Alex? Would you like me to

stay?"

"We'll be fine, Walker," she assured him, then watched as he followed C.D. to the bar, settling onto a stool as the ex-Ranger handed him a draft. Turning her attention back to the man still seated before her, Alex asked, "What can I do for you, Mr. Webster?"

"First of all," he told her, "I wanted to tell you that was quite a lecture you gave me this afternoon. I can easily believe the stories I've heard that say you're one of the best. If you take that kind of commitment and passion into the courtroom with you, I don't know how a jury could turn you down."

Alex looked him straight in the eyes. "I only argue for what I believe to be right."

Webster nodded, "I can see that. The second thing I wanted to say was 'thank you' for that lecture. You were right when you said perhaps it was time someone called me to heel and questioned my actions. You reminded me most effectively of some things that seem to have slipped my mind lately. My decision regarding Ranger Trivette's arrest was motivated by the wrong considerations. I apologize and would like to assure you, Ranger Trivette, and your friends that nothing of the sort will happen again.

"Miss Cahill, I'm not sure if you'll be willing to believe me now," Webster continued. "But I do want to see justice done here. Ranger Trivette is your friend, and I know you truly believe him innocent. For all your sakes, I honestly would like for you to be right. But, I have a case to prosecute, and a retarded young woman who has been raped and identified her attacker as 'Jimmy'. Her parents have sworn that Ranger Trivette is the only 'Jimmy' she's been in contact with during the time in question. I will not back down or do less than my utmost to present a complete case to the jury and obtain a conviction."

Alex studied his face intently, seeing an earnestness and integrity she hadn't noticed before. Maybe Hank Burgess was right about the state prosecutor assigned to Jimmy's case. She could only hope so. "I can accept that Mr. Webster. I would never ask any prosecutor to do less than the best for the people he or she represents." Then she smiled. "But you might want to prepare for a loss. Jimmy is innocent, we'll find a way to prove that."

The visiting prosecutor could see that they had at least reached an agreement to disagree, and was satisfied. "One other thing, Miss Cahill," he told her as he rose once more from the booth. "I was not aware until you spoke with me this afternoon that Ranger Trivette had been placed in the general holding cell. Would you express to him my sincerest regrets for that?"

"I will, Mr. Webster," Alex agreed, reaching out to shake his hand again. "Thank you."

"Goodbye, Miss Cahill. And let me tell you once more that you are a formidable opponent. I hope one day to have the opportunity to work with you." Then the immaculately groomed attorney turned and made his way once more out of C.D.'s.

Almost as soon as Webster left, Walker returned from the bar where he'd been warily watching the exchange. Wrapping his arm around the blonde's shoulders he asked, "Everything alright?"

Smiling up at her concerned Ranger, Alex wrapped her arm around his waist and began pulling him into the booth beside her as she sat down again. "Everything's fine. And I think we've reached an understanding, Mr. Webster and I. Now... I'm starved. I don't suppose C.D. told you what the special is tonight?"

 

0   0   0

 

Sitting in the kitchen on Walker's ranch, Trivette looked over at Hank Burgess. The lawyer had spread on the table in front of them the file folders, tapes, photographs and videotape that represented the results of the discovery request. Walker, C.D. and Alex were also in the room, all equally anxious to hear what the state had against their friend and how it might best be countered.

"Jimmy," Burgess said. "I know these last few days have been difficult on you.  Waiting is always the toughest part, especially when you're being hounded and harassed by the media looking for a headline. But now that I've had time to study the materials here, I'm ready to start putting together a viable defense for you.

"The state's case looks fairly strong, but it's built almost entirely on supposition, opportunity, and Star Blane's statements to the therapist that worked with her after the rape was discovered. Star's interview is the weakest link," the attorney continued, touching his hand lightly on the videotape. "And our best hope. The counselor who spoke with her did an adequate job, and doesn't lead the girl to any answers, but the interview is far from complete. More than that, it stops rather abruptly after eliciting Star's identification of the person who assaulted her. I could probably argue quite effectively against allowing the tape to be admitted as evidence, and without it, the state's case against you would be quite literally blown out of the water." 

The younger Ranger looked expectantly across the table. "But that's not what you want to do?"

The smaller man shook his head. "No, I don't. We could derail the prosecution, the case would be dismissed and you'd be officially off the hook, but the shadow would remain over you. With your permission, I'd like to try and find out what really happened to the girl. Because unless we reveal the true rapist, your name might never be cleared."

"Hank?" Alex asked, stepping over to stand at Trivette's side. "How exactly do you think you can do that?"

"With Jimmy's permission," the defense attorney explained, "I propose to go to Webster and suggest something that will be our best possible chance of revealing the identity of the man who really assaulted Star Blane. I'm going to propose that we go          together before the judge and request an order that Star be interviewed by another therapist."

"Given what the first therapist has done for me already, do you really think that's a good idea?" Trivette asked doubtfully.

Yes, Jimmy, I do," Burgess replied. "We need to know more about what happened to Star. And with her mental handicap, a trained therapist is our only real chance of getting those answers."

The black man nodded, accepting that logic. "Will Webster go along with it?"

"I believe he will. I think Hal wants to get to the truth as badly as we do. Right now, the information indicates he probably has the right guy in his sights. But he's not dumb, and can see the holes in his case as clearly as I can. I won't need to spell out the advantages to going along with the request.

"This is a win-win situation for Hal. It will either solidify the case he has, or it will point him in the direction of a winning case against someone else," the attorney explained. "I'd prefer to take this before the judge with the prosecution behind me, we'd be assured of getting the expert. But because the first interview is incomplete, even if he objects, I think we have good authority for getting the evaluation independently. Having Hal's cooperation would just make it easier."

C.D. spoke up. "You sound like you've got a whole lot of faith in the doc you're planning on pinning Jimmy's hopes to. You really sure this fellah can do more with that little gal than the first one? Cause it's a mighty big risk you're talking about taking with this boy's future.

Trivette turned to look at the elderly man. "C.D., it's a risk I have to take. I can't settle for halfways. If I'm not cleared... then everything I've worked for is gone. The life I've made here, my reputation, and my career as a Ranger or in any branch of law enforcement will all be forgotten and lost. I have to believe that Star knows the truth, and can tell it if the questions are put to her the right way."

The black Ranger looked his lawyer steadily in the eye. "Do what needs to be done. I don't want this dismissed, I want to be exonerated. I want my life back, the way it was before this began."

Burgess nodded seriously, standing and reaching to shake the Ranger's hand. "I had a feeling that would be your reaction. Believe me, I've weighed this very carefully. I know it's a gamble, but it's the only one that I can see resulting in the identification of the real rapist. I've already spoken to the therapist I have in mind, and she's agreed to come and work with Star.

"Sharon Collins is one of the best when it comes to working with children who have been victimized, and her testimony has been used as 'expert' by both defense and prosecution in courtrooms across the country. She's very effective and she's very thorough. If anyone can get the full story from Star Blane, she can."

 

 

"Ten days, Walker. It's been ten days and Burgess says there's nothing yet! Nothing except reporters who won't even let me have enough peace to get back to my own place and water the damn plants." Trivette paced the length of the front porch, trying to walk off his frustration.

In the week and a half since the planning session with his lawyer, the only news he'd received was that Webster had agreed to the plan to bring in Collins to work with Star. After that it had been a series of platitudes. It takes time. She has to build a rapport with the girl.   Be patient, it's working.

Now the younger Ranger's patience, which was minimal at best anyway, was all but exhausted. As his body healed, his ability to simply wait for events to occur was evaporating. He stopped and locked eyes with his partner. "I'm going nuts here, man! This shouldn't be happening! I should be getting out of bed in the morning and going to work. Doing some good, not just twiddling my thumbs and trying to think of some way to burn another ten or twelve hours here while you go and do both our jobs!" Suddenly Trivette spun away again, slamming the flat of his hand against the wall of the house hard enough to rattle the window. "Damnit, Walker. Damnit!"

"Trivette--" Walker found himself wondering how to counsel continued patience when he understood all too well just how impossible that would feel to his friend. He was spared continuing when the phone rang from inside the house, and instead the red-bearded Ranger rose from the steps where he'd been sitting. Clasping a supportive hand on his friend's shoulder, he strode inside to answer the call.

The black man leaned heavily on the porch railing, staring down the long dirt road that led toward Dallas and home. His thoughts were in turmoil. You're a shit, Jimmy. The past couple of weeks haven't been easy for Walker either. He's given up a hell of a lot for you. Sacrificed his solitude and the privacy of his home so you'd have a safe place to stay, away from prying eyes and constant questions. And you return the favor by whining about being bored and wanting to water your damn plants. Nice work ,pal.

Alex listened to the phone ring impatiently. C'mon, Walker; pick up, she urged silently. When the familiar voice finally answered, she almost sighed aloud in relief.

"Walker! Is Jimmy right there?" Alex queried quickly.

"He's outside. I'll get him," Walker replied.

"No, wait!" Alex stopped the Ranger before he could call out to his partner. "I don't want him to hear this."

Concern crept into Walker's voice as he responded more quietly, "What's going on, Alex?"

