Bennett Springs, Nebraska Territory, February 1866
She knew him well. Knew the touch that would make him moan from a taste of pleasure so decadent it must be a sin.
His breath caught in his throat, a wordless submission, when her hand found him. Surrendering to her touch, he buried his face in the mass of yellow hair fanned like a halo around her porcelain skin. Hair so different from his own. It was what had first attracted him to her. Spiraling curls, the color of new butter, that danced with a life of their own when she moved, or spilled recklessly across her pillow as they did now. He wove his fingers through the ringlets, entangling himself until the golden threads held him a willing prisoner.
A late February wind wailed outside, blowing its icy breath through crevices and cracks in the dried wood of the window sash. But he didn't feel the chill. Her breath smoldered against his neck and sent a rush of heat coursing through his body like wildfire. He felt himself falling . . . tumbling at a dizzying speed into a touch of bliss so close to Heaven a man might be persuaded to seek religion.
He nuzzled his face into the moist hollow of her throat and strung a necklace of kisses from her collarbone to the velvet swell of her breasts. His lips floated languidly over her flawless skin, tracing curves so perfect as to have been sculpted with an artist's eye. Her fingertips danced across the work hardened muscles of his back, tracing filigree figures over his skin, teasing him into a need that left him aching.
Thirsting for a taste of her, he covered her lips with his mouth, drinking in his whispered name and her muffled moans as if each sound was sweet nectar. Sheltered in the sanctuary of her embrace, he savored the delicious pain of her fingernails gripping the skin across his back. His heavy lidded eyes plead for deliverance and like a parched man being led to water, she pulled his hips toward her and opened herself to him, offering a wealth of pleasure. A touch, a caress, an endless kiss, the rhythm of joined flesh coupled in a slow waltz. Yes . . . she knew what he liked.
When he was finished, he lay spent, his dark skin sweaty against her alabaster nakedness, as intoxicated by the perfume dotted between her breasts as a drunkard with a bottle of wine. The tinted shade of a lamp on the bedside table cast an amethyst glow about the room and he rolled onto his back, drowsy with a sated warmth and the dreamlike flush of color. He could stay forever, drifting in this purplish haze on a raft of eiderdown through trusted waters.
She leaned forward to retrieve her robe from the foot of the bed and slipped the satin dressing gown around her shapely shoulders. With a sweep of her hand she freed her golden locks from the lace collar of the gown and shook her head to revive the wilted curls. "Same time next week, Buck?"
Her question nor the period of time she allotted him never varied. He knew the question well as her signal that his time with her was finished. Lingering in the soft tangle of bedclothes, Buck turned to his side and curled himself around a feather pillow, savoring each extra moment she might allow him.
"Buck?" she asked again, her voice liquid and smooth. She gave his shoulder a gentle shake to rouse him. "I need to know."
His trance broken, Buck pushed the pillow aside and inched to the edge of the bed. His legs felt like lead anchors weighing down a hollow vessel as he slowly draped his long limbs over the side. It puzzled him. Why did he always feel so empty when only moments earlier he had gorged himself on a feast of ambrosia? He sat quietly for a moment, his elbows propped against his knees, his head weighted in his hands. He wondered vaguely why she asked him. Like her question, his answer never changed. Exhaling heavily, he tucked a stray lock of dark hair behind his ear. "Yes," he answered, without looking up. "Same time next week."
Still seated on the edge of the bed, he reached for his pile of clothing lying in a puddle on the wooden floor. A chill crept over him, quiet as a whisper, a breath that clung to his bare skin like frost. Buck shivered and pulled on his pants and boots then rose slowly to his feet as if the motion required a supernatural effort. He slid a faded blue work shirt up his arms and began working the buttons into their holes, dallying with the task like a resistant child about to be sent out into the cold. Buck tossed his coat over his shoulders, then reached into his pocket and withdrew two crumpled dollar notes.
He knew it was futile, but Buck allowed himself a cautious glance in his partner's direction. Seated at her vanity, her attentions were fixed upon her reflection in the mirror, readying herself for her next visitor by dabbing a touch of rouge onto her lips. He didn't know exactly what he was seeking anyway. This was a business arrangement, nothing more. She offered a service and he was a willing consumer - no strings attached, no baggage to carry, no questions asked. Buck laid her fee on the varnished tabletop beside the bed and pressed his fingertips across the creases to smooth the wrinkled bills. It was more than the other whores in Bennett Springs charged. For the same money he could visit one at the saloon down the street several times. But she was worth the extra. She wasn't like the saloon prostitutes who reeked of liquor and smoke and the smell of other men, turning tricks as rapidly as they batted their eyelashes. She paid attention to him and an hour of her attentions could almost make him forget how lonely he was.
