Childhood Gone

**This story takes place immediately after "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished"**

CHAPTER 1

"All set?" Matt looked over at CJ, his wife of eight and a half months, and her baby bump of two and a half months. Every time he saw the baby bump he grinned.

"Yep, ready as I'll ever be." She sat down in the cockpit next to Matt. "Are you going to smile every time you see my belly for the next few months?"

"Yup. I'm proud of that belly." He reached across and took her hand as he received clearance for takeoff from the control tower. Matt was excited: he hadn't been to Texas in quite a while and was looking forward to seeing some old friends as well as Madre Rosa, the housekeeper who had helped Matt's dad to raise him. It would be the first time he and CJ had been there since their marriage. Madre Rosa had been invited to the wedding but was unable to attend due to her husband's battle with cancer. Unfortunately he had died not long after.

Matt still owned the house that he had grown up in. Mansion was a more accurate description of the estate near Houston, Texas that Matt's father had bought when his son was very young. Although he had learned that Bill Houston had adopted him when he was a baby, Matt still thought of him as his dad. Bill's death had been a big blow to Matt almost three years earlier. He couldn't bear the thought of getting rid of the house: it held too many memories – both good and bad. His biological father, Virgil Wade Mattlock had died on the front steps of the house taking a bullet that was meant for Matt. His death had been a wakeup call to his son: he took a step back and looked at his lavish lifestyle and decided that he didn't need all the money that came from running an international conglomerate. He turned that conglomerate, Houston Industries, into a way to fund charities and had put Murray Chase in charge of it. Matt no longer owned the business and was much happier. Now that he and CJ were married and expecting their first child, he hoped to build many more happy memories at the home in Texas.

Part of the reason for their trip to Texas was ranching related. Matt hadn't spent much time there since Bill had passed away, and had sold the cattle that were there afterwards. Now he was thinking about going back into the cattle business. Although he still had Houston Investigations in Los Angeles, he was taking some time off from the business and his uncle, Roy Houston, was running the agency while Matt was gone. Roy had been a CIA operative for many years before becoming a college professor. After the death of his wife Flo, he had moved to Los Angeles to work with his nephew.

The three hour flight passed quickly. Matt and CJ were picked up at the airport by Charlie Teague, one of the caretakers of the estate. As they approached the house, Matt looked over at CJ. She was almost as happy as he was to be back on familiar ground. She had grown up on the neighboring ranch that had belonged to her uncle. Unlike Matt, who had enjoyed the love of a doting father, CJ had lived with her uncle, Errol Parsons, from the age of ten. Parsons was cruel to CJ, and had it not been for Matt, she probably would have run away from home. She spent most of her time with the Houstons and came to think of Bill as a second father.

As they pulled up in front of the house, they were greeted by Madre Rosa. Matt got out of the car and hugged the woman who had practically been a mother to him. He helped CJ from the car and she and Rosa also hugged. Then she noticed the baby bump which Matt had wanted to surprise her with, and she was ecstatic. "Oh, Señor Bill would be so happy!" She hugged the couple and led them inside. As Charlie took their bags upstairs, Matt and CJ walked back into the kitchen with Rosa and sat down to talk for a little while.

"Your father, God rest his soul, always knew you two would get together. He talked about it constantly!" She smiled at the couple as Matt put his arm around his wife.

"Well, it just took us a while to figure out we could still be best friends as husband and wife, Madre Rosa." Matt hugged CJ close. "So what do you think about a little one running around here?"

"Finally! It's been too long since little feet ran through this house." She poured lemonade for the two of them. A few minutes later, Charlie stepped into the kitchen. "Houston, can I talk to you?"

"Sure. What's up?" He walked into the den with the caretaker.

"I just got a phone call from Jed Sanders's son, Jessie. Jed got bitten by a copperhead yesterday evening when he stepped off of the combine in the cornfield behind their house. He's at the hospital, and not doing too good. I thought you might want to know."

"Yeah, thanks for telling me. That's got to be rough on him. Last I heard he was having heart trouble." Matt had gone to school with Jessie and thought a lot of the Sanders family. "Have you got a number for Jessie? I haven't talked to him since – Lord, I don't know when."

Charlie pulled out his phone and gave Matt the number. He stepped out onto the back porch and called Jessie. "Hey bud, Charlie just told me what happened to your daddy. How's he doing?"

Jessie was standing in the hallway just outside his dad's hospital room. "Well, if it had been you or me, we would be swelled and sore but alright - but not Daddy. It's aggravating his heart condition. He's having a hard time of it right now. And the fact that he's worried about the corn crop isn't helping any."

Matt knew that Jessie wouldn't leave his dad alone at the hospital. Jessie's mom had died when he was ten, and it had been just the father and son ever since. They worked the farm together and were as close as could be. With Jessie taking care of his dad at the hospital, there was no one left to harvest the crop. "Well, I can't do anything to make your dad better, but I can sure help you out with the harvest if you'll let me."

"No, I couldn't ask you to do that, Houston. I'm sure you've got better things to do." Jessie didn't want to tell his friend that if they didn't get the harvest in, they were going to lose the farm.

"Hey, now. I still remember how to run a combine, buddy. Don't you be gettin' all uppity on me now, just 'cause I live in LA." Matt had a feeling that things were tight for the Sanders family, as it was for so many farming families. "How about I go take care of that for you. You can tell your dad not to worry and maybe that will help him get over the bite sooner."

Jessie hesitated. "I don't know, Houston. It…well, it would probably ease his mind."

"Alright then it's settled. I'll be over there as soon as I get changed. Tell your daddy I said hey and not to worry about it, okay?"

After discussing how the Sanders usually worked the field, Matt decided that he would be able to handle the job by himself. Matt hung up and walked back into the kitchen to let CJ know what was going on then went upstairs and changed into a pair of comfortable jeans and a t-shirt. He grabbed one of his old ball caps that was hanging on the hat rack in the bedroom and went downstairs to tell his wife goodbye. "I'm not sure how long I'll be gone. Will you be okay?" He wrapped her in his arms and gave her a big hug.

"I'll be fine. Madre Rosa and I will have all kinds of good gossip about you while you're gone…and not able to defend yourself." She kissed him and watched him head out the door. "Be careful out there."

Matt stopped and made a sudden U-turn, going into the den and walking over to the gun case, removing a pistol that he had given to his dad the year before he died. After loading it as well as a spare magazine, he headed out the back door and down to the truck that was parked there.