"I wish I could tell you for sure," the blonde admitted. "All I know is that I saw Hank heading into Webster's office, looking pretty intense. I asked around, but nobody seems to know what's going on. Can you come down? And without letting Jimmy know why? I don't want to worry him. After all, it could be nothing."

"True, Alex, but if something's happening, he's likely to find out. Much as they seem to rile him, he can't quit listening to the news reports." Walker was silent for a moment, then continued. "I've got an idea. Trivette's been feeling mighty cooped up around here. I could drop him at C.D.'s on my way. "

"Walker, that's perfect!" Alex enthused. "With the ban that C.D.'s put on anyone even mentioning the case, it's probably the one place in Dallas where Jimmy won't hear a word about what's going on!"

"Don't you worry about a thing, Cordell," C.D. said moments later after Walker had explained the situation. "I'll take care of everything. Tell Jimmy I could sure use the hands today, that'll be enough to get him over here. Bye, now."

Hanging up the phone, C.D. looked around the bar. Not too many in yet, the lunch crowd ain't even begun to arrive, but best to start spreading the word. Them that are here now are all regulars, and will see to it that new arrivals hear quick enough.

Pulling open the connecting door to the kitchen area, the ex-Ranger spoke loudly, "Cindy! You and Tony c'mon out here a minute, would ya please? I've got somethin' I need to say to everyone."

"Sure thing, C.D.," a woman’s voice called back. "Just give us a minute to take care of this stuff on the stove and we'll be right there."

By the time the middle-aged cook and her assistant had made their way out of the kitchen, C.D. had gathered his two waitresses and the busboy together as well. When the entire on duty staff was assembled, he rapped a bottle loudly on the bar to call for the silence of the patrons as well.

"Folks! Gimme your attention for just a bit," he began. "In a coupla minutes Jimmy Trivette's gonna be comm' in here. Now y'all know what a hard time them newspaper and television crews have been giving him lately. I want this to be a no-Press zone for him... so if anyone feels the need to talk about what's been happening I suggest you take it elsewhere. Is that clear? It shouldn't be too hard for any of ya to abide by that, since y'all know just how I feel about listening to any of that damned hogwash myself."

"C.D.," Bobbi, the head waitress spoke up, "You know we all like Jimmy. He won't hear a word about it while he's here with us." A chorus of agreement rose from the others in the bar.

"Thanks. All of you. Do me one other favor and make sure the word gets passed to any newcomers without Jimmy hearing about it? I sure would appreciate it." The retired Ranger smiled broadly in satisfaction as he noted every face nodding understanding. A moment later his crew got back to work and C.D.'s was back to business as usual.

 

 

Walker stepped back out onto the porch to find his partner leaning on the porch railing and staring off into the distance. "That was C.D. He's short-handed in the bar today. I told him you'd come and help him out for a while."

The younger man spun and gave Walker a look of sheer disbelief. "You did what?"

"I told C.D. you'd be happy to come down to the bar and give him a hand," the bearded Ranger repeated patiently. "You've done it before."

"That's not the point, Walker!" Trivette griped. "You didn't ask me! What do I look like? Hired help?"

"No, a man with too much time on his hands. Would you rather sit around here 'twiddling your thumbs' or keep busy?" Then the older man simply shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not gonna drag you out of here, Trivette. If you don't want to go, you call C.D. back and tell him so."

The younger man shot his friend another incredulous look. "Yeah, right." Disappearing inside the ranch house, he reemerged a moment later with his hat. "I'm ready. Let's go."

 

Walker steered the silver-blue Ram around the comer into the stockyard district, slowing to pull up in front of C.D.'s Bar and Grill.

"Hey, Walker?" Trivette suddenly spoke after a near silent ride into the city. "Take it around back, would ya?" When his bearded companion gave him a questioning look, the younger man added with a sardonic grin, "I might as well use the 'Help's Entrance', don't you think?"

"Funny," the older man said with an exasperated glare, but he turned the truck into the alley, coming to a stop just outside the rear entrance of C.D.'s.

The black man climbed from the cab, closing the door behind him, then turned to lean back in the open window. "Bring Alex by later. If I make enough tips, I'll buy you guys lunch."

With one look at his partner's face, Trivette turned and ducked inside the building. Leaning against the door once it was closed, he savored the moment with a snicker. Sometimes, Walker; you're too easy.

"Jimmy!" C.D.'s bellow brought the younger man to a startled attention. "What in the dang blue blazes are you doin' skulkin' around back here?" Bustling forward the ex-Ranger caught his friend by the elbow, insistently urging him toward the public area of the establishment. "'Bout time you showed your face around here, son. Cindy! Tony! Look who I found hiding out here! Why didn't you let me know he'd snuck in the back?"

"Didn't know about it, C.D.," was the response from the head cook as she glanced up from the pot roast she was preparing for the oven. "Hey, Jimmy. Good to see you."

The Ranger barely had time to wave a greeting in return to both of the kitchen workers before he was pulled through the swinging door into the dining area. Glancing around quickly, Trivette saw Bobbi and Carol delivering orders to two tables while Scott was busily clearing and cleaning another. With a suspicious frown he turned and pointed an accusing finger at his mentor. "C.D.! Walker told me you were short-staffed! You've got a full crew, what's going on here?"

The elderly man didn't look the least bit abashed, matching his friend glare for glare. "Dangit, Jimmy, I told Cordell to say that! I told him to say whatever it took to get you here! You've been holed up on that ranch long enough! I figure it's just about time you pried yourself off that porch and got back to spending some time with your friends. And if it took a lie to make that happen, well, so be it!"

Trivette was about to respond when they were approached by several men wearing Ranger stars who'd risen from a nearby table.

"Jim! Damn, it's good to see you!" the first, a tall dark-haired man with a broad grin, greeted him while slapping a hand on the back of Trivette's shoulder. An involuntary wince from the black man brought an instantaneous look of contrition. "Oh, hell, Jim! I'm sorry. I forgot all about the ribs."

Trivette smiled, pushing the ache to the back of his mind once again. "Hey, don't worry about it, Carl. I'm okay." He reached a hand out to the other man. "Good to see you, too. How's Jenn?"

Carl Kelly's smile grew huge. "She's good, real good! You haven't heard. We've got a little one who should be making an appearance in about six months. Jenn is just glowing."

"That's terrific!" the black Ranger grinned with delight. "Congratulations, man!"

"Hey, Trivette," a slightly stockier Ranger with sandy blond hair interrupted as he indicated the third man in their group. "Have you ever met Jasper Rindley? He's out of Company D, up here testifying on a little smuggling thing he lucked into the middle of. Carl and I have been trying to convince him to move on up where the real action is!"

Trivette turned his attention to the other two men, first shaking Ed Rhoade's hand then reaching out to the newcomer. "Nice to meet you. So Ed's been trying to recruit you up to Dallas?"

Rindley chuckled as he took the proffered hand. "Yeah. And I've been telling Rhoades that there's hardly any crime in the rest of Texas! What are you boys doing wrong here in Dallas?"

As the four lawmen laughed companionably, C.D. smiled and moved away toward the bar. Shoot, I knew what the boy needed was to quit wallowin' around out there by himself day after day and get back to the world.

 

                       

Walker scanned the corridor as he strode around the corner toward Alex's office, finding her waiting for him just outside her door. She met him halfway. "Anything?" he queried.

The blonde shook her head. "Not that's being talked about. But Miller and Hastings arrived a few minutes ago. They're waiting down the hall in conference room C."

The Ranger instantly recognized the names of the two detectives who had been assigned to investigate the rape of Star Blane. He gazed down the hallway, more curious than ever to know what was going on. "C'mon, Alex, let's go say hello. Maybe they'll be able to tell us something."

"I wish I could tell you what's up, Walker," Thomas Hastings, the senior of the two detectives responded when questioned. "We got a call at the precinct. Said there might be some new information and to come down here to meet with Webster about it. That's all we got."

Walker sighed, wondering if the 'new information' would help or hinder his partner's case. Resigning himself to playing another round of the waiting game, he walked Alex to a pair of empty seats at the table that occupied the majority of the space in the small conference room. "Might as well be comfortable," he told her quietly. "We're not leaving 'til we find out what's going on."

With a nod of assent, Alex took the chair he offered, then silently reached for his hand beneath the table.

Fifteen minutes later, the blonde ADA could feel the impatience creeping up her spine. Walker, however, sat with the determined look of a man who wouldn't be budged until he chose to move. Studying the Ranger covertly Alex marveled at his ability to do that. Walker was a man of action, often racing off so far ahead of his partner that it drove the younger man nearly insane with worry. And yet he could plant himself as firmly as a tree when the mood struck him, maintaining a near motionless vigil until he was given what he waited for. Another example of the Walker paradox.

She was startled from her reflections by the entrance of a young woman.  "Detectives Hastings and Miller? Mr. Webster would like you to join him in his office, please."

Shawn Miller glanced back as the pair followed the messenger out the door. "We'll fill you in as soon as we know what's up, Walker," he assured. "Hang tight." The red-bearded Ranger nodded minutely, then settled back in his chair, apparently finding something fascinating on the bare wall opposite them. Alex sighed.  He wasn't even going to be good for conversation in this frame of mind.