At the sound of his boots on the hardwood floor she called to him from across the room, her gaze still fixed on her reflection. "You wrap up, Buck. It's awful cold out there."
Buck nodded noncommittally and took a step toward the door. The chill brushed over him again, a precursor to the ice glazed cocoon that waited for him outside, poised to wrap around him once more as the final minutes of his hour ticked away. His hand wrapped around the brass doorknob, he stopped and reached into his pocket again, sifting through the loose change. He withdrew a half dollar and rolled the piece of silver around in his hand. Slim fingers traced the curve of the coin's contoured edge. Its metallic skin felt smooth as her touch against his calloused palm. Buck placed the tip alongside her regular fee on the tabletop. It wasn't that he had money to throw around, but she'd given him a little extra this time. Hell. She'd even tried to act like she cared.
Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory, March 1866
His wife could never understand his need to go back, although sometimes he wondered if she really tried. Through all the variables of his life, Manassas, Virginia was the one constant. Doesn't everyone need something constant? Is that such a difficult philosophy to comprehend? A man's birthplace runs in his blood, it defines the margins of his life. His life's journey may have led away from Manassas, but a part of him would always belong to Virginia. Like a son to his birth mother. Perhaps it was the nine year old part of him that recited the Ten Commandments in front of the entire congregation and beamed with pride when the Pastor assured him the Almighty God was right pleased. Or the part of him that built forts of cast off fence rails and used acorns and walnuts as ammunition in a game of war with Garth on a Sunday afternoon. Or the part that stole a kiss from Doritha behind the barn when he was eleven years old and curious.
Those were sweet days. Sweet as the peppermint stick his mother would sometimes buy him as a special treat if he had been very good and not upset his father. Bought for him even though they really couldn't afford such extras. Spending money on a child's sweet tooth would surely prime his father's anger although the man had nearly drained the family's meager resources dry with his own vices. He always ate the candy quick even though he would have rather sucked on the sugary stick until it was just a sliver of minty sweetness dissolving on his tongue. He had to eat it fast so the smell would be off his breath when his father came home. If his father came home.
Loose gravel and clods of gray dirt crunched under his feet. Although the road was rutted and torn apart in places, he was certain he was traveling in the right direction. The bend in the road should be right ahead and after the bend would be Sutter's store. The bend in the road was still there. Where would a bend in the road go? But the store and its glass jars of sugary confections was gone. A pile of charred lumber sat there instead. The store should be there. Just like the peppermint sticks and fence post forts and Garth and Doritha should be there. And his mother. God, yes, his mother should certainly be there. Well, the precious things in a man's life don't just disappear. They were here someplace and he had come a very long way to protect them. He wasn't going back to Nebraska until he did.
That's what a southern gentleman would do and don't tell him different because his mama raised him right. Maybe they didn't have a big fancy plantation or a smidgen of the money those Tidewater folks liked to throw around. But they had pride and he knew his manners and he knew his duty.
It was his duty to keep Virginia holy. To protect those blessed memories, sweet and rare as store bought candy. To guard and defend that hallowed ground of his beginnings. It was his duty, damn it! Why couldn't she understand that?
Familiarity quickened his pace as Kid neared the bridge over Bull Run Creek. Or what was left of the bridge over Bull Run Creek. Bits and pieces of stone that had been mortared together as the foundation of the bridge lay in a crumbled heap of rubble in the water. It looked to Kid as if some giant hand had scooped the bridge right off its pilings and tossed it into the air letting the pieces fall as they might like dice in some gambler's game. The path across the creek was precarious and his footing at times unsure as Kid picked his way across the murky water using bits of rubble as stepping stones. To his surprise, when he reached the other side, he came face to face with a black garbed servant of God railing fire and brimstone down on a congregation apparently only the reverend could see.
The pastor stood behind a small wooden pulpit of cracked and splintered wood in the middle of the Manassas Road. He wore a frock coat, several sizes too large, dusted with smoke and smelling of gunpowder and death. His color was pale as ash and loose skin draped like limp folds of fabric between his protruding features. Though stooped over from a great invisible weight, he was a tall man and Kid thought perhaps he might have once been solid, but his burden, whatever it might be, had worn him thin and brittle. As Kid approached, the reverend held his Bible aloft with one hand and smote his chest like a man trying to rid himself of something trapped inside with the other.
