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"Going Home" by Sue

The mid morning air was already hot. No doubt about it,it was going to be another August scorcher. Already, Wyoming had broken the record for the hottest summer in 100 years.As the horses complained in their stalls, two men stood talking by an empty water trough. The older man's blond hair was bleached nearly white by years of working in the sun, his face grooved with wrinkles. Though he looked all of his 65 years, he didn't act it. He still put in 10 to 12 hour days on his brother's ranch after he'd sold his own. He sighed and took off his hat, wiping his brow.

"Aren't you supposed to be leavin now?" Pete Baker asked the younger man next to him.

"I'm not sure I should go. You sure you can handle everything?"

"Jonny, I told you, Wes an I'll be fine." he grinned at his nephew.

"I dunno. You think I'm doing the right thing?" he raked his hand through his blond hair, his blue eyes squinting against the sun.

"Don't matter what I think." Pete said, hefting a bucket of water up and pouring it into the trough. "What's it saying in here?" he pounded his chest.

Jon Baker sighed and grinned. "Its telling me to go."

"Listen to your heart'll never steer you wrong."

"All right I'm going." he turned to leave.

"Hey Jonny, you been thinkin about what we talked about?" Pete called.

"No Uncle Pete. I belong here now. I've put the Patrol behind me."

As his nephew walked away, Pete shook his head. He knew Jon was lying to himself. Jon belonged on the patrol. But Jonny was as stubborn as his dad and uncle. Take this woman he was going to see. Any fool could see how much Jonny cared for her. It was in his voice, his eyes. Any fool that is, but Jonny himself. Pete sighed and went back to work.

Meanwhile, Jon pulled out of the ranch and headed for the interstate. This is crazy, he thought. It had all started a week ago. He'd called Ponch, his old partner from the patrol. Though Jon has been gone for a little over a year, they'd remained as close as calls and letters could keep them. Jon asked about Getraer, Grossie, Bonnie, Ponch's "old" partner, Bobby Nelson, his latest partner, Bruce, and the rest of the old crew. When he'd asked about Meg, Ponch told him she'd gone on vacation- back to Cedar Falls, Colorado. Meg had come to the patrol just 2 months before he'd left. They'd become close friends. Then all hell had broken loose in Jon's life. They'd stayed in touch, calling and writing. She'd sent him a Christmas package, he'd sent her flowers on her birthday, things like that. Hearing she was just a 4 hour drive away, he'd had an overwhelming need to see her. He'd lied to his Uncle. He hadn't put the patrol behind him by a long shot. As he turned onto the interstate, his eyes fell on a Wyoming State Police motor officer riding ahead of him. An ache welled up inside him. He sighed. 34 years old, and I feel absolutely lost.

* * * * *

Meg Locke was crying. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she hugged her aching ribs.

"Oh stop're too much!" she begged, laughing.

She was sitting in a tiny coffee shop, a glass of orange juice and half eaten muffin in front of her. Sandy, the shops owner, was filling her in on all the Fall's gossip, complete with imitations of all the towns characters.

"I dare say I'm surprised at you Megan Locke!" the older woman said, switching an old battered radio on.

"Me? Why?"

"Well, being a city girl now, we all thought you'd a change on us."

"Sandy, you know better than that." Meg grinned.

"Well it's about time you got back here for a visit. After you sent word you'd a signed on permanently, we'd thought we'd never see you again. Broke Steve Corrigan's heart, I tell ya."

"Oh Sandy, get out!" Meg laughed.

"Girl, I been around long enough to know when a man's hung up." she shook her dishrag at her.

Meg finished her breakfast and stood up. Reaching into her jeans, she pulled out 3 crumpled singles. As she handed them to Sandy, the older woman slaped her hand away with the rag.

"You know better an that." she scolded.

Meg sighed and stuffed the money back in her pocket. Sandy had been her mother's best friend. She refused to let Meg pay for anything.

"I'll be back later." Meg left with a smile. It was good to be home. Though she'd been gone nearly two years, things hadn't changed. She stepped out into the sunny town square. To the right was Hayden's Feed Store and Mike's Hardware. To the left, The library, bank, and fire station. Across the street, in the shade of a grove of tall pines, lay Father Duggan's church, Wilson's General Store, and the town medical clinic.Down at the foot of the street lay the Cedar Falls Highway Patrol station. The rode veered left past the station, where it led to the interstate and the new Wal-Mart. Meg crossed the street and toward a path the led behind the church. She paused to pluck a handful of roses off the vines that grew wild around the church. Meg follwed the path until it opened up to a wide clearing on a small hill. From here. you could glimpse the snowy peaks of the Rockies . She opened the gate surrounding a small cemetery and walked in, stopping at a weathered gray gravestone:

Emily Anne Locke
Beloved Wife and Mother
April 4, 1932- June 23, 1962

She placed some of the roses on her mother's grave and walked further. She stopped at a newer stone, the granite still shiny:

Joseph Robert McQuaid
Beloved Son and Brother
January 24, 1954- August 15, 1982

The Colorado Highway Patrol shield was etched into one corner, a pair of praying hands in the other. Meg laid the rest of the roses on the stone. She and Joe were to have been married, until he was killed in the line of duty. Meg would always love him, but she'd finally moved on. She was happy again. But she'd always miss Joe, and cherished her memories.

Meg left the cemetery and went over to Wilson's She picked up a few groceries and headed for home. "Home" was a small cottage 4 acres just outside of town. Actually "outside of town" was just a 15 minute walk. As she walked in the door, her phone was ringing. It was Sergeant Lahey, Meg's old sergeant.

"Meg! You've been in town a week and you still haven't come to see us! We want to hear all about the big city Patrol. "

Meg laughed. "All right, I'm on my way."

When she got there, Sarge was waiting for her, along with Officers Steve Corrigan, Doug Rahaul, Monica Hallston &Tommy Southerland. They were Meg's old "gang."

After greeting her friends, Meg joined them in the station's briefing room.

"So Meg, tell us. What's life like in the big city?"

"Guys, I never thought I'd being saying this, but it's been great. I work with the greatest bunch of people." she gushed.