Forty-five minutes later the two police detectives finally reentered the room. "Could be good news," Hastings told them both with a smile. "The latest interviews with the Blane girl indicate another possible suspect. A boy who lives in the same building. We've been asked to go bring him in for questioning, voluntarily if possible." The senior detective gave the Ranger an expectant look. "You want a piece of this, Walker?" The red-bearded man rose from his seat immediately, grabbing his Stetson and putting it on as he strode toward the door. "Damn right. Let's go."

"Walker?" Alex called after him as he reached the door. "Please be careful. This could be what we need, if it goes right."

Turning back for just a moment, Walker's eyes met hers, telling her he heard the unspoken message. "Don't worry, Alex. I know what to do." An instant later he was gone.

 

 

Walker pulled the Ram up in front of the apartment building, climbing quickly out of the cab and joining Hastings and Miller, who waited by the front entrance. As they opened the door to go inside, he asked, "How much do we know about this kid?"

"Webster had a few answers for us," Miller filled him in. "Subject's name is Derek James Mitchell--"

"James?" Walker questioned quickly.

"Yeah, James... as in Jimmy. Interesting, huh? Kid's nineteen, lives here in the building with his mother, Loretta. Records indicate he's had a few brushes with Juvenile, but no specifics of course. Another interesting little detail. . . according to the Blanes, his mom sometimes looks after the girl for them."

Stopping in front of apartment 2-C, Hastings knocked briskly. The Ranger didn't to be asked to take a position behind the detectives, allowing the men to take the

lead in the investigation assigned to them. All three lawmen removed their hats as they I      heard the door unlocked. A moment later it was opened the width the security chain

would allow.

"Yes?" a tiny woman with silvering blonde hair queried. "Can I help you?"

"Mrs. Mitchell?" Hastings asked. "Mrs. Loretta Mitchell?"

"I'm Loretta Mitchell," she confirmed, looking rapidly between the three men facing her. "Mrs. Mitchell, I'm Detective Hastings, Dallas PD. This is my partner Detective Miller and that's Ranger Walker. Could we come in and speak with you for a few moments please?"

Clearly surprised, the woman nodded, shutting the door just enough to undo the chain before opening it wide. "Of course. Please come in. Would you sit down? Can I get you some coffee? Or tea perhaps?" Her hands were constantly in motion, and added to the quick movements she made with her head, made Walker liken her to a bird.

After entering the apartment, Hastings once again took the lead. "No, thank-you, Mrs. Mitchell. We're investigating the assault against Star Blane. I believe you know the girl?"

"Oh, yes! Star is such a sweet child! I look after her sometimes when Keith and Molly need to do some shopping or take care of something." The woman's face took on a shocked and sad look. "It's a terrible thing to know that someone would do such a despicable thing! And her poor momma and daddy -- first they find out that their little girl has been taken advantage of like that, by someone they trusted no less, and then the state takes her away from them! It's a downright shame! You've never seen people take such good care of a child as Keith and Molly do of their girl. To have the Protective Services people come and take her away as if they'd neglected her or deliberately allowed something so awful to happen. It's terrible! Just terrible!"

Pausing to catch her breath, the woman looked curiously at the three lawmen. "But I thought they'd already caught the animal that hurt that child? It's been all over the news and the television about the trial and everything. How he made friends with Keith and Molly and then took advantage of poor Star." Loretta Mitchell looked at Walker with an expression of pity. "They said he was a Texas Ranger, too, like you. Must be just terrible to see a man like that give something as fine as the Rangers a bad name."

Walker tensed, but managed to keep his expression noncommittal as the chattering woman turned back to Hastings. "I don't see why you're here to talk with me now, though, since the whole thing seems to be over and done with?"

The detective nodded, keeping his face impassive. "We're trying to tie up any remaining loose ends and questions, Ma'am. Put together as clear a picture of what happened to Star and when as we can during that last couple of weeks before the incident came to light. We were hoping you'd be willing to come downtown and help us with that."

"Oh! Well of course I'll help you gentlemen. Anything I can do that might get this whole terrible, terrible thing over with and that poor child home with her momma and daddy where she belongs--"

The woman's words were interrupted as the door opened suddenly and a boy in his late teens or early twenties came in. He stopped short when he caught sight of the three men wearing badges. "Mom?"

"Jimmy! You're home early today," the tiny woman greeted the boy.

"Deke, Mom! I told you, all my friends call me Deke!"

"Yes, yes, of course, Deke," she repeated, emphasizing the name with a nod. Then looking at her three guests she explained, "It's lust so hard to change the old habit. Deke's father's name was Derek, too. So when he was a boy we called him Jimmy to keep them separate. Well, his father was killed in an accident nearly ten years ago, but he was always my Jimmy. Then we moved here and all of a sudden he tells me he wants me to call him Deke, like his new friends do. I do my best, but really, it's so hard to remember after so many years that it's not my little Jimmy anymore. It's Deke."

The boy gave his mother an exasperated look. "Mom! You don't have to tell them our whole life history in fifteen seconds!" Then he turned a challenging look to the lawmen. "What are you guys doing here, anyway? I haven't done anything wrong."

"Oh no, Jimmy-- Whoops! Deke!" Loretta Mitchell corrected herself immediately with a triumphant grin. "It's not what you think at all. These officers are here to ask my help. They're trying to put together something that will help them figure out exactly when that awful man hurt poor little Star. You remember Star don't you? You looked after her for me that day when I had to leave so quick because Mr. Stratton couldn't find the files I'd given him? I was just telling these officers that I'd be happy to go to their station and help as much as I can."

Miller's face took on an interested look as he turned to the boy. "You looked after Star, too, Deke?"

"Yeah," was the somewhat sullen answer. "But just that one time. Mom was stuck and Mr. Stratton would've fired her if he didn't get what he wanted. He can be a real jerk sometimes."

"When would that have been?"

"Geez--l don't remember. Mom called and begged me and I went upstairs and I hung out with the kid for a few hours 'til she got back again. Who remembers dates for dumb stuff like that?"

"Oh, .... . Deke," the little woman interjected. "It's not like it was that long ago!"

She looked at Hastings. "I had to leave or Mr. Stratton simply would have had a fit. Silly man, the files were right where he'd put them. But he'd gotten them all mixed

It together and it took me almost three hours to get them back together correctly. That was just a few days before we found out what had happened to Star. On a Monday."

"Really." Miller commented. "That fits right in the block for the time frame we're trying to build, Deke. Would you be willing to come down with your mother here and help us out, too? We'd like to get as accurate a picture as possible of everything that     Star Blane did in the two weeks before the assault was discovered. We believe it will help us when her attacker goes to trial."

"Well... I dunno--" the boy began uncertainly.

"Oh, of course you'll help, Deke," Loretta Mitchell said firmly. "It's your duty to help these fine officers in their attempt to bring justice to Star and her momma and daddy." She looked expectantly at Hastings. "Would you like us to go now?"

"Yes, Ma'am," the senior detective concurred. "That would be most helpful. In fact, why don't you and Deke, here, ride with my partner and me? We'll get everything taken care of and then give you a ride back home when it's all settled."

The tiny woman smiled. "That would be just wonderful. Just let me get my purse and we'll go right along."

In less than two minutes, the bird-like woman had collected her things and hustled them all out of the apartment, locking it securely behind her. Walker climbed behind the wheel of the Ram, then watched as Loretta and 'Deke' Mitchell got into Miller's sedan and the foursome headed back toward the courthouse. He blew out a long breath as he started his own vehicle and pulled into traffic a short distance behind them.

It hadn't been easy keeping his composure in there, especially when the Mitchell woman had begun spouting off about Trivette tarnishing the name of all Rangers. Knowing she was just repeating what the papers told her didn't make it any easier to listen to. And then 'Deke' had come in. A boy whose mother called him Jimmy, and who'd been left alone with Star Blane for several hours. Deke, in whose eyes the Ranger had seen nothing but lies.

 

 

The observation room was really more of a long, dim corridor with a series of two-way mirrors along one wall that gave view into each of the interrogation rooms. Alex stood with her arm looped through Walker's as they watched the questioning of Derek Mitchell wind down. In the room next door, Loretta Mitchell still sat quietly crying

-- as she had been since the truth had begun to be revealed. The blonde ADA felt genuinely sorry for the older woman. Derek was her last child, and only son. In spite of the escalating trouble the boy'd gotten himself into after his father's death, his mother had continued to believe that he was just a child going through a phase. She loved and supported him. And the fact that he'd had no brushes with the law since legally becoming an adult had only bolstered her belief.

Alex reached with her free hand and gently rubbed Walker's bicep and shoulder, feeling the tension his stony expression belied. Listening to the story emerge from Derek Mitchell hadn't been easy on either of them, but they'd both felt the need to stay and hear it out. Hank Burgess had stayed for awhile as well, and Webster had come and gone several times. Alex was sure he was also monitoring the interview through the video camera connected to the interrogation room.