"And he gathered them together into a place called Armageddon! And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air and there came a great voice out of the temple of Heaven, from the throne, saying 'It is done!' And there were voices and thunders and lightning and there was such a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake and so great!"
Kid stood directly in front of God's messenger, but the pastor's steel gaze was focused on the great second coming and looked straight through the bewildered traveler before him. Kid pulled on the man's arm to look at the passage of scripture, but the pastor jerked away from him holding the Bible just out Kid's reach.
"But what about duty?" Kid asked the messenger. "What does it say about duty?"
"Come on now boys, gather round," came a voice from behind the preacher. Kid felt a wave of relief flood over him. Finally, someone he recognized! Mr. Sutter stood in his shopkeeper's apron on the side of the Manassas Road, glass jars of candy in his hands, passing out peppermint sticks to a regiment of soldiers filing past. "Here you go boys. Everybody gets one," he said with a smile. "You too, Kid. You've been a good boy. Here. Take your peppermint."
Kid eagerly wrapped his hand around the stick of candy and started to bite down. "No, son," Mr. Sutter said and placed a restraining hand on Kid's arm. "You're all grown up now. You can eat it slow."
The taste of mint tingled on his tongue and set his mouth awash with flavor. Kid couldn't remember ever tasting anything so satisfying. The soldiers milled around him, sucking on their peppermint sticks until a man on a gray horse galloped past waving a plumed hat and shouting orders. "Affix bayonets! Be quick about it! Victory is at hand, boys! Victory is at hand!"
Their sticks of peppermint whittled to a sharp point by their tongues, the soldiers affixed the candied spears as bayonets to their rifles and on the commander's orders charged into one another, slashing and lunging with their sugary daggers. Their steps seemed almost choreographed, moving in rhythm to a drum beat that hung in the breeze, stabbing faster and faster as the snare's tempo trilled into a frenzied cadence. Blood spurted in great pulsing torrents from gaping wounds. Disemboweled men gathered dangling intestines into their hands like musicians playing bloody concertinas and tried to stuff their entrails back into their open bellies.
A great roar of curses and fear and the plaintive cries of dying men floated over the field and Kid raised his hands to shield his ears from the hideous sound. Where were the brass bands and songs of Confederate glory? Where was the soul stirring oratory of great and gifted thinkers? It wasn't supposed to be like this. These were southern gentlemen. Where were their manners? He stumbled blindly backward from the fray into the preacher who was still hurling prophesy though the battle raged around his pulpit. The man held the word of God out before him like a beacon in the darkness, but at Kid's touch both the man and his Bible toppled over and broke like shattered glass against the earth.
Kid hurriedly tried to fit the pieces of the preacher back together, but the noise of the battle was overwhelming. Smoke shrouded his eyes in a stinging gray fog and the blasts of artillery pounded in his ears until he was certain his head would explode just like the balls of explosives the great guns heaved into the air.
"Here, Kid," Mr. Sutter said and offered him an acorn. "Do your duty."
Kid dropped the pieces of religion and took the acorn from the shopkeeper. He would never be able to piece it back together again anyway. It was too far gone.
"Do your duty, Kid," Sutter urged again.
The nut was smooth in his hands and smelled of deep woods and mossy ground and things remembered. Kid nodded like a good boy and heaved the acorn into the battle with a strength that surprised him. He threw his arms over his head and fell to the ground as men exploded in a shower of blood and bone and body parts before his eyes. A one armed soldier, lifelessly pale, stumbled toward Kid, stopping to inspect mangled limbs strewn across the battlefield. He looked at Kid with vacant eyes, his soul already lifted.
"Have you seen my arm, Reb? I really need my arm."
"Ain't seen it, Soldier."
"Reckon I could have one of yours then?" the man pleaded and began tugging violently on Kid's sleeves with a force unusual in a dead man. "I really need my arm!" he insisted.
Kid lurched backward away from the soldier, but the wave of battle surged around him and held him fast. The roar of exploding walnuts deafened him and he wanted to scream from the pressure building up behind his eyes, but he stopped himself before the sound worked its way to his mouth. No . . . he couldn't scream. This was his duty. He felt himself being pulled down among the dying men into their battlefield morgue, felt a hand grabbing at him as a blinded soldier groped for escape. Kid pushed the man's filthy, festering hands away, shoving and kicking through the bloody bedlam until he sensed an opening.