"Meg, meet anyone special?" Monica asked with a wink.

Meg and Monica had been best friends. Monica was sassy and bold, a complete opposite to Meg's quiet nature. They even looked like complete opposites, Meg had a medium length, soft auburn bob, while Monica's shoulder length hair was bleached blonde.

Meg grinned. "No Monica, I'm not seeing anyone."

"Meg," Steve asked, "what made you sign on permanently?"

"It just felt right-don't get me wrong guys, my heart will always be in Cedar Falls, but the Patrol is where I belong now."

Lahey smiled." Well it's certainly agreein with ya. Tell us more."

Meg told them all about Central. About Getraer and Ponch, Bonnie and Grossie, Harlan and Baricza. She told them about her life in California.

"Meg, wait a sec," Monica interrupted," what about that guy Jon, I think his name was.What hap- pened to him? You used to mention him in your letters all the time."

Meg's voice grew soft. "He left the Patrol a little over a year ago. His father got sick, so he had to go take over the family ranch up in Wyoming."

"Don't you guys stay in touch?" Tommy asked.

"Sure we do. But I haven't heard from him since his dad died a few months ago."

Doug, the station's mechanic, asked a question about the CHP's motors and the subject was forgotten.

When Meg finally got up to leave, two hours had past.

"It was great to see you guys, " she smiled. "I'll try and stop by again before I leave."

"See that you do," Lahey said with a grin.

As Meg stepped out into the sunny afternoon, she thought she caught a glimpse of a blue pickup disappearing up the road toward her cottage. She shrugged. It was probably just a bird or something.

"Meggie!' Sandy called, waving her ever present dishrag, "Meggie, you've got a visitor!"

Meg picked up her pace as she headed up the road. When she came across the blue pickup sitting in her drive, she began to run.

Jon sat down on the steps and tried to calm his nervous stomach. He thought about the town he'd just entered. It was like going back in time. He loved it. He took a deep breath. The air was filled with the scents of pine, hay, and wildflowers.

Meg's eyes widened as they fell on the man waiting for her.

"Jon? What on earth-" she ran to him, laughing.

Jon stood up as she came to him, pulling her into a hug.

"Ponch told me you were here on vacation. I had to see you."

Meg's eyes were shining. "Its about time! God I've missed you! How have you been?"

Jon smiled. "I missed you too. I miss everyone."

Her smile faded as they walked inside. "I'm so sorry about your dad."

"Thanks. He's in a better place now. It helps to know he's not suffering anymore."

"Can I get you something? How long can you stay?"

"Something cold, if thats okay. I thought I'd stay a day or two."

Meg handed him a glass of lemonade. "Great. I'm here for another few days."

They walked out to the back porch.

"I like your hair." he said, sitting down next to her on the porch swing.

"Thanks. I decided it was time for a change." Meg replied. She'd once had shoulder length hair.

"So, " she said, "What's on your mind?"


"Jon, " she said softly, " I'm so glad to see you, but I know you didn't come all the way dow here just to see my hair."

Jon set his glass down. "Meg, I-I don't even know where to start."

"Well, the beginning is usually a good place." Meg replied with a smile.

Jon sighed, standing up. He shoved his hands in his jeans pockets.

"Uncle Pete thinks I should go back to the patrol."

"And you think?" Meg asked.

"I told him no. I said I'd put the Patrol behind me. Said the ranch was where I belonged now."

"You were lying, weren't you?" Meg asked softly.

"Got that right. How can I possibly put six of the best years of my life behind me?"

Meg stood up and walked to the railing. She started plucking dead blooms off a geranium plant.

"Jon, if you want to be a patrolman again-"

"Thats just it! What I want doesn't matter. The ranch needs me." he exploded.

"If your uncle thinks you should go back to California, he must have things under control."

"He and Wes are running things. And we hired some help."

Meg was silent a minute. She had just figured out what was really bothering Jon.

"So you're not needed anymore, yet you feel guilty whenever you think of leaving." Meg said quietly, waiting for his reaction. His face told her she was right.

"Jon, I can't tell you what to do. All I can say is that you've done what you needed to do for your family. I think your Uncle is trying to tell you is it's time to do what you need to do for yourself. It's not selfish to want to be happy."

"Why did you ever leave here?" Jon asked,gazing into the evening sky. Streaks of pink and purple were all that was left of the sun.

Meg sighed. "I followed the road my heart set in front of me. It lead to Central." she smiled. "Jon, you need to figure out where your road leads. Only then will you be happy."

Jon turned to her. "Don't you ever feel as if-"

"As if I've turned my back on my roots? No. Jon, I love it here, and I always will. Cedar Falls will always be a part of who I am, no matter where I am. My mother always said that no matter how far you are, home will always be close as your heart."

He smiled, taking her hand. " It's just that when I was on the patrol, I always wanted to go back home, and now that I'm there, something keeps tugging me back to California."

Meg touched his cheek. "I wish I had all the answers Jon. I don't. You do. Just give yourself the chance to find them."

They stood together silently, watching the first stars come out, hand in hand.

"Meg, " Jon spoke suddenly, "I'm glad I drove down here."

"So am I, " Meg said, " I really missed you. We all have."

Jon laughed, sitting back down on the porch swing. " I heard about Ponch's luck with partners."

Meg rolled her eyes. "Poor Ponch. Bobby Nelson nearly got both of them killed more than once. You heard his nickname?"

Jon nodded, smiling. "Hotdog."

"Yep, "Meg went on," and when he complained to Sarge, Sarge told him he'd driven you just as crazy! Ponch looked so shocked!"

Jon was laughing. "He was ah..eager."

If Jon had a dime for every time he'd covered for Ponch's rookie antics, he'd be a rich man. He had to admit, Ponch had also been responsible for some righteous busts, but more often than not he'd gotten himself towed back to Central after a run in with a glue spill, onion truck, or oil slick, just to name a few. And then there was Mrs. Downy....and Madame Butterball.....

Jon stopped his revelry abruptly. He closed his eyes and remembered the feel of a motor beneath him, the wind in his face, the sounds..the sun...a sudden peace came over him.