Hastings and Miller had played the game like masters. They'd left Deke alone in one room with a pad of paper, asking him to write out everything he could remember about the afternoon he'd taken care of Star when his mother was called away. While the nineteen-year-old was working on that, they'd carefully pulled details from his mother in the next room, creating a timeline and getting as much background information as they could, both about her son and Star. Then the two detectives had returned once more to talk with Deke Mitchell.

They'd taken it right by the book, making sure that the boy repeated and understood that his statements were voluntarily offered. The detectives had no intention of leaving any openings for a later claim that Deke had felt he had to stay against his will, nor that he'd been pressured or coerced into telling his story without counsel.

Alex had been pleased to watch as the boy helped them with that goal, responding with a cocky brazenness to the questions. From the beginning it was obvious that the nineteen-year-old had paid almost no attention to the media brouhaha that had erupted over the rape accusations against Trivette. Apparently he spent little time following the news, and routinely tuned out his mother's conversation as well.

Beyond knowing that a 'cop' had been accused of assaulting the girl, Deke Mitchell had taken no interest in the story.

The two detectives had taken turns talking with him, pinning Mitchell down on times and events, erasing ambiguities, eliminating options, and using facts gleaned from both his mother's and Star's most recent statements until he finally had no choice but to admit what the investigators were already sure of: Derek Mitchell had been the one who actually raped Star Blane.

Incredibly, even after this admission Mitchell still felt that he had nothing to worry about. He'd laughed when he'd told how Star had wanted him to place 'house' with her, how she would be the mommy and he would be the daddy, and how he'd decided to show her what mommies and daddies do after the baby goes to sleep. Alex had been sickened as he matter-of-factly described how Star had cried and asked him to stop, but he'd continued because 'all first timers cry a little'.

At last, with that statement clearly recorded, Miller and Hastings officially placed Deke under arrest for the rape of Star Blane. In spite of his previous behavior, the ADA     was still surprised to discover the boy was stunned, arguing that he hadn't 'raped' anyone. Even as the handcuffs were being fastened around his wrists, Deke was still shaking his head and protesting that the girl was over eighteen and had climbed into bed with him all by herself. Hastings just shook his head in disgust and continued reading Mitchell his rights.

With Derek Mitchell finally being led out of the room Walker turned to face his companion. "We need to call Trivette, fill him in."

The blonde looked thoughtful for a minute, then smiled broadly, "He does need   to be told. But not a phone call. I have a better idea."

The bearded Ranger gave her a doubtful look, but his own grin grew wide as

Alex spelled out her plan. "It could work," he agreed. "If Webster will go along with it."

          "Oh, he'll go along with it," she assured him. "He owes us that much. Let's go."

 

            

             "Hey, Big Dog?" Trivette called as he fiddled with the remote he'd grabbed from its usual spot behind the bar. "What's wrong with your TV? I want to watch the news." The elderly bartender scowled as he reached and took the control unit from the black man's hand. "Danged thing's unplugged, that's what's wrong with it. There's nothin' on but garbage and I don't wanna hear it no more."

          "C.D.--" the younger man protested.

          "Nossir! I won't have it here!" C.D. stated adamantly, shaking his head. "If you gotta have some noise to listen to, go feed the dang jukebox!" With that he popped open the cash register and pulled out a handful of quarters, dropping them on the bar in front of Trivette.

          A look at the ex-Ranger's eyes told him that further argument on the subject would be useless, so Trivette merely glowered before scooping up a few of the coins piled in front of him and heading to the other side of the bar to select some music.

          Watching the young man walk away, C.D. blew out a breath, considering ways in which to continue to distract his friend. The jukebox wouldn't hold his attention for long, that was sure, and at this time of day customers were few. Maybe I'd oughta see if I can't get some folks down here to keep Jimmy company? he thought, reaching for the phone. He blinked in surprise when it rang just as he touched it.

 

            "Hi!" Alex's voice greeted him over the connection. "How are things going with Jimmy?"

            "Boy's getting restless, that's how it's goin'. You two have any word yet on what's going on down there?"

            Alex laughed happily. "We sure do, C.D., and it's good news! But I don't want to tell Jimmy over the phone. We've set up something special. Do you think you could get him to the courthouse in about forty-five minutes? Bring him in the back way? It's very important."

            The bartender grinned from ear to ear at Alex's lighthearted tone. He turned his back on the patrons to prevent Jimmy from seeing him. "Well, I reckon I could probably manage that, darlin'. Just how good is this good news?"

            "Oh, ....... it's what we've been hoping for! He's been cleared! Jimmy's been cleared, absolutely no question!"

            The elderly man fought back the urge to let out a whoop of delight at her words. "Alex, that's just wonderful to hear! How'd it happen so fast? Did they find the scum that really hurt that little gal? What about--"

            "C.D., wait!" the blonde attorney interrupted. "I know you want to hear everything, and I promise to give you all the details, but right now there's a lot to do and not much time left to do it in."

            Taken aback at Alex's rush, C.D. emitted a miffed 'Harrumph' as he stared at the phone in disbelief.

            "Oh, CD!" she pleaded immediately. "It isn't that I don't want to tell you now! It's just that there's no time right now!"

            Mollified by her obvious distress, the ex-Ranger relented, "Well ... I reckon I understand, honey. Forty-five minutes ain't much time. Don't you worry about a thing on this end, I'll get Jimmy there for ya!"

            "Thanks, C.D.! I really appreciate this. See you soon!" With that, the attorney disconnected.

            After dropping the phone handset into its cradle C.D. rubbed his hands briskly together before composing his face into a more serious demeanor. Turning, he saw Trivette still leaning over the jukebox listlessly punching numbers for music selections. "Hey, Jimmy!" he called. "You'd better c'mon over here."

            Heading for the bar, the black man caught the expression on his friend's face and felt a now familiar tightening in his gut. "What's up, Big Dog?" he queried carefully.

            "Your lawyer was just on the phone," C.D. lied, hoping his face wouldn't betray him. "He said he needs for you to meet with him over to the courthouse soon as you can get there. Grab your hat. I'll drive."

                The tightness in his stomach solidified to a lump of dread. Struggling to keep his voice impassive, Trivette asked, "Why does Burgess need to meet with me, C.D.?”

                "Dangit, Jimmy, he didn't say and I didn't ask!" the bartender blustered, turning away abruptly in an attempt to keep the younger man from pressing the subject any further. "I gotta go get my keys and tell Bobbi we're heading out of here. I'll meet ya at my car in a couple of minutes." That said, C.D. hustled through the kitchen door and away from Trivette's questioning gaze.

 

                Alex paced restlessly toward the door, glancing at her watch before peering toward the rear parking lot and then back at her watch again. "Where are they, Walker? It's almost time."

            "Relax, Alex," the Ranger responded easily from the spot against the wall where he'd chosen to lean. Walker reached out and pulled her to a stop at his side, wrapping his arms around her small frame. "C.D. said he'd get Trivette here on time, so they'll be here."

            She looked up at him, nervous worry shining in her eyes. "But what if something happened? What if they get stuck in traffic? Or if C.D.'s car broke down? I should have called sooner, given them more time, at least told C.D. why it was so important.  Everything will be spoiled if Jimmy's not here when it begins."

            "They'll be here," Walker repeated patiently. "C.D. will make sure of that. And you called as soon as we knew when it was gonna be. Nothing has happened and Trivette will arrive with time to spare. It'll be great, so quit worrying!" Impulsively he drew the blonde into a gentle kiss and was pleased to feel her tension begin to melt away.

            When they separated once again, Alex looked at the bearded man solemnly for a minute and then suddenly giggled.

            Unable to resist, Walker asked, "What's so funny, lady?"

            Smiling broadly, Alex leaned in close and whispered, "Walker, are you okay? You kissed me right out here where anyone might see! I thought you had a tough guy reputation to maintain!"

                "I'd say it was worth the risk," he responded with a chuckle of his own. "Besides, it worked." Then the Ranger continued speaking as he placed his hands on the lovely ADA's shoulders and turned her gently to face the door once more. "And I told you everything would be fine. Take a look."

                As she glanced out the window, Alex could just see C.D. pulling his Jeep into a parking spot near the entrance. A moment later the elderly man and Trivette climbed out of the vehicle and headed toward the building.

            The blonde spun to face her companion again. "They're here! Oh, Walker, Jimmy is going to be so surprised! I can't wait to see his face when he hears!" Composing her face into what she hoped was an unreadable mask, Alex forced herself to calm down. Swatting Walker lightly on the arm, she went on, "Cordell Walker! Stop grinning! It'll spoil the surprise if Jimmy sees you like that!"

            "Yes, Ma'am," the Ranger agreed seriously as he made an exaggerated show of wiping the smile off his face. "Is this better?"

 

                             0                      0                    0

 

                The conversation was interrupted by the sound of the younger Ranger's voice as the door was pulled open. ". . telling you, C.D., I just don't know how you could have not asked Burgess where he wanted me to--" Trivette's words halted suddenly as he spotted the pair waiting inside. "Walker. Alex. What are you two doing here?" Without waiting for an answer he continued, "Scratch that. Burgess must have called you when he couldn't reach me at the ranch, right? I don't suppose either of you know where he is? I'm supposed to meet with him here and would you believe C.D. forgot to ask where?"