Kid spun to his left, his peppermint bayonet firmly grasped in his hand, wildly plunging the sharpened candy like a man possessed into any obstacle that dared to block his path. He thought it strange and not at all like himself, but he couldn't deny the satisfaction that swelled inside him every time he felt the resistance of flesh under the spear give way.
"Hey, Mister," the boy said as Kid's bayonet ripped through the child's soft belly. Kid's eyes opened in wide horror at the sight of his peppermint stick protruding from the boy's middle. He couldn't have been much more than ten or eleven years old. He was just a baby! Why was an innocent boy from Manassas in the middle of a battlefield? The child looked at the bloody puncture in his belly with mild surprise. His gaze moved slowly back and forth from his mortal wound to the piece of candy embedded in his stomach as if trying to decide which was more interesting.
"Whatcha do that for, Mister?"
Kid sank to his knees before the child and grabbed hold of the peppermint bayonet with both hands. Slick with blood and sugary sweetness, his hands slipped time and time again in a futile attempt to remove the weapon.
"Kinda hurts, Mister."
Kid grabbed at the child, shaking his shoulders until the boy's head lolled from side to side like a rag doll. "You just hush now, boy! You just hush!"
A weak cry pulled Kid back from the brink of panic and he knelt in front of the boy, gasping for air, trying to grasp hold of his fleeing senses. "You got to understand. It wasn't supposed to be like this." Kid gripped the collar of the boy's jacket and pleaded, "You don't tell no one what I did. You hear me, boy?"
The child gingerly touched the wound and rubbed his fingers through the blood staining his shirt front, then broke off a piece of candy, placed the peppermint in his mouth and bit down hard. A bloody froth bubbled from the boy's mouth, but he offered Kid the shy smile of a southern boy, savoring the last sweet taste of innocence. The child sank to his knees, swaying as everything pure and honorable and alive flowed from his young body to mingle with the dusty soil of his homeland. He placed a sugar sticky hand on Kid's shoulder. "War's over, Mister. Ain't you heard? War's over."
"Kid . . ." Lou mumbled, her voice thin from disturbed sleep. Lou sighed and turned to face her sleeping husband. If 'sleeping' was what you called it. Bathed in sweat and trembling, he looked more like a sick man locked in a fevered prison. The dreams came with regularity now sentencing them both to restless nights. She should probably be accustomed to his late night rantings, but his dreams always woke her long before they released him. A full night's sleep would be a welcome reprieve, but Lou doubted she would be granted one any time soon.
For a while after he came back from the war, looking more like a skeleton than the husband she watched ride away in the summer of '62, she would ask him about the dreams that haunted his sleep. He would say he didn't remember them, but the lingering fear in his eyes told a different story.
"C'mon, Kid," she said again, a bit louder and shook his shoulder to awaken him. "It's over."
Lou's touch jarred Kid awake and he lay gasping for breath, clutching the bedclothes to his chest with a white knuckled grip. Though the bedding wrapped around him held him tight, somehow he was running, groping blindly through the darkness and his chest stabbed at him for want of air. No . . . not running now. Stumbling. His legs went numb, deadened, a lead weight and he burrowed himself into the mattress as if the hounds of Hell followed his scent.
"I'm sorry I woke you," he whispered once his trembling quieted and he trusted the words to come out whole.
"It's all right. Be mornin' soon anyway." The emptiness in Lou's voice was hard to disguise and because she didn't put forth much effort, her reassurances came out hollow. She had muttered those obligatory words into the darkness so many times they no longer held any meaning or offered a shred of comfort.
Although the bedclothes were drawn up to his chin, an icy finger ran up and down Kid's spine and he shivered until his teeth chattered. He turned to his side and draped his arm across Lou's waist. A warm touch would surely help drive the chill from his bones. But rather than allow herself to be drawn into his embrace, Lou inched to the edge of the mattress and turned away, putting as much space between them as the bed allowed.
An uneasy silence slipped between the sheets and settled into the distance between husband and wife. Illuminated by a thin stream of moonlight, Kid watched the exaggerated rise and fall of Lou's shoulder as she drew a deep breath and slowly exhaled. He could almost see the frost of her expended breath hanging in the air of their bedroom.
"Damn it, Lou. I came back."
She was silent for a moment then finally answered. "You never should have left."