"Jon?" Meg's voice roused him.

"Just daydreaming.", he said grinning.

"You hungry? C'mon, lets dig up something to eat."

Later, over cold chicken and iced tea, Jon asked, "When did you say you were leaving?"

Meg swallowed. "Saturday. That gives me 2 more days here, and a day back home to get back into the old routine." she grinned.

He nodded. " I was planning to leave Friday, anyway."

After they ate, Meg brought out some sheets and a light coverlet and made up the old overstuffed couch.

"I hope you'll be comfortable enough."

"I'll be fine." he smiled.

"All right, then I guess I'll say goodnight. Help yourself to everything, and if you need something, just wake me. Good night."

"Night." he said, watching her walk to her room and close the door. He yanked his boots off, carefully folded his shirt and jeans and put them on a chair, pulled on some pajama bottoms and curled up on the couch. Within minutes he was asleep.

The small cottage was silent, except for the sounds of the night. A hooting owl, a light breeze, and the songs of the crickets.

The sound of footsteps and the crunch of gravel woke Jon suddenly. A beam of yellow light cut through the darkness. Jon watched through the thin curtains as the beam danced over his truck, then headed toward the back. He was up in a flash. He whirled around as a door opened. Meg appeared in the darkness, wearing a short nightshirt, and an annoyed expression.

"You have a visitor." Jon whispered.

" I know. And I don't appreciate it." She walked to the door and flung it open angrily.

"Steve, what the hell are you doing?"

A man in a Colorado Highway Patrol uniform appeared in the doorway. Jon relaxed.

"Sorry Meg. Saw the truck in the drive. Didn't recognize it and got suspicious."

"The truck belongs to me." Jon spoke up.

Steve's eyes narrowed. "And you are?"

"Steve, this is Jon Baker. We used to be on the Patrol together. He's visiting for a few days." Meg explained, arms folded across her chest.

"Welcome to Cedar Falls." Steve said shortly. He turned to Meg. "You okay?"

"As well as I can be at 3:30 in the morning." Meg replied, "Steve, I appreciate your concern, but everythings okay. Good night."

Meg waited til the cruiser pulled away, then closed the door with a sigh. "Sorry about that."

"Just doing his job, I guess." Jon said with a smile.

Meg laughed.

"What?" Jon asked with a smile.

Meg sighed. "Steve's alway's been um..a bit overeager when it comes to his job. I can't believe he showed up here tonight. "

"Maybe he's sweet on you." Jon suggested, grinning

"Oh, I don't think so!" Meg said, laughing.

She turned toward the kitchen. "I'll make us some hot cocoa so we can get back-"

Jon took her hand and pulled her back to him.

"Meg I...I think I am." Before she could say anything, he kissed her gently. Meg began to respond, then suddenly pushed him away.

"I'm sorry, " he began. "Meg, I-"

"No, no, its not you. I'm sorry. You didn't do anything wrong. It's me. I- I haven't felt anything like this since Joe..and I've never wanted anything so much. I'm scared."

Jon came up behind her and slid his arms around around her waist.

"Meg, you know I'd never hurt you. I've never quite felt anything like this before. I never had the nerve to say anything, or to even admit it to myself, til now. But I..Meg, you're the best thing that's come into my life in a long time. Leaving you behind hurt worse than anything."

Meg turned to face him. Slipping her arms around him, she breathed in his warm spicy scent. Then she reached up and kissed him.

* * * * *

The next morning dawned bright and shiny. Meg was awakened by the smell of bacon cooking. Yawning, she swung her legs over the side of her bed and glanced at the old fashioned alarm clock on the night table. 9:12. She stretched as she stood up. Slowly she padded out to the kitchen. She found Jon standing over the stove, wearing a blue bathrobe. His pillow and blankets were stacked neatly on the couch. "Morning," she said with a smile, "smells delicious."

Jon grinned. "Morning. I got the recipe from a little old lady I met back in L.A."

Meg's stomach grumbled as he set a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon in front of her.

"Do you always cook for your hosts?" she asked, taking a bite.

"Only the special ones." he smiled.

"Sleep well?" Meg asked, taking a sip of orange juice.

"Very. " he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down beside her with his own plate.

"So tell me, how are things back home?" he asked.

Meg smiled. "Not boring, that's for sure. Sarge is doing well. He's not too crazy about Bobby, but they haven't killed each other yet, so..." Jon laughed.

"Grossie..well he's still Grossie. Still writing for Highway Patrolman. I think his last feature was called 'Technology and the Patrol: Riding into the Future'. "

"Sounds pretty deep." Jon replied.

"It was. But it wasn't half bad. Let's see... Well Ponch is happier these days. They assigned him to be Bruce's TO. They got along pretty well, but 2 months after he got off probation, he decided to go back to Europe and compete in one last World Motorcross Championship. No word when he'll be back. So Ponch is riding solo these days, and he loves it. I think deep down inside he's still waiting for you to come back."

Jon nodded. "Yeah." he said softly. Meg laughed. "He does have his hands full though. Those Explorer Scouts are something else."

"Yeah, Ponch told me. Do you guys really call them the Brat Patrol?" he laughed.

She shook her head, smiling. "No. That was the old bunch. But they actually turned out pretty well. He's got a new 'class' now. Six kids from ages 10 to 16. Great bunch actually."

"Are you Co-Advisor?" Jon asked.

"Oh, no, nothing like that. I sit in on the meetings now and then. Occasionally I give Ponch a hand." she grinned. "I did agree to help him out on the annual camping trip, though. Sounded like fun."

Jon laughed. "The old advisor use to try to rope me into that every year. I was always busy though. You sure you can handle a week alone in the woods?"

"Oh sure. I used to be a volunteer guide in the park. And the kids are terrific."

He grinned. " I wasn't referring to the kids. I was talking about Ponch."

Meg laughed. "I know. They still haven't stopped talking about last years trip. But I'm willing to give Ponch another chance."

Jon chuckled. "If you say so."

"Jon, the man practically got on his knees and begged." she laughed. "how could I say no?"