            Momentarily confused by Trivette's question, Alex shot a glance at C.D., who just lifted his eyebrows and shrugged. Deciding that the ex-Ranger must have used the lawyer as a ploy to get them to the courthouse, she thought fast and continued the charade. "He's out front, Jimmy. After Hank called C.D. he realized he'd forgotten to tell you where to find him. By the time he called back the two of you had already left. So he asked Walker and me to watch this entrance and said he'd watch the front, that way you wouldn't be looking everywhere trying to find him." Realizing that she was rambling and not wanting to give Trivette a chance to wonder why, Alex stopped herself and took a slow breath. Then she hooked her arm through his. "Come on, we'll walk with you."

                As they crossed the lobby, Jimmy turned to his partner. "You got any idea what this is about, anyway? Is there something I should know?"

            Walker fought to keep the smile off his face. He purposely kept his eyes on his partner, knowing if he looked at either C.D. or Alex he'd lose it. This was the moment they'd been anticipating for weeks. Hoping his voice wouldn't betray him, he said only, "If there is something, I don't know about it. We were just told to meet here."

            "Damn! I hate this--" By now they'd reached the front doors and Trivette turned to push open the nearest one. He froze, seeing the crowd of people outside. Not just any people. Reporters! "What the hell?" Looking back at his friends, he said, "I'm not going out there. They'll have a field day!"

            Walker and Alex exchanged glances. They'd known Trivette might react like this. The ADA, still linked arm in arm with him, brought her free hand up to pat him reassuringly as she looked him in the eyes. "Jimmy, don't worry! They won't even notice you. They're here for another case."

            He shot her a doubtful look. In exasperation, she said, "It'll be okay, Jimmy! Trust me! You yourself said not too long ago that I've never steered you wrong. I'm not about to now, either, okay?"

            Some of the anxiety melted away and he nodded. Besides, his friends were with him, if anything happened, they'd get him out of here before it got out of control. Taking a deep breath, he pushed through the door.

 

 

                Hal Webster glanced up from the file he was holding, surreptitiously checking his watch as he did so. Cahill had said she'd have Trivette here on the hour, but the attorney knew he'd have to start the conference soon, regardless. The reporters were already getting restless with waiting. Webster's tension eased as he glimpsed the ADA and her friends, including the black Ranger, just stepping out the main courthouse doors. Straightening up slightly, he turned to fully face the crowd of reporters assembled around him. "Ladies and gentlemen. I think we can begin now. I have an announcement to make, and then I'll be happy to answer any questions you care to pose."

            The State Prosecutor waited patiently until he was sure he held the full attention of the members of the press before beginning. "There's been a significant development in the case against Texas Ranger James Trivette...

                Trivette, standing on the steps above and behind the reporters, caught Webster's words and turned to give the blonde woman a startled look. "But you said-- Al, this is a really bad idea. I'm going back in--"

            He was even more surprised when Alex distractedly held up a hand to signal him to stop. "Shhh, Jimmy, I want to hear this."

            With her arm still looped firmly through his own, and Walker and C.D. standing close behind blocking an inconspicuous retreat, the younger Ranger sighed in resignation and focused his attention on the scene playing out on the lower steps.

            "Just a few hours ago," Webster was continuing, "through the cooperation of my office and the defense team, new evidence was obtained which indicated another possible suspect. Local law enforcement, acting on this information, brought the man in question in for an interview. During the course of the interview a voluntary confession was obtained. In light of this, Ranger Trivette has been cleared and all charges will be dropped."

            The assembled reporters went wild. Questions rang out quicker than Webster could form answers. But the small group standing behind them didn't notice, their attention locked on the man who'd stood so long in the eye of this storm.

            The black man turned to stare at his companions in stunned amazement. His friends wore broad smiles. For the first time, Trivette noticed Hank Burgess had joined them as well. The defense attorney shook his client's hand. "Congratulations, Jimmy!"

                Alex impulsively hugged her friend. "Oh, Jimmy... isn't it wonderful!"

            As soon as the blonde released Trivette, C.D. caught the younger man up in a gruff bear hug. "It's over, son. You're free and clear. And I'm mighty proud of the way you held up through all this."

            Walker clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Congratulations, pard!"

            Digging in his breast pocket, he pulled out a small item, which he carefully kept from his friend's eyes. Reaching out to Trivette, he smiled in satisfaction as he pinned a Ranger star in place. "Thought you might need this."

            "Cleared? It's over?" Trivette questioned in disbelief, still not quite able to process the news. "But how? What happened?"

            The three friends stood back, letting Hank Burgess field those questions.

            "It was Star herself, Jimmy. We were right about her knowing the truth and simply needing a way to be able to tell it. Sharon Collins has been working with her almost daily looking for the right approach. She found it with dolls. Star was able to use them to represent herself and other people around her, and finally showed Sharon what happened on the day she was raped.

            "The clincher came when she chose the doll that would represent the man that had assaulted her. Rather than pick the one that she used to represent you, Star chose another. A white male doll that she also called 'Jimmy'."

            "Another Jimmy?" the younger Ranger queried, shaking his head in confusion. "But I thought Keith and Molly said--"

            "Right," Burgess nodded. "They didn't know anything about the young man. Turns out he's the son of a woman who lives in the same building and had occasionally watched Star for them. The boy's name is Derek Mitchell, but his friends call him Deke. No one realized his middle name is James and that he was called Jimmy when he was a boy. That was why he was never even considered a possible suspect by the investigating team. It wasn't until they spoke with the mother this afternoon that they learned she sometimes still slips and calls him that. Apparently Star Blane met him as 'Jimmy' and that's the name she's associated with him." Burgess paused a moment, letting his client absorb the information.

            Trivette shook his head, still stunned. "So how did it happen?"

            Burgess proceeded to tell him what they'd been able to learn from the Mitchell’s, concluding with, "The boy confessed, Jimmy. There's no doubt about it. You're in the clear. All that stands to be done now is to go to the Preliminary Hearing tomorrow and have the charges against you formally dismissed."

            Further explanation was halted as the group was approached by several men, all wearing white Stetson hats. The first, reaching for Trivette's hand, spoke with a soft drawl, "Welcome back, Jim. Knew it was just a matter of time for they figured out they had the wrong man."

            Walker backed up a step, allowing their fellow Rangers to speak with his partner. A moment later C.D. and Alex joined him, all three watching with pleasure as Trivette's features slowly shifted from a mask that might have been carved of stone to the more animated expression that had been missing since the charges had been leveled against him.

            None of them noticed that the press conference had ended until Webster approached the group surrounding the now-smiling black man. "Ranger Trivette? I just wanted to tell you personally how pleased I am that Star's assailant has been apprehended and your name cleared. I'm only sorry that it took so long, and that you paid such a high price for that delay."

                Trivette hesitated only the barest of seconds before reaching out to clasp the prosecutor's hand firmly. "I appreciate that, Mr. Webster. Thank you."

                A single news anchor, keeping his crew focused on the prosecutor as a possible closing shot, suddenly realized who Webster was speaking with. "Damn! Don't lose that shot! That's him! That's Ranger Trivette!" the reporter yelled to his camera operator. Hustling up the steps with mike in hand, the man continued, "Ranger Trivette! Ranger Trivette! A few questions, please!" An instant later the other news crews followed, hearing the name and realizing their elusive subject was finally within reach.

                Hearing the approaching crowd, Trivette looked up, freezing mid-sentence as he automatically checked for  the nearest entrance. But before he could consider moving, the other Rangers quickly positioned themselves in a loose circle around their friend, keeping the press from pushing in any closer. The questions and demands for comments on this afternoon's events, however, they were powerless to prevent.

            Hank Burgess leaned close to his client and spoke in a low tone, "It would probably be a good idea if you gave them some sort of a statement, Jimmy. I'll handle it if you want." 

                The Ranger acknowledged the offer with a glance as he considered the options. He couldn't deny the strong temptation to let Burgess fend them off. After so many bad experiences, the notion of voluntarily facing reporters set his heart hammering. I'd take a shootout or five to one odds in hand to hand combat any day Damn. I'd rather volunteer to be a pincushion for testing needles. But the idea of backing away now that he'd been exonerated didn't sit well, either. At that moment the Ranger knew exactly what answer he had to give Burgess. "No. Thanks, but I think I need to do this myself," he told his defense attorney. "I've spent enough time ducking and running already." With a look of fresh determination, Trivette turned to the waiting representatives of the press and took a step forward.

            His movement brought a moment's expectant silence before one called out, "Ranger Trivette! Would you care to comment about the events of this afternoon?"

            The black man took a deep breath and held it, composing his response as he did so. When he slowly released the air a couple seconds later, he felt ready. "I just want to say how grateful I am that the truth has finally come to light and my name's been cleared." Pausing a moment to look at the protective group around him, he continued, "I'd also like to thank my friends for supporting me through all this. It's been tough these past few weeks but with the confession of the real attacker, it's time to put it in the past and get back to my life and my job. I only hope that time and the right kind of help will allow Miss Blane, and her family, to do the same." Raising his hand to forestall any further questions, he said, "Thanks, folks. But that's all for now."