Kid stirred the coals in the fireplace with a poker to revive the dying embers. The tired flame sputtered a bit and finally found a spark of new life, but the flue didn't draw properly in the heavy night air. Rather than be pulled out the chimney, the smoke wrapped around the room like a smothering gray blanket. How he hated that smell. It sat low and heavy in his lungs and seeped its way into his skin. Would he never be rid of it? The acrid odor burned his nostrils and Kid made a vain attempt to wipe the smell away with the back of his hand.
The burning wood hissed and popped like rifle fire. The scream of artillery shells blazing across the room made his heart race and he instinctively crouched for cover, waiting for the sky to fall. But the ceiling above him remained intact and the fire regarded him as if he was a fool. When the thumping in this chest calmed, he raked a shaky hand through his hair and dropped the poker onto the hearth. Kid slowly rose to his feet, in full view of the enemy, and reached for the glass bottle on the mantle.
There wasn't enough wood in the grate to provide much fuel and the fire dwindled down again with lack of interest. Even without a fire, the room was warmer than the frost glazed bedroom upstairs. The bottle in his hand offered more cordial company, too. Kid grabbed a lap quilt from the back of the settee and settled into the armchair near the fireplace to wait out the night. He uncorked the whiskey bottle and took a long swallow, grimacing as the fiery liquid burned its way down the well-trod path in his throat. Oddly enough, it seemed that pain and relief went hand in hand and he wondered vaguely which the drink was - ally or enemy. It was hard to tell sometimes. But then again . . . if either friend or foe could numb him, did the bottle's allegiance really matter?
March never could seem to make up its mind. Its rays of resurrecting sunlight could tease a winter weary land into rebirth only to just as quickly snuff out that new life with a shroud of frost. Lou's frown seemed to mirror the sentiments of the frost nipped blossoms of the apple tree in the yard below. The warmer temperatures of the past week had warmed the tree's blood and swelled the anxious buds, enticing it into a premature bloom. The limbs that had so proudly displayed their new spring apparel only the morning before now shivered in an icy overcoat. Tender pink blossoms wrapped their petals tightly around themselves as thin protection from the chill. Lou couldn't help but wonder if March was just a hapless pawn in the struggle of changing seasons or if there was really something inherently cruel about a month that could dash such hopes overnight.
She let the muslin curtain fall back into place and adjusted the gathers evenly on the metal rod, then turned to scrutinize the bedroom for any other imperfection. With a practiced hand, she plumped the pillows until they sat to her liking at the head of the bed - not straight enough to appear overly formal, not so uneven as to look unkempt. Lou brushed her hand over a wrinkle in the wedding ring quilt that had graced the four poster bed since the day she and Kid moved into the house shortly after the Express folded. The pattern of intertwined wedding bands had always been one of her favorites and was befitting the bed of newlyweds. The memory of their struggle to maneuver the bed around the bend in the hallway brought a faint trace of a smile. Exasperated after what seemed like a full afternoon of wrestling with the ungainly headboard, Kid had posed a heated question as to the competency of the carpenter who had designed the odd floor plan and threatened to either knock out the wall or cut the oversized headboard in half. Spurred by Lou's promise of what awaited him once their bed was in place, he finally coaxed the pieces around the odd angle and through the doorway.
Once uprighted in their bedroom, the posts of the bed looked a bit like the masts of a sailboat adrift in an otherwise empty room. They didn't have much in the way of furnishings then, but it didn't matter. With the constellations in the night sky outside the window as their compass, wrapped in layers of soft calico, they christened the bed as their own and set sail into new waters as one body, one soul. Promises to have and to hold, to honor and cherish buoyed them up against the ebb of a changing world.
How long ago had it been?
The room to her satisfaction, Lou closed the door behind her and crossed the narrow hallway toward the staircase. Holding her skirts up to avoid becoming entangled in the folds of fabric, she worked her way down the narrow steps and came to an abrupt stop at the bottom tread. The newel post offered a bit of support as she leaned dejectedly against the railing and sighed aloud at the sight that greeted her.
It wasn't the first morning she had found her husband locked in inebriated slumber in the armchair, oblivious to the call of a new day. Kid sat curled into the side of the wing back chair, clutching a bottle of whiskey to his chest as if he was a child clinging to a blanket or favored toy in his sleep. A half-emptied glass held in his other hand teetered precariously on the padded arm of the chair. A tug of war of emotions pulled Lou into the front room.
The part of her that could still picture him as a fresh faced southern boy, gentle as a new morning, full to the brim with lofty ideals, begged her to drag him up the stairs and tuck him into a warm bed. But as quickly as the picture appeared, it faded into the disheveled, dispirited lump of a man sleeping off a drunk in her best arm chair and the maternal instinct left with it.