He laughed, carrying the dishes to the sink. "So tell me more about the kids."

"Okay. Curtis is 16. He's the oldest, goes to West L.A High. Smart kid. He's got good parents, but he lives in a rough neighborhood. His mom got him involved in the Explorers to keep him off the streets. Abby is 15. Sweet girl. Boy crazy, but what girl isn't at that age? She's at West L.A High too. Plays the guitar beautifully. Edwin is 13. He's crazy into computers and cars. Loves hanging out with Harlan. He's at Pinecrest Junior High. Camile is 12. She's what they used to call a flower child. Claims she was born 20 years too late. Camile is determined to save the whales, the trees, and everything else. Incredibly bright girl. Mark is 14. Unlike the other kids, he comes from a very well off family. He's a jock. Baseball, Basketball, Football, you name it, he's into it. And then there's Kellie Anne. She's 10. Great kid. She's quiet, shy, very creative. She's always drawing or writing stories.Loves the Explorers. She's just a sweetheart. " Meg's voice trailed off.

"Sounds like an interesting group." Jon replied with a smile.

"Yeah, " Meg said getting up, "c'mon, I'll show you how the shower works."

* * ** *

By noon, Meg and Jon were enjoying the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park. They were lying on a blanket at the edge of an alpine meadow, near a gurgling stream. The soft blue sky stretched out above them, the lush green meadow, dotted with late summer wildflowers lay before them. A picnic basket sat nearby, filled with cold fried chicken, potato salad, apple pie, and a thermos of lemonade. Jon was stretched out, arms behind his head, gazing at the sky. A warm breeze ruffled his hair.

"Penny for your thoughts." Meg said softly.

"Oh, I just thinking about yesterday. What we talked about."

"Have you made a decison? About returning to the patrol?"

"I just...I don't know. I need to talk to Uncle Pete."

Meg nodded. She turned and lifted her face to the sun, her eyes closed. She sighed.

"Hey," Jon said gently, "why do I get the feeling I'm not the only one with something on my mind?"

Meg opened her eyes and looked at him. "Cause you're not."

Jon nodded. "Something's been bothering you since this morning." he pulled her against him. "Meg, what's wrong?"

Meg sighed again. "It's Kellie Anne."

"The girl from Ponch's Explorer troup?" Jon asked.

"Yeah. Jon, her mother died when she was 4. She lives with her dad. He's an alcoholic. Her school has reported seeing bruises on her. So far her father has managed to elude charges. God, it's like looking into a mirror."

"What do you mean?" "My mother died when I was just a kid. I was eight years old. Dad..well Dad wasn't around much, and when he was he was either drunk or passed out. I tried to be Little Miss Perfection. I got good grades, stayed out of trouble, took care of the house. On the outside I was happy, but on the inside I was dying. Nothing I did made any difference to dad. All he cared about was the booze. He never went to a single parent conference at school. He missed ever awards banquet, every special event. He never showed up for high school or college graduation, or for my Academy graduation. Jon, you can't begin to understand what its like. I look at Kellie and I know exactly how she feels. She scared, alone, and hurting. Kids who have alcoholic parents are conditioned not to tell. It took a lot of guts for her to talk to me. One of these days Social Services is going to make those charges stick, and Kellie will end up in the foster care system. We both know thats not much better. God, I look at her and feel completely helpless. I want to help her Jon, but I don't know what to do."

Jon held her, kissing her hair. "I hate what you've been through, Meg. I wish I'd been around back then."

Meg hugged him.

"I hate what Kellie is going through too, but she's got you. "

Meg smiled. " I was lucky. I had Sandy. Without her I don't know where I'd be. She was mom's best friend. They grew up together. After mom died, Sandy sort of took over. She was always there for me. She protected me from dad's drunken rages."

"Looks like you're returning the favor for Kellie."

Meg sighed. "Yes, but am I doing enough?"

"Well," Jon asked, "Have you thought of making your own report to Social Services? Chances are they'd consider making you her guardian."

"Oh have I, "Meg told him, "but I'm just not sure."

Jon smiled. "Kellie is lucky to have you in her life."

Meg grinned. "She'd love to meet you. She's just crazy about horses. I told her all about Old Gray."

" that case, I guess I'll have to introduce the two of them sometime."

Jon smiled and touched her cheek. "Hey, what is it you and Uncle Pete are fond of saying? Follow your heart, Meg. It will tell you what to do."

"It looks like both of us have decisons to make."

"I don't know about that. I think I just made mine." Jon said softly.

"What?" Meg exclaimed, pulling away to look at him, "but you were just saying-"

He laughed. "I know, but a guy's entitled to change his mind, right? I've still got to talk to Uncle Pete, and give Getraer a call, but if he'll have me, I'd like to come back."

"Are you kidding? You'll have Sarge dancing around the station! He'll do anything he can to get you back. And Ponch! Ponch will be thrilled!"

"And you?" Jon asked softly.

"Me? You know how much I've missed you. When you left I felt like I'd lost my best friend."

Jon smiled.

"So, what made the decision for you? You seemed so torn before."

"I's the famous Baker stubbornness I guess. I didn't want to admit to myself that I wasn't needed anymore. Uncle Pete's got Wes, and my cousins Matt and Rob. That's more than enough help. I didn't go back home so much to help out on the ranch as just to be with dad. Now that he's gone...." his voice trailed off.

"It sort of hurt when your uncle told you he thought you should go back to the patrol, didn't it?"

He nodded. "Yeah, guess it did. Stupid, huh?"

"No, not at all. But it sounds like Uncle Pete just wants his nephew to be happy." she smiled.

Jon grinned. "It's gonna feel great being on a motor again."

"It'll be good to see you back in tan."

Jon laughed. "I'll give Sarge a call as soon as I get back."

* * * *

When they walked in the door that evening, the phone was ringing. Meg dropped the picnic basket on the coffee table and reached for it.

"Hello? Yes he is. Just a minute." Meg handed the phone to Jon, "It's for you."

"Thanks, " he said , taking it,"I left your number with Wes."