Not giving them a chance to object, Trivette turned and headed for the doors. His friends moved with him, keeping up their protective circle. Once inside the building, he stopped, rubbing his temples.

Walker stared at him in concern. "You okay, pard?"

The black man nodded. "I'm fine. My head's just spinning a little, y'know?  Trying to take all this in. . ." He broke off as he realized Walker had shifted his gaze, staring at a point somewhere behind him. The red-bearded Ranger's face went stony, his hazel eyes narrowing to slits. Jimmy thought that if he listened hard enough he might almost hear a low growl. There were few people who brought Walker to this level of anger on sight. Intrigued, Trivette turned to see which deserving specimen had come through the doors.

            His breath caught as he recognized the guard who'd been responsible for putting him in the general population cell upon his arrest. Unbidden, his mind conjured up memories of the beating he'd suffered while Ames had stood by, laughing. His hands unconsciously curled into fists, until he caught the fearful expression on the other man's face. Sensing movement behind him, Trivette turned back in time to block Walker's path.

            "Let me go, Trivette," the older man rumbled, muscles tensed for action.

            "No, man.' Grabbing Walker's arms, Jimmy held tight. "Not like this. Not now. He's not worth it."

            That made Walker blink, and he focused on his partner. "How the hell can you say that, Trivette? After what he did--"

            Nodding in the guard's direction, Trivette hissed, "Look at him, Walker. He's not even worth the effort."

            Ranger Paul Shepard approached them. Shooting a disdainful look at the unmoving guard, he said, "I don't think he'll be trying anything like that again soon, Walker. Word got around fast about what had happened to Trivette. Me and the other guys have been layin' it on a bit thick, letting it be known what can happen to a fellow who gets on the wrong side of Cordell Walker. Ames has been spending a lot of time lately looking over his shoulder."

            Some of the tension left Walker. He still wanted to wipe the floor with Ames, but Shepard's description of the 'treatment' the errant guard had received helped. And Trivette had a point. Making a scene, here of all places, was poor timing. Nodding to where C.D. and Alex waited, he said, "Let's get out of here."

            Jimmy grinned. "Couldn't have said it better myself, pard."

            Shepard watched the two friends move off, before turning and approaching Ames. To the guard's credit, he held his ground. Shepard wasn't sure if the man was stupid or had maybe grown some balls along the way.

            "You got lucky this time, Ames," the blond Ranger hissed, getting in the man's face. "Be thankful Jimmy's not a vindictive kinda guy. Another target might not be so forgiving. Better think twice next time you decide to act as judge and jury."

            "I get the point, Ranger." Ames moved to step around the other man, lip curling in frustration as he found his way blocked yet again. "What?"

            "Trivette saved your puny ass by convincing Walker you weren't worth the effort. But if I were you, I'd watch my step for awhile, y'know? He's got a lot of friends with long memories." And with that, Shepard turned, rejoining the group still surrounding Trivette.

 

 

            C.D. looked up as Walker and Jimmy approached. "Surprised you, eh, son?" He smiled at Trivette.

            A slow grin stole across the black man's face. "Yeah, you sly old dog, you." Reaching out, he lightly punched his mentor's arm in a gesture of affection.

            His friends shared in the happy moment, glad to see the spark return to Trivette’s eyes. It was something they'd all missed recently.

            Alex grabbed his hand, squeezing tight. "Congratulations, Jimmy."

            He pulled her close, winking at Walker as he lightly kissed her on the cheek.

                "Thanks, Counselor."

            "What was that for?" she blushed.

            "Making me see sense in hiring an attorney. If it hadn't been for you, I'd still be looking at rotting in a jail cell instead of standing cleared." He looked at C.D. and Walker. "I meant what I said out there. I couldn't have made it through without you guys."

            "You've always been there for me," Walker said, shaking his partner's hand.

            "What the hell did you think we would do?" C.D. questioned. "Turn our backs and feed you to the wolves? No sirree. That's no way to treat a friend."

            At that moment, Trivette caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see Hank moving off down the hall to where Hal Webster stood beckoning. Curiosity nagged him for a moment, but his attention soon returned to his friends and fellow Rangers as they continued to extend congratulations as well.

            A moment later, Burgess re-joined the small group. Lightly touching Jimmy's arm to catch his attention, he pulled the Ranger aside.

            Walker watched, first with interest, then concern, as his partner stiffened away from the attorney, looking uncertain and torn. Now what? Hasn't he had enough already? He joined them. "Is there a problem?"

            Alex and C.D. caught the question and moved closer as well.

            Burgess looked at Trivette, indicating with a glance that the question was his to answer or not.

            "The Blanes are here," Jimmy explained woodenly. "Webster says they'd like to speak to me. In private."

            Not knowing what to say at first, Alex gently grabbed his arm, squeezing in silent support.

            C.D. cleared his throat. "Listen, Jimmy... I know these folks are friends of yours. Were. Whatever. But considering what they've put you through these last few weeks..." He shook his head. "Hell, son, no one would blame you if you didn't want to see them again in this lifetime."

            That gave Alex her opening. "C.D.'s right, Jimmy. There's no reason to put yourself through this -- at least not right now. Give yourself a little time. Or if you want us to talk to them, just say the word."

            The black man shook his head slowly. "No. I gotta do this, guys. Don't you see? lf I don't, I'll never have any peace about any of this." From somewhere he found the strength for a small, reassuring grin. "Wait here. I'll be back in a couple minutes."

 

 

                As Jimmy made his way to Webster's office, he tried to formulate what he would say to the Blanes. After all, it really hadn't been their fault. Their only daughter had been violently attacked, and then taken out of their home "for her own protection". He hadn't had contact with them since before all this started. More than once throughout all of this nightmare, he'd found himself missing their companionship. With a heavy sigh, he knew those days were now long gone. There was too much hurt tied in. Seeing the temporary office just ahead, the Ranger slowed his steps. He cursed softly, hating the feeling of uncertainty. After all, he'd done nothing wrong! Taking a deep breath, he stepped up to the door, turned the knob and entered the room.

 

0          0            0

 

                Molly stood with her back turned to the door, turning around as it opened. Keith sat in a chair by the desk, wringing his hands. He pushed to his feet, taking his wife's hand as Jimmy stepped inside.

Trivette swallowed hard as the events of the past several weeks flashed through his memory. All he had been through, all he had suffered, had stemmed from a simple act of kindness to these people. Gathering his wits about him, he finally said, "Keith … Molly."

"Jimmy." Keith half-raised his hand, as if to offer to shake hands with the Ranger, but quickly reconsidered. He looked at Molly, who stood watching both men, tears in her eyes. "We weren't even sure you'd come."

"I almost didn't," the other man admitted. "But I knew we needed to clear the air.

Might as well get it over with now." He held up his hand, forestalling what Keith had been about to say. "I know... I know that you were looking for justice for what had been done to Star. But the fact that you never even looked for someone else named Jimmy--" He broke off, trying to hold back the anger and grief that threatened to boil over. "That you believed I could hurt Star that way... I thought we were friends, Keith."

"Jimmy--" Molly Blane wiped a tear from her cheek, pulling away from her

husband to stand straight. "We know now that we should have trusted our judgment. But at the time we could only think of Star. And doing what was right for her."

Trivette paced over to the far window, glad Webster carried enough clout to have gotten an outside facing office. And glad for the desk behind him, separating him from the Blanes. He stared out at the sunny day, wrapping his arms tightly around his middle. Keeping his back turned to the couple, he said, "I know you were only looking out for Star, but can you appreciate what this has done to me?"

"I, .... . we heard about the beating, Jimmy," Keith said, shifting uncomfortably.

"Oh really?" Turning back to look at his former friends, Jimmy said, "And did you also know that when they arrested me, they took me from Walker's ranch? Handcuffed me in front of my partner and friends?" Unable to keep hold of his anger any longer, he said, "And I'll bet you didn't know that they threw me in the general population cell either? D'you know what prisoners do to men accused of raping little girls? Not to mention a cop?"

Molly stifled a gasp, hiccupping as it turned to a sob. Guilt and anger wore away Keith's control as he watched her cry. Slamming a hand on the back of the nearest chair, he said, "For Christ's sake, Jimmy, do you think we wanted to do this? You're one of the few folks who've ever treated Star with any kind of respect. But what the hell were we supposed to do? Our little girl was raped. And she said that 'Jimmy' had done it." Keith closed his eyes for a moment. "Dear God, don't you know that if we could turn back the clock we would?"

Trivette scrubbed his eyes wearily. The euphoria of the press conference was

gone, replaced by harsh reality. He decided to shift the topic of conversation slightly.

"How is Star? How's she coping with all this?"

            Molly pulled herself together enough to answer. "She's confused. Thinks that she's done something wrong and that's why she was taken away. And . .. she misses you. She's been asking about you."

"What have you told her?" Jimmy wondered.