Kid shifted in his sleep and Lou quickly grabbed for the glass, but was a second too late to stop the spill. A dark stain appeared where the green upholstery drank up the pool of liquor. Lou's lips pressed into a tight line as she blotted the wet spot with a corner of the quilt lying across Kid's legs. No doubt it already reeked with the smell of alcohol. A little more wouldn't make any difference. She sat the empty glass on the mantle and reached for the open bottle lest it overturn also and the entire chair be ruined. At her insistent tug, Kid clamped down tighter on his prized possession and wrinkled his brow in protest. Not to be deterred, Lou pried his fingers loose and after mumbling a bit of gibberish in his sleep, Kid finally turned loose of the bottle and sank back into the cushion, seemingly unaware of their battle.
At Kid's sudden release, the amber liquid twirled in a merry dance inside the bottle and seemed to almost come alive in Lou's hands. Anxious to be rid of it, she hurriedly set the glass bottle on a table beside the chair but in her haste, knocked over a photograph displayed there and the gilt frame tumbled onto the rug. Lou gathered her skirt around her and knelt to retrieve the image of young lovers. Promises wrapped in white lace and starry-eyed innocence captured for eternity stared back at her from the serene stillness of a wedding photograph.
They had shared such pretty promises.
"For better or for worse . . ."
Pretty words that had meant so much, yet turned out to be worth so little.
"Missus Dunne! Missus Dunne!"
Rachel lifted her head and hurriedly wiped away the tear caught in her lower lashes with the back of her hand. Pushing herself away from the porch railing, she drew a deep breath and wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders as if the closeness of the garment might somehow hold her together. The source of the voices bounded into view in the form of a duo of six-year-old mischief. Rachel forced a smile and put on the closest thing to a cheerful face she could muster as the two little boys and a sorry excuse for a dog scampered up her front porch steps.
"Whatcha doin', Missus Dunne?" the towheaded one asked. The light of adoration in his eyes brightened the overcast morning.
"Well Jonathan, I s'pose I'm just watchin' you and Ben play," Rachel answered and succumbed to the temptation to run her fingers through the boy's nest of unruly hair. She knew Mrs. Jorgenson really did try to tame down Jonathan's hair. He always arrived at school looking tidy, but it seemed to have a mind of its own and despite his mother's best efforts, by mid-morning the boy's white blonde hair looked more like the seed head of a dandelion. Rachel half expected to see the tufts blow away in the breeze as she ruffled his head.
Jonathan's companion narrowed his eyes at Rachel, the wheels in his six-year-old thinking snagged by something that seemed to be out of place. "How come you ain't in school, Missus Dunne?"
Rachel flashed a smile that was genuine. "Same reason you're not in school, Ben. It's Saturday! Did you think teachers work every day?"
The boy shrugged and plopped down on the top step, a bundle of wooly energy squirming beside him.
"And who is this little guy?" Rachel asked, eyeing the fur ball that had taken to her front porch as if he was well acquainted with the handsome, blonde woman who owned the house.
"He's our new dog," Ben answered matter-of-factly. "But ya can't tell nobody cause my pa said he weren't takin' in no strays. We gotta keep him a secret."
"Yup, we're gonna share him," the co-conspirator added and knelt on the step below the dog. "His name's Joe."
"No it ain't!" Ben squealed and gave the smaller boy's shoulder a shove. "It's Charlie! I said it's Charlie and that's what it's gonna be!" The boy wrapped his arms around the mutt's neck as if to stake his claim on the shaggy creature while Jonathan tried to tug the wiggling animal out of his friend's arms and the object of their affection drank up the attention as if it was water.
"I want it to be Joe!" Jonathan insisted, letting up on his hold long enough to shove back.
Rachel tucked her skirt around her legs and sank onto the porch steps into the quarrel. "Boys! Don't be so loud," she pleaded and shot a quick glance through the window behind her. "There's no need to argue. Surely with all the names in the world you can find one you both like."
The two looked at each other as if their teacher's suggestion was a completely novel thought. But she was a teacher after all so she should be smart. "What would you name him, Missus Dunne?"
"What would I name him?" Rachel cupped the whiskered face in her hands and narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing the mutt for something remarkable. But no matter the angle, the animal still looked look someone had stuck a tail and four legs on a mop head and pronounced it a dog. The nameless mutt squirmed at her feet as if it contained too much enthusiasm for its small body and the energy was searching for an escape. Not all that much different from the excitable six-year- olds waiting expectantly for their teacher's response.