"Hello? Hey Wes." his face turned ashen as he listened. "Is everyone okay? You sure? I'm on my way." He hung up the phone and sat down heavily, head in his hands.

"Jon, what happened? What's wrong?" Meg asked softly.

"The ranch. There's been a fire. We lost a lot of horses."

"Oh Jon..I'm so sorry..was anyone hurt?"

"No, thank God." he stood up and began gathering his things. "I gotta go."

She walked him out to his truck and watched him toss his bag in the back. He turned to her.

"I had a great time. I'l call you. Promise."

Meg hugged him. "I hope everything turns out okay."

He brushed a kiss across her cheek and climbed into the truck. Meg stood on the porch and watched until the glow of the taillights disappeared.

* * * *

Three hours later, Jon pulled into the ranch and slammed on his brakes. Jumping out of the truck, he ran over to Pete, who was pouring a bucket of water on the still smoldering remains of one of the stables. The older man greeted him with a scowl.

"Damn it! I told Wes not to call ya. Everythings under control!"

"Uncle Pete, what happened?" Jon asked, ignoring him.

"Lightnin. Its been so darned dry 'round here. Stable went up like that." he snapped his fingers, "the house is fine. We lost most of the horses tho. " he wiped his sooty brow.

Jon didn't know what to say. He looked around and ran a hand through his hair. "Old Gray?"

Pete smiled. "She's fine. She was out grazin when it happened."

"Have you talked to the insurance company?"

Pete put his bucket down. "We're covered. But I've been thinkin..."

"Uncle Jon!" Wes called breathlessly as he ran up to them, "you sure got here fast."

"Now boy, didn't I tell ya not to go botherin him? First time he's taken time off since he got here."

"Sorry. I just thought Uncle Jon should know."

Jon sighed. "I'll call George tomorrow and see about getting this cleaned up and a new stable built."

"Wait a minute Jonny..I want to tell ya what I been thinkin."

"Okay Uncle Pete, what?"

"Come along inside. Wes, keep wetting that down for awhile longer."

The two men walked up to the sprawling main house and headed into the big kitchen. Jon poured them both coffee and joined his uncle at the old pine table.

"Okay, what's up Uncle Pete?"

"Jonny, how would you feel about sellin this old place?"

"WHAT?? Are you crazy? This place is your whole life! Caroline and I were born here. Why on earth would you want to sell?"

Pete sighed. "Caroline hates it here. She's moving back to L.A. end of the month. I'm not as young as I used to be. Matt and Rob are willin to take over, but they'll need help. And we're in no position to hire any."

Jon pounded the table with his fist. Suddenly a thought came to him.

"Pete, I still have money in the CHP pension fund. We can use that to hire some help. Once the insurance money comes through-"

"No! I don't want you touchin that. No need. Jonny, this isn't easy for me either, but its the only practical solution. We've been in the red for too long. The fire took everything. We've got to sell."

* * * * *

Late Sunday evening, Meg's phone rang. She finished setting her alarm and answered it.



"Jon! everything okay?"

"No one was hurt, but we lost everything but the house and three horses." his voice was glum.

"Oh God..I'm so sorry! What are you going to do?"

Jon sighed heavily. "Uncle Pete's selling. The land ought to bring in a good price."

"I take it you don't agree with his decision?"

"Meg, that ranch has been in my family for over 50 years. If only there was some way to save it.."

Meg was silent for a minute. " Are you still coming back?"

Jon laughed quietly. "I guess there's really nothing holding me back now, is there?"

"I wish I knew what to say." Meg said softly.

"Hey, just hearing your voice makes me feel better. I guess I'd better let you go. Wouldn't want you to oversleep on your first day back from vacation."

Meg laughed. "Okay. Talk to you soon?"

"Count on it. G'night."


* * * *

Joe Getraer walked into his office still grumbling about the Monday morning traffic. Before he could sit down, the phone began to ring.

"Good Morning, Central CHP. Sargent Getraer speaking."

"Morning Sarge."

Joe brightened. "Jon? Hey what can I do for you?"

"I wouldn't happen to have an extra uniform and motor hanging around, would you?"

"What? Are you serious? " Getraer asked.

"Sure am Sarge. I'd like to come back, if you'll have me?"

"When can you be here?" Joe replied.

Jon laughed.

"Jon, I'll have to talk to the Captain first, but since you took my offer of the extended leave, all you probably have to do is get re- certified at the firing range."

"Shouldn't be a problem."

Getraer grinned. "I'll get back to you this afternoon Jon. I'm looking forward to having you around here again."

"Feelings mutual Sarge."

As Joe hung up the phone, he smiled. Baker's coming back. It's about time.

* * * * * *

Meanwhile, Meg walked down the hall to briefing, Jon weighing heavily on her mind. First his dad, now the ranch. She was worried about him. How was he going to handle it all?

"Hey Meg, I know it's your first day back from vacation, but you could at least pretend to be glad to see us."

She smiled. "Hi Ponch."

"Welcome back. How was your vacation?" Ponch replied, as he joined her.

"Not bad Ponch. It was good to be home again. It didn't end so well though."

"What happened?" he asked as they walked into the briefing room.

Meg sighed as she sat down. "Its Jon. There was a fire at the ranch. They lost close to everything."

"Oh God. Is he okay?"

"Oh, no one was hurt. But his uncle is being forced to sell. They can't afford to rebuild, even with the insurance."

"Man that's rough. What's Jon going to do?" Ponch's voice was quiet.

"I don't know Ponch. I'm worried about him."

Ponch leaned on his notebook. "You think he might come back?"

Meg was silent a minute. "Ponch, he was talking about it...but I can't say for sure."

Ponch's face lit up. "Really? Man would that be great-" he stopped.

Meg smiled. "It would, wouldn't it? I'm just sorry the circumstances weren't better."

"Yeah, me too." Ponch said softly.

Getraer walked in and up to the podium. "Morning everyone. Let's get started..."

* * * * * *

Jon stood in the makeshift stable, grooming Old Gray. His thoughts were on the phone call he'd just made. The patrol is probably the best place for me right now, he thought, I need my friends. God I'm gonna miss this place though...