"What could we tell her?" Keith returned bitterly. "Only that she'd been removed for her own protection. And that you weren't allowed to know her whereabouts and that's why she couldn't see you."

"Weren't allowed," the black man whispered hollowly. "My God--"

"We weren't even allowed much contact with her," Molly said, wiping tears from her cheeks. "They were afraid we'd 'taint' her memory of what happened."

"Where is she now?"

The Blanes exchanged smiles for the first time since Jimmy had entered the room. Keith answered, "She's on her way here. They're returning her to us today."

Swallowing hard, Molly said, "I'm sure she'd like to see you, Jimmy. If--"

Trivette blew out slowly between his lips. He couldn't deny he'd had a soft spot for Star from the first day he'd met the family. She'd been fascinated by his badge, and had spent much of the time as he waited with them for the tow truck to arrive talking about how it was shaped like her name, and so she knew he was going to be her friend.

He'd helped stranded people before, getting them safely on their way and moving on without a second thought. This family should have been the same. Until Star had pleaded with him to have supper with them at her favorite place, and then generously shared her French fries, something Keith had confided later was almost unheard of. Star loved McDonald's French fries. By the time they'd finished their meal, he'd also taken a strong liking to Star's parents and the link had been forged. Star had invited him to visit again, and he had.

Gradually over the ensuing months he'd been transformed by Star from 'Ranger Jimmy' to 'Uncle Jimmy', a title he admitted to himself he treasured. The ugliness of the rape charge had forced the family from his life, and though he knew in his head it wasn't Keith or Molly's fault how things had progressed he'd become certain that even vindication wouldn't allow the breach of trust and friendship to be mended.

But Star -- Star was a different thing entirely. She hadn't been responsible for any of this, an innocent victim in every sense of the word. Still a child in both mind and spirit, how could she possibly be made to understand all that had happened and why things were suddenly so changed? He sighed heavily, turning once more to the window as he tried to fathom the best course for Star. Should he walk away and never look back? Or stay and try to repair some of the damage for her sake?

The silence that had settled over the room was broken by Keith. Leaving his wife's side, he walked quietly up behind his one-time friend and lay a hand on the black man's shoulder. "Jimmy, I can't pretend to understand how terrible the last weeks have been for you. This has been a hell no one should have to face. And for ourselves... well... Molly and I would understand if you never wanted to hear from us ever again. But Star really loves you. You're her Uncle Jimmy and she's asked for you every day. We've seen that on the videos they've shown us of her therapy sessions, and we've heard it whenever we've been allowed to see her. Please don't just disappear on her."

The Ranger turned slowly, finally nodding. "Okay. If you and Molly are willing, I'll give it a try."

            Suddenly Molly gripped her husband's arm. "Keith! She's here!"

            As the two men listened, several sets of footsteps could clearly be heard approaching. The couple grabbed each others hands and moved toward the hallway. They'd almost reached the door when Molly stopped and turned back to the immobile Ranger.  "Jimmy? Aren't you coming, too?"

            "No. You guys go ahead," he answered, mustering a smile. "I'll wait in here,

give you some time alone together."

            Molly and Keith exchanged glances. Keith nodded at the Ranger. "Thanks,  Jimmy."

As the couple stepped into the corridor, Trivette turned to look out the window once more. Behind him he could hear the sounds of Star excitedly greeting her parents. Even through the door, which had slid shut behind the Blanes as they walked out, he caught snatches of the conversation as the girl checked again and again that she was truly going home at last.

Placing his palms on the windowsill, Jimmy leaned forward and peered into the street below, trying to halt his own second-guessing of the decision he'd just made. There was no doubt that spending time with Molly and Keith now would be uncomfortable for all three of them, harsh realities and hard words had stolen the relaxed friendship they'd once shared. Could they keep that change from Star long enough for her to begin to settle back into her home and family without further disruption? Then, perhaps, he could gradually drift away, giving them all a chance to carry on without old hurts staring them in the face every day. He'd miss Star, no doubt about that. But what choice do I have? I can't stand as a constant reminder of what happened, and I can't simply forget myself. It'll be better for everyone, including Star, when it can be put safely into the past.

His thoughts had grown distant and unfocused when he was brought sharply back to the present by the door behind him being flung wide.

"Uncle Jimmy!" Star shouted, launching herself across the room and into his arms almost before he was braced to catch her. "I missed you!"

            The black man grinned, unable to resist her enthusiasm, as he set Star back on her feet. "I missed you, too, kiddo. How ya doin'?"

            "I'm going home today, Uncle Jimmy! I spent a whole long time staying with some friends of mommy and daddy's and I only cried just a few times. Momma says that must mean I'm getting to be all grown up now! I thought I'd been bad, but they said no, I just needed to stay there for a while so I was brave. And I made a new friend. Her name is Sharon and she came to play with me almost every day and she's real nice. She's pretty, too. You should meet her cause I think you'd like her and we talked about you and --" Star stopped talking in midstream, looking around solemnly and then lowering her voice to a whisper, "Uncle Jimmy? Are you gonna get in trouble now?"

            Wrinkling his brow in confusion, the Ranger responded, "In trouble? Why would I get in trouble?"

            "Cause you're not supposed to see me. Why can't we be friends anymore?"

Jimmy blinked in surprise, then smiled softly at her. Trust Star to get right to the point.  "No, kiddo, I'm not going to get in trouble. I wasn't allowed to come visit because they made a mistake, but that's all fixed now," he explained simply. "We can still be friends, okay?"

Her answering smile tugged at his heart. Whatever happened with Keith and Molly, he knew he couldn't turn his back on Star.

"Okay, Uncle Jimmy!" She hugged him again, with all the enthusiasm of a five-year old.

"Oof!" Trivette couldn't help grunting as she squeezed tight on still-healing ribs.

Before he could protest, Keith burst through the door. "Star! Let Uncle Jimmy go, okay?"

The girl backed away, a confused expression crossing her face. Molly quickly came in and went to her daughter's side, putting an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close.

Oh shit! Jimmy reached out a hand. "Keith, it wasn't--"

The other man ignored him, directing his comments to Star. "You have to be careful with Uncle Jimmy for awhile, honey. He was hurt not long ago." To Jimmy he said, "I'm sorry. We forgot to warn Star to take it easy on you. 

Still somewhat stunned, Jimmy nodded.

Molly looked from her husband to Trivette. With a start, she realized the Ranger had misinterpreted Keith's actions at first. "Oh God... is it always going to be like this?"

Keith turned to look at Jimmy. "You thought.. . No, it wasn't like that at all, Jimmy! I swear--"

The black man nodded. "I know."

Deciding she'd had enough of their grown-up conversation, Star went over to Jimmy. "What happened, Uncle Jimmy? How'd you get hurt? I'm sorry if I made it worse." She frowned, saddened at that thought.

"Hey, it's okay," Jimmy said, tipping up her face so she looked him in the eyes again. "I got into a fight with some of the bad guys, but I'm gonna be fine. Just a few bumps and bruises."

"Oh! Ranger stuff." She nodded understanding, then doubt clouded her eyes. In a whisper, she said, "You sure? 'Cause I wouldn't want anything to happen to my Uncle Jimmy."

He grinned to reassure her. "Yeah, Star. I'm sure."

"Good!" Shifting mental gears in the way of the very young, she said, "Mommy and daddy said we could stop at McDonald's for supper. You wanna come?"

"Not tonight, hon," the Ranger returned. "I have some other friends waiting for me downstairs."

"Okay." Biting on her lower lip for a moment as she considered, the girl continued, "When will you come see me again? I'm going home, y'know!"

"I know." Trivette ruffled her hair affectionately. "Soon. I promise."

Molly reached out hesitantly for the Ranger's hand. "Call us, Jimmy?" she asked softly. "Please?" Looking at her husband, she nodded to the door then took Star's hand to lead her out of the room. "We'll wait outside."

Once the door closed behind them, Jimmy turned to Keith. "You sure you want me around? I mean, it'll just be a constant reminder--"

"Jimmy, you weren't the one responsible. If Molly and I had been thinking straight we'd have realized that from the start." Taking a deep breath, Keith said, "I know there's no way we can ever fully apologize for what happened. And I wouldn't blame you if you wanted nothing to do with us. But at least for Star's sake. 

"No . . . for all our sakes, Keith." Jimmy reached out to touch the other man's arm. "It'll probably never be the same. But maybe we can still salvage something. If we all try."

Blane nodded. "Thanks, Jimmy.

"I’ll give you a call after some of the dust settles, okay? I just. . . need some space for awhile, y'know? Try to put some of it behind me."

Keith watched the flash of pain flicker across his friend's features, knowing it had nothing to do with anything physical. And knowing also that he was indirectly responsible. Sadly, he agreed, "That's fine. Just don't leave it too long. Or Star will hunt you down." He smiled weakly.

Trivette snorted with amusement. "Oh God! We don't want that! She'd break my ribs all over again."

"Well, I'd better get going. Before she decides she's really hungry and starts chewing on the woodwork." Holding out his hand, Keith said, "Keep in touch, Jimmy."