Had anyone told a younger Rachel Dunne - the Rachel Dunne who was nervy enough to bluff on a poker hand so poor it made a church mouse seem wealthy or the Rachel Dunne who could melt a man with a well practiced smile and a flutter of eyelashes - that the contentment she craved would be found as a schoolteacher in a dusty little town in Nebraska, she would have assured them they were sorely mistaken. But after the Rock Creek station closed its doors and the Express family scattered like thistle seeds in the wind, the twenty-three students who filed into her classroom each day helped to fill the vacancy in Rachel's life and she couldn't imagine doing anything else. They were all special, but it was these little ones she loved best. The older children, the boys especially, had absorbed the prejudices and words of hate that flowed over their father's tongues in a swiftly moving current. Their minds were already imprinted with the ideology that an Indian was a savage and a southerner was a traitor and the world would be better off without them both. There was little a teacher could do to repair the damage already done, but the little ones were different, or at least she hoped they could be. Perhaps after four years of madness and fractured friendships and too many lives taken too early, the country had learned its lesson and the worst argument to ever come between these young ones would be what to name a mangy, mop top of a stray dog.
The two boys looked from their teacher to each other and nodded resolutely in agreement. "That's a pretty good name. I think he likes it," Jonathan declared, his admiration overflowing from cornflower blue eyes. There was nothing his teacher didn't know. "Missus Dunne," he added. "Are you sad?"
"Why do you ask that, Jonathan?"
"It looked like you was cryin' before. Did somebody make you sad?"
Rachel blinked away the moisture puddling in her eye and pulled her shawl tighter. "I s'pose I was, but you and Ben have made me feel much better."
"Why were you sad?" Ben asked, his attention finally diverted from the dog by the foreign thought that his teacher was ever anything but happy.
"A friend of mine is sick and it makes me sad," she explained. The sound of a wagon coming to a stop in the former Express station yard drew Rachel's eye away from the boys. She gave the mutt a final scratch under his chin and rose to her feet. "You two go on and play now. I need to talk to Mrs. McCloud."
The boys scurried away, taking the porch steps two at a time with legs that weren't quite long enough to be so daring, the newly dubbed Scruffy close at their heels. Half-way down the walk Jonathan turned back, his fists jammed into his coat pockets, his white hair standing on end. "I'm sorry your friend is sick, Missus Dunne."
Rachel managed a weak smile as Lou appeared behind the youngster and absently patted down the stray tufts of hair as she passed by. "Thank you, Jonathan. I'm sorry, too."
Lou grabbed hold of her skirt and lifted the hem out of her way as she climbed the porch steps. Once on level footing, she turned to the street, mimicking Rachel's position, and watched the little boys trying to teach their uneducated mongrel that the object of fetching was to bring the stick back. Ordinarily the sight would have brought a chuckle, but it was not a morning for laughter.
"Any change?" Lou asked. The younger woman kept her eyes fixed on the boys dodging traffic and passersby in the street. She didn't look at Rachel, didn't want to see the gray shadow of resignation in her dear friend's eyes for fear it would only affirm the dread in her own.
Rachel shook her head and although the movement was slight, Lou caught the response from the corner of her eye. Rachel drew a deep breath and felt the chilled air trickle into her lungs like ice water. "Doc's in with him now. I thought Kid would come with you this mornin'. He's been askin' for you both."
Lou's chin jutted forward just a bit. Rachel studied her young friend trying to ascertain if the mask of defiance was prompted by hurt or anger, but knowing the strain that had settled on the McCloud household since Kid's return three months prior, she guessed it was a mixture of both.
When Lou finally spoke her voice was flat and dry. "If I could have woke him up, I s'pose he would have. He was still sleepin' it off when I left."
Rachel wrapped her arm around Lou's thin shoulders. A pang of empathy stabbed at her chest as the young woman slid into her embrace and the pain and anger and frustration Lou carried became a tangible weight against Rachel's side. Rachel understood the root of that burden only too well . . . but from the other side of the bottle.
"When someone takes a likin' to the bottle, Lou, there's a reason for it. Liquor's got a way of disguisin' things . . . coverin' things up. Kinda like sweepin' everythin' you don't want to see under the rug. Kid saw more'n his share of terrible things . . . things nobody should have to see. It's gonna take some time to put it all behind him."
"He ain't the man I married, Rachel."
"Are you the same girl who walked down that aisle?"