His thoughts were interrupted as he spotted Caroline walking across the yard to her car.

"Hey Caroline! Wait up!" he shouted.

She leaned against her car and waited as he jogged over. Blonde and blue eyed like her brother, she was six years older and an inch shorter. She grinned as Jon jogged up.


"Morning. When were you going to tell me you were moving back to California?"

"Today actually. Jon, I got an offer to be a partner in a new real estate firm. I can't pass that up."

"Pete says you hate it here." Jon said, squinting against the sun.

Caroline rolled her eyes and sighed. "Oh that man! I don't hate it here! It nearly killed me when I had to move the first time. But I worked hard to make a new life for me and Wes in L.A. I don't think I should throw that away."

"What does Wes think?"

"He's his uncle. But he wants to finish his senior year with his friends at his old school. He's thinking of coming back here for college though."

Jon smiled. "Who says I'm torn?"

"Jon, this place has always meant more to you than any of us. I know you always dreamed about coming back here after you retired. But who says you can't still do that? Come back in 20, 30 years and buy the place back. It will still be here. But now, now its time to go back where you truly belong. I've never seen you happier than when you were a Patrolman. You know I'm right."

Jon lowered his head, silently kicking at the dirt with the toe of his boot. Suddenly he looked up with a grin. "Course you're right. But I've got you beat this time. I've already called Getraer."

Caroline grinned. "I'll bet he's still doing the happy dance."

Jon laughed.

"So tell me dear brother..who or what knocked some sense into you?" she smiled.

Jon colored slightly and looked down. "Well, Meg helped." he grinned.

" the four hour drive was worth it."

"Oh yeah." Jon said, blushing a little more.

"I don't know this woman yet, but I like her already."

Jon reached over and hugged her. "Thanks sis. Don't know what I'd do without ya."

Caroline returned the hug. "Ditto."

* * * * *

Meg looked up as she finished her report. 3:30. She passed the report in, then headed to the Explorers meeting.

"Hey guys." she said cheerfully as she walked in.

She was greeted enthusiastically by the small group. Kellie gave her a hug. As Meg sat down next to her, Ponch handed her a message.

Meg unfolded it and read. It was from Kellie's social worker.

"Scuse me guys. Be right back."

She went next door to the reports room and picked up the phone, dialing quickly.

"Hi Claudia, it's Meg Locke. What's up?"

"Meg! Thank God you caught me. Listen, I have some good and bad news." the other woman said breathlessly.

"What is it?" "The Sheriff's office just issued an arrest warrant on Kellie's father. The charge is armed robbery."

"Oh God." Meg said softly.

Claudia sighed. "I just got the papers. Kellie is offically a ward of the courts. "

"No...Kellie..she'll never make it in the foster system. We both know that."

"She do just fine....if she's with you." Claudia replied.

"Me? Are you sure I can give her all she needs?"

"Meg, you are one of the few people in this world that girl trusts. I'd rather see her with you than dumped into some stranger's house. I'm asking you if you'll take custody of Kellie Anne."

Meg thought about the girl next door. She deserved so much better than she'd gotten in her short life. If I'm in the postion to do that, she thought, how can I say no?

"Yes, I'll take her. It would be my pleasure," she said. "What do I have to do?"

"I'll bring the paperwork down to the station. Meg, you've probably just saved that girls life."

Meg was smiling as she hung up the phone and hurried back to the meeting. Ponch was handing out permission slips for the group's upcoming trip to the CHP firing range as part of their firearms safety unit.

"Everything okay?" he asked quietly, pulling her aside.

"Everything's terrific Ponch. I just agreed to become Kellie's legal guardian."

A grin spread over his handsome face. "Alright!! Meg that's great!"

"You think so? I'ma little nervous."

"Listen, that girl needs a lot of love, security,and stability. I can't think of anyone more capable of giving it to her than you."

"Thanks Ponch." she smiled and squeezed his hand. Taking a deep breath, she turned to Kellie. She was bent over the handout, her dark brown braid hanging down her back. She was dressed in the Explorer uniform.

"Hey kiddo, can I talk to you for a moment?"

"Sure." Kellie replied with a shy smile.

Meg pulled her into the corner. "Honey, I just got off the phone with Claudia. Her agency has decided it's not safe to live at your dad's house anymore."

A veil of fear fell over the girl's face. " They're sending me away? But I don't want to go to some home!"

Meg laughed softly. "Oh, nothing like that is going to happen. They've assigned you a legal guardian."

"I still don't want to go!"

"Even if it's me?" Meg asked. Kellie's green eyes widened as her face lit up. "You? Really? I get to live with you?"

Meg laughed. "Yep. You sure do!"

* * * * *

Jon sighed as he walked into the kitchen. "What's up Uncle Pete? Wes said you were looking for me?"

The older man grinned, his light blue eyes twinkling. "Yep. Wanted you to meet the new owners of the Baker Ranch."

Jon stopped in the middle of running a hand through his hair. "What? You sold already?"

"They gave me an offer I couldn't refuse."

Jon looked at Caroline, who was sitting across from Pete. "Unbelievable."

She just nodded in reply.

"Hey, we promise we'll take good care of it." said two all too familar voices.

Jon looked up to see his cousins, Matt and Rob stride into the room. Matt was blond and blue eyed like Jon, while Rob was a redhead.

"Wait a minute, you bought the ranch?" he asked in disbelief.

"Yep. Pooled every cent we owned, plus put both our houses up as collateral for a loan." Matt said with a grin.

Jon laughed. "I bet Cindy and Beth loved that." he replied, refering to their wives.

"Oh, they were all for it. It would have been a crime to give up this place. Uncle Pete will stay on to run things, and we've already arranged to hire a few more hands. The insurance money is more than enough to restock and rebuild." Rob explained.

"You two are something else."

Matt grinned. "And in about oh, 30 years or so, when you retire from the CHP, the ranch will be waiting."

Jon smiled. "I see Caroline told ya all."

"Yep. By the way, your friend Ponch called this morning while you were out."