The Ranger nodded as he returned the handshake. Watching as the other man left, he felt a weight lift from his shoulders. For the life of him he couldn't distinguish if it had to do with the Blanes leaving, the overall relief that he'd been cleared, or both.

 

 

Drawing a deep breath and releasing it slowly, he stepped out into the hall,

pulling the office door shut behind him. In a way, he was also closing a chapter of his      life as well. Head held high for the first time in weeks, he strode off toward the

elevators.

                Rounding the first corner, Trivette found Walker leaning against the wall waiting for him. Why am I not surprised? He kept his smile to himself.

                The older Ranger fell into step at his partner's side. "You okay?" he queried softly.

                     "Yeah," the black man nodded. "Or at least I'm getting there."

                Slinging a casual arm around his friend's shoulders and squeezing, Walker said, "What d'you say we get the hell out of here? For real, this time."

                Jimmy laughed. "You're on."

 

 

                     Slipping the key into the lock, Trivette turned it then twisted the knob and opened the door wide. Walking into his apartment for the first time in weeks somehow felt different than he'd expected. Glancing around warily, he finally pinned down the reason. The apartment bore no signs of dust or disuse. The air was relatively fresh and the plants still green and thriving.

"One of us came by 'bout every day, son," C.D. explained as he entered as well. "Looked after things and kept your place ready for ya to come home. Hope you don't mind."

"No. No, of course I don't mind," the younger man finally managed, turning to his friend. "I just. . .1 just didn't expect it. You guys have really been great, y'know?" Swallowing a sudden lump in his throat, the black Ranger looked around again and then reached to push the door closed, stopping as another thought occurred to him. "Big Dog? Where's Alex and Walker? I thought they were coming right behind us?"

The elderly man's answer was halted by the sound of Alex's laughter. "We are right behind you, Jimmy," she said as she came into the apartment. "C.D. and I realized that we'd thrown out most of the food in your refrigerator because it was spoiling. We called ahead for take-out, so Walker and I stopped to pick it up. Hope you don't mind Chinese."

Shaking his head with an amazed grin, he reached to take the packages Alex carried. "You guys thought of everything!"

"Well, not quite," Walker admitted, stepping through the door with his own armload. "We forgot the champagne!"

"No big deal," Jimmy said, waving his hand. "I've got wine. That's good enough."

C.D. and Alex set the table while Jimmy retrieved the wine and Walker opened the cartons of food. Soon the four friends sat down to enjoy their meal together.

C.D. cleared his throat to get their attention. "Before we start, I'd like to propose a toast." Making sure everyone had a full glass, he lifted his in Jimmy's direction. "To Jimmy, whose innocence was never in question to those gathered here. Welcome home, son!"

"Uh.. thanks." The Ranger found himself grateful his coloring hid most of his blush. He found he had to clear his own throat before he could continue. "I really don't know how I'd have made it through this without all of you. You guys are incredible." Raising his glass, he said, "To the best friends a man could ever want."

"It takes one to know one," Walker responded, catching and holding his partner's gaze as they touched glasses. "And welcome home."

"Hear, hear." Alex smiled as she also tipped her glass in toast.

"Well, I reckon that's about as much sentimentality as an old man like me can handle in one sitting," C.D. said. He placed his glass on the table and grabbed his chopsticks. "How d'ya expect an old man like me to eat with these, anyway?"

The friends laughed, then Alex reached over, positioning his hands. "Try this C.D."

 

 

 

Jimmy pushed his plate away before leaning back in his chair and resting his hands on his stomach. "My God, I think I'm gonna burst. That was great food."

C.D. smiled in understanding. "Nothing like freedom to improve the appetite, eh, Jimmy?"

The younger man nodded. "That's for sure, Big Dog."

Alex rose to her feet, taking Jimmy's plate and stacking it on top of hers. C.D. joined her, removing Cordell's plate, as the man lifted his chopsticks to his mouth.

"Hey! I wasn't done with that!" he protested.

Jimmy snickered as C.D. grinned, responding, "You are now, aren't ya?"

Alex tried desperately to hide her amusement, succeeding until Walker crossed his arms over his chest. A bubble of laughter escaped, earning her a glare. Shrugging helplessly, she said, "I'm sorry, Walker. But now you know how Jimmy feels when you  do it to him!"

"Yeah!" the younger man echoed, nodding emphatically. "Turnabout's fair play,

Walker grinned in spite of himself. The unforced banter felt so good.

Noticing that Alex and C.D. had continued to clear the table, Jimmy protested, "Hey, you guys don't have to do that! I'll get it later."

Turning from the sink, C.D. snapped, "You'll do no such thing! Whoever heard of a man clearing away his own welcome home dinner? Tarnation... "

"C'mon, Trivette," Walker nodded his head toward the living room. "I think that's our cue to beat it."

"I don't need to be told twice!" Grinning, the younger man pushed to his feet.

"Wait just a minute!" Alex shook a chopstick at Walker. "Who excused you?"

"Me? But..." How does she always manage to do this to me? Giving up the battle as lost, the bearded man stood and picked up the four now-empty glasses. As he turned toward the kitchen, he grabbed the wine as an afterthought. He hadn't taken two steps when he lost his precarious grip on the bottle and it slipped from his fingers. Walker barely managed to keep from dropping the crystal glasses as he jumped back to avoid the last drops of wine that spilled out onto the tiled floor. Frustrated, he muttered, "Dangit!"

"Walker! You're completely useless sometimes, y'know that?" Alex scolded, reaching for the delicate crystal. "Get out of here before you either break something important or make an even bigger mess for us to clean up!"

"Right," the Ranger returned with a relieved sigh as he headed quickly into the living room.

"You did that on purpose, man!" Trivette chuckled, following him.

"Trivette--" Walker said in warning, waiting until they'd reached the safety of the next room before cracking a small grin. He watched as the younger man headed for the stereo, turning on the power and inserting a CD. As he recognized the Eagles, Walker relaxed. At least it was something he could tolerate.

"Oh, man," Trivette sighed, flopping into his favorite recliner and extending it fully. He closed his eyes, savoring the familiarity. "It's damned good to be home."

Walker sat on the sofa and watched his friend. He could almost see some of the tension of the past few weeks melt away.

Belatedly realizing how that could've been interpreted, Jimmy's eyes snapped open and he focused on his partner. "Not that the ranch isn't great, Walker. But... It's just that--"

Fighting to keep a straight face, the older man said, "I have to admit, it's gonna be nice to have things back to normal again. No wet towels on the bathroom floor. No dirty cups left in the living room. I can work out when I want..

"Hey!" Trivette brought the chair upright, staring at his partner in disbelief. "I wasn't that bad, was I?"

"No," Walker admitted, laughing. "I couldn't have asked for a better houseguest, buddy. Most of the time I didn't even know you were around."

Grimacing, the black man said, "Guess my social skills left a bit to be desired, huh?"

His partner shrugged. "I think I'd have done the same thing in your position."

Trivette leaned forward, staring at his hands as he rubbed them together. "I wish I had some way to thank you, Walker. You went above and beyond the call, man."

Pushing to his feet, Walker paced over to the window. "You'd have done the same for me if the tables were turned. I know that." Taking a deep breath, he considered his next words carefully. "It's not about looking for thanks, Jim. It's about being friends. And friends don't keep score. You had a need and I was able to help out. I'm glad I could be there for you." He turned back, meeting Trivette's gaze briefly.

Jimmy found himself speechless. The use of his first name, combined with the rare level of openness, went a long way toward soothing his battered spirits.

"Cordell!" C.D.'s bellow broke the moment.

Blinking as the voice registered, Walker moved to see what the older man wanted. "What is it, C.D.?"

"Do us all a favor and take this trash out to the dumpster, son. Otherwise this place is gonna stink for days." The ex-Ranger shoved a bag toward Walker.

Deciding that the task was easier than the argument, the red-haired man took the bag and headed for the door, muttering, "One of these days he's gonna push too far--"

"What was that, Cordell?" C.D. moved amazingly swiftly to the door. "Did you say somethin'?"

Quickly improvising, Walker said, "Yeah. Just make sure you leave the door ajar. Wouldn't want to be locked out."

When he returned a few minutes later, he found C.D. rinsing the dishcloth and Alex putting away the last of the dishes. Heading back into the living room, he looked at his partner and stopped in his tracks. "Well, I'll be...

"What?" Alex queried, walking over to join him.

Walker raised a finger to his lips, silencing her, then pointing to the easy chair.

"Oh, Walker," she whispered, lightly grabbing his arm. "Poor Jimmy!"

C.D. came up behind her. "The boy's just plain wiped out. No surprise, when you consider everything he's been through."

Nodding, Walker strode over to the sofa, grabbing the knitted afghan from the back and shaking it out. He covered his partner, then moved to turn the music down a bit, just enough to soothe but not disturb.

The three friends then headed to the door. Alex left last. As she snapped off the overhead light, she peered across the darkened room. "Sweet dreams, Jimmy. You deserve them."

She pulled the door shut as quietly as possible, making sure it was locked before joining the two waiting men, lacing her arm through Walker's.

Once more they'd survived being under fire by closing ranks.