Rachel could feel Lou's body tighten at the comment, but just as quickly as it came, the tension disappeared as if replying wasn't worth the effort and Lou settled into the safety of Rachel's embrace once more. Both women turned to the sound of the door opening behind them.
Doctor Whitmer nodded to Lou and Rachel in turn. A Union surgeon during the war, he had headed west after Petersburg, hoping to leave the horrors of battle behind in favor of a quiet practice far removed from the blistered battlegrounds. But to his dismay, he found that the maladies of war refused to be left behind and had followed weary soldiers home. The expectant look on the women's faces voiced their question and he wasted little time with pleasantries. "I wish I had better news to report, ladies, but I fear he grows weaker by the day. The ague is a peculiar illness. Seems like it lies still in a man, then shows itself when it senses a weakness. Bad enough the young men went off to die, but the old fools had to go marching off to play soldier, too. A younger man might be able to fend the fevers off and live a fairly normal life, but I'm afraid right now he's just too weak to fight it. If there's any family to call home, you'd best be getting them here."
An unwelcome silence hung heavy in the damp morning air. Rachel folded her arms tightly across her chest like a shield and Lou took a step backward, away from the physician's prognosis. But neither defense offered shelter and both women slowly acknowledged the gravity of the doctor's words. When Rachel finally spoke her voice was so thin Lou had to strain to hear. "How much time?"
Doctor Whitmer shook his head regretfully. "I just don't know. A week . . . maybe two. It's hard to say. I hope I'm wrong and maybe he'll pull out of it. From what I've heard, Teaspoon is an ornery cuss. Someone needs to be with him while his fever is so high. I could have him moved to my office. I know having him here is imposing on you, Rachel."
"It's no imposition, Doctor."
"Very well then. Let me know if anything changes, otherwise I'll be back tomorrow morning."
Lou watched the elderly physician cross the yard and head toward the business district. She felt tears welling up, but rather than fall they pooled in her eyes and made her vision murky as if she was held under water, the doctor's words flooding over her again and again. When her head began to swim, Lou leaned back against the porch post for support.
"What are we gonna do, Rachel? We don't even know where they are."
Rachel drew a deep breath and let it out very slowly. As the war dwindled to a close, news that both Jimmy and Cody had emerged unscathed reached Rock Creek with little difficulty, but it took a good deal of time before word that Teaspoon and Kid had also survived the ordeal and were headed home. So many families had lost loved ones that Rachel felt truly blessed her family had been preserved. Perhaps she had counted her blessings too soon.
"Maybe Mr. Hettler at the wire office can find the names of some hotels in New York and Boston. Didn't Cody's letter say that's where he was headed?"
Lou nodded and almost smiled at the thought of their Billy Cody taking on the big city. But Cody was a dreamer and if dreams did come true, it would be among the bright lights and busy colors of New York City. Dreams tended to dry up and shrivel away to nothingness in Rock Creek. "Even if we can find him, he'd never make it back in time."
"I know," Rachel said. "But it's the best we can do. What about Jimmy?"
"He was gonna help Celinda and Nathan move to Denver. Don't know what his plans were after that . . . don't think he knew. Reckon we could send a wire to Denver. Maybe track him down through Celinda." After a moment Lou added, "Buck's probably long gone."
"He's in Bennett Springs," Rachel repeated. "It's a little ways north of Kearney. He's workin' on a ranch up there."
Lou grazed her teeth over her bottom lip and chipped away a bit of cracked paint from the porch post with her fingernail. "How do you know?"
"He writes now and then."
Lou was quiet for a long moment. "How does he sound? In the letters . . . how does he sound?"
Rachel's eye wandered across the empty yard half expecting to see one of her boys streak by in a cloud of dust, toss the mochila and stumble to her kitchen table. They had been a handful at times, to be sure. A bunch of kids trying to grow up too fast. But those were simpler times. How sweet it would be to go back to a time before war divided their table and hurts were soothed away by the healing power of family.
"He sounds lonely, Lou. He sounds lonely."
It had only been a year since he left, but it seemed longer. Seemed more like ten, twenty . . . a thousand. For a moment Buck considered passing by the McCloud homestead and riding on to Rock Creek. It was Rachel who had sent for him, not Kid or Lou. But fears that he would arrive too late had clouded good judgment and he had pushed his horse harder than he should have. Both the lathered animal and its weary rider were in need of a rest.
The homestead hadn't changed, yet somehow it was different. He knew every inch of Kid and Lou's