"You didn't tell him, did ya?" Jon asked

"Nope. Thought I'd let you do that." the older man replied with a chuckle.

"So Jon, what did your Sergeant say? " Caroline asked.

"Oh, I've got to get recertifed for a firearm, but other than that, I'm in. I'm supposed to report to the CHP firing range one week from today." Jon couldn't hide his pleasure.

"That's great son. Bout time you went home." Pete said with a smile.

* * * *

One week later Jon was standing in a coral at the CHP firing range, his badge shining proudly against his hip. He aimed his service revolver at the target in front of him, took a deep breath and began to fire. When he emptied his round, he let his breath out and wheeled the target in. Behind him, Joe Getraer waited anxiously.

Jon set the revolver down and went to stand next to Joe. He'd never been too fond of guns, but he knew how to use one. The two men traded smiles and waited as the chief firearms instructor from the academy examined Jon's target. This was the final step of his reinstatement as a California Highway Patrolman. The instructor looked up and grinned.

"Outstanding. Officer Baker, you are officially recertified." he took out the tiny gold pin that proved it and pinned it to Jon's blue CHP jumpsuit. He shook Jon's hand, handed some paperwork to Joe, and walked away.

Joe Getraer smiled. "Officer Baker, welcome back to the CHP. Lieutenant Bates has informed me that upon your recertification you are offically assigned to the Central Divison Station. You are expected to report for duty on the A shift tommorow morning."

Jon grinned. "Yes sir!"

Getraer shook his hand. "Good to have you back, Jon. " he smiled as he turned to leave, "oh and remember, briefing at 8am tommorow morning."

"Wouldn't miss it for the world, Sarge." Jon replied softly. He picked up his revolver and holstered it, then walked out to his truck.

Minutes after the blue pickup drove away, a CHP van pulled into the lot. After filling the space Jon had just left, Ponch and the Explorers stepped out.

* * * * *

"Good night." Meg said with a smile as she closed the door to Kellie's room. It had only been a week, but so far things had gone well. Kellie seemed to be adjusting well to her new home. She went to weekly counseling sessions and so far her counselor seemed pleased with her progress. Meg sighed as she looked out the window. A hard, cold rain was falling. Her thoughts drifted to Jon. She hadn't heard from him in a little over a week. How was he handling the loss of the ranch? Would he be coming back? She reached for the phone and dialed his number, only to be greeted with a busy signal. She hung up and turned back to the window. God she missed him.

* * * * *

"What? Aw, c'mon Sarge! No..." Ponch protested, following Getraer out of his office.

"What's wrong?" Meg asked, as she joined them.

Getraer smiled. "I just told Frank he's meeting his new partner today."

Meg grinned. "Ah..that explains it."

"Joe, you promised me after Bruce more partners."

"Frank,'ll like him. He's a pretty good officer."

"Yeah right. That's what you said about Bobby!"

* * * * * *

Meanwhile, Jon managed to slip unnoticed into the locker room. Most everyone was already at briefing, so it was empty. He stowed his things in his old locker, snapped the lock shut, then turned to the mirror. He tried to quell his nervous stomach as he gave himself a quick look over. Working on the ranch had kept him in shape, and his old uniforms still fit. His hair was freshly cut, his boots freshly polished. He gave his badge a quick shine and pulled the door open, smiling to himself. You'd think I was a rookie, he thought, shaking his head as he walked down the hall to briefing.

* * * * * *

"Tell me he's not a rookie. At least tell me that much." Ponch was exclaiming as he took his seat.

Joe laughed. "He's not a rookie, Frank. In fact he's been on the patrol longer than you."

Ponch rolled his eyes. "Oh great..I gotta babysit some old codger waiting for his retirement, is that it?"

"Ponch," Meg asked, "has it ever occured to you you might like the guy?"

"No way. You know my luck. Bobby nearly drove me to retirement. I felt more like Bruce's dad than his partner!"

Meg laughed. "Aw Ponch. Give the guy a chance."

Ponch shot a look at Getraer. "You promised. 'Frank,' you said, 'it's time you ride alone for a bit. You've earned a breather.' "

"Frank, relax. Don't judge this guy solely on your experiences with Bobby."

As Ponch began to reply, Meg noticed the door at the back open. Everyone else was engrossed in the debate raging between Joe and Ponch. Her heart skipped a beat as she watched Jon walk in. He caught her eye, grinned, and put a finger to his lips.

"Okay Sarge, I'll give this guy a chance. But so help me..if I end up babysitting some old codger-"

Jon coughed. "35 years old and I'm an old codger huh?" he grinned.

Ponch turned around, speechless.

"Poncherello, meet your new partner." Joe said, then began to laugh.

Jon folded his arms across his chest. "I need babysitting, huh?"

"Jon? Jon! Hey man!" Ponch finally said, flustered.

"Well Sarge, if he really wants to ride alone, I'd be happy to partner with Grossie." Jon said with a smile.

"Whoa! Wait a minute partner..he didn't...he didn't tell me it was you! Welcome back, man!" he flashed a smile, the color rising in his cheeks.

"You! " he said, "spinning around to face Getraer, "you let me go on like that when you knew it was Jon?" he exclaimed.

Joe laughed. "Hey Frank, I tried to tell you you'd like him. You just wouldn't listen."

Ponch turned to Meg." You! I bet you knew!"

Meg shook her head with a smile. "Nope. I found out about a minute before you did."

Everyone crowded around Jon. Ponch gave him a rough hug, unable to stop smiling. As he was welcomed back, Jon realized there was no place he'd rather be right now than here. As he accepted hugs and handshakes, his eyes fell on Meg. She was leaning against the table, arms folded, watching with a smile on her face. Returning the smile he walked over to her.

"Welcome home," she said softly, "good to have you back."

"Good to be back." he replied, hugging her.

"Alright alright...we're all glad to have Jon back. But let's get down to business, shall we?" Joe said with a grin, opening his notebook.

* * * * *

Later, Jon and Ponch sat by the side of the freeway, keeping a watchful eye on the passing motorists.

"Man it's good to have you back!" Ponch said with a grin.

Jon leaned back on his seat and closed his eyes, taking in sounds of the freeway, the wind ruffling through his hair.

"It's good to be back. Man it's great!"

"Hey Baker, I heard about the okay?" Ponch asked quietly.

"Just fine Ponch." he grinned as he told Ponch about the ranch's new owners.

The sound of squealing tires sent both of them reaching for their helmets. As Ponch fastened his, a battered jalopy sped by, cutting off a pickup in the process.

"C'mon partner, let's get that turkey!" Ponch shouted, hitting his lights and siren.

The two officers sped down the freeway, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.

"L.A. 7-Mary-3 & 4 in pursuit of a gray sedan heading southbound on the Ventura!" Jon shouted into his radio.

"10-4 Mary 3. And...welcome back."

Roaring down the highway, Ponch glanced at his speedometer. 85 miles an hour. He looked over at Jon.

"This guy's crazy!" he shouted

"You're tellin me!" Jon shouted back.

Jon gunned his motor and sped up to the sedan. "Pull it over! Now!"

The driver responded by steering the car toward Jon.

"Jon! Look out!"

Jon tried to get out of the way, but the fender of the sedan nicked his back wheel. He lost control and ended up in the dirt on the shoulder. Cursing to himself, he scrambled up and ignoring the stinging pain of his elbow, rocked his motor upright.

Ponch roared up.

"I'm okay, go get him!" Jon shouted.

Ponch nodded and sped off, leaving Jon in a cloud of dust. Jon got back on his motor and gunned the engine. Within minutes he had caught up with Ponch.

"I just ran the plates!", Ponch shouted, " he's clean!"

"Then what's his problem?" Jon shouted back.

Ahead of them, the sedan began to sharply slow down, finally stopping all together in the far right lane.

The partners sped up and took postion behind their motors.

"Get out of the car! Keep your hands where I can see them!" Jon shouted, hand on his revolver, watching as the bedraggled man got out of the car.

"Get on your knees, cross your legs and put your hands on your head." he shouted, approaching the driver.

Jon glanced at the dash as Ponch cuffed the driver. "Hey, the next time you feel like outrunning us, make sure you have a full tank of gas."

Baricza pulled up, stepping out of his car with a grin. "Hey buddy, glad to see you're not rusty."

* * * * *

Meg had just returned to Central after a busy morning on patrol. She was reaching for her mail when Jon and Ponch walked in.

"What in the world happened to you?" she exclaimed,eyeing Jon's dirty uniform, scraped elbow and torn knee.

"Don't ask." Jon grinned.

"Hey Jon, looking good." Grossie said, joining them.

"Uh, thanks Grossie." Jon said, looking up from his mail.

"Hey Meg, Sarge is looking for ya."

"Thanks Grossie. Later guys."

Jon watched her leave. "Hey Ponch, I'm gonna go get cleaned up. Meet you in reports."

"You got it partner."

* * * * *

Meg knocked lightly on Getraer's door. "You looking for me, Sarge?"

"Locke! Come in."

She found him surrounded by cartons, a computer terminal and keyboard sitting on his desk.

"The patrol finally entering the computer age?" she asked, smiling.

"They're trying to. But I can't make any sense of this thing. Frank mentioned you have one of these things, so I was wondering.."

"Sure Sarge. Be glad to help."

For the next hour she worked with him, teaching him the basics. She left him happily going through the computer's tutorial program.

"Let me know if you have any problems, Sarge."

"Thanks, Meg. I appreciate it."

Meg headed to reports to do her paperwork. When she got there, she found Ponch, Jon, Bonnie and Grossie deep in conversation.

"Hi guys." she said pulling the forms she needed and taking a seat next to Grossie.

"Hey Meg. Where've you been hiding?" Ponch replied, grinning.

"I was teaching Computers 101 to a certain sergeant."

"Central? Computerized? All right!" Grossie exclaimed.

Ponch laughed. "I doubt Sarge is as enthused, Grossie."

"MEG!" Sarge's voice suddenly shouted.

She stood up, laughing. "Coming Sarge."

10 minutes later she was back, shaking her head, a smile on her face.

"What happened?" Jon asked.

Meg laughed. "He accidently hit the off switch. But he thought he'd crashed it. Joe Getraer is not going to enter the compuer age without a fight."

Ponch made a fist and rested his cheek on it. "Hey Meg, maybe I ought to get you to teach me too. Can't be any harder than riding a motor."

"Wait a minute Ponch. You're comparing apples and oranges. Riding a motor is physical. Using a computer is mental."

Meg looked up, amused. "So Grossie, what you're saying is, it takes no brains to ride a motor?"

Jon stifled a laugh.

"Hey!" Ponch protested, straightening.

"Yeah Grossie. Do tell." Bonnie said with a grin.

Grossie rolled his eyes heavenward. "What I said was, comparing motors and computers is like comparing apples and oranges."


They all began to laugh. As Meg started to get up, Getraer appeared in the doorway.

"Meg, how do I-"

"Hey Sarge. How goes the computing?" Ponch interrupted.

"Oh, not bad Frank. Not bad at all."

"Did you figure out how to turn it on yet?" he teased.

"Funny Frank. Real funny. You try it sometime. It's not like riding a motor. This takes a little brains."

"That's what I said!", Grossie exclaimed, "Like apples and oranges!"

Joe looked puzzled as everyone dissolved into laughter.

"Grossman, what in the world are you babbling about? And the rest of you, how about doing at least some of what the taxpayers are paying us for? I'm not running a comedy club here. Oh, and Baker, I heard you took a spill this morning. Get yourself to Valley General for a look over."

"C'mon Sarge, I'm fine." Jon protested.

"Now Baker."

As Ponch stood up to leave, he clapped Jon on the shoulder. "Welcome home partner." he grinned.

Jon smiled as they walked outside to their motors. Glancing back at the station as he put his helmet on, he sighed contentedly. "It sure it good to be home." he said aloud.

"What?" Ponch asked.

"Nothing Ponch."

As the early afternoon smiled down on them, the two officers rode off toward the freeway, leaving behind a cloud of dust in the empty motor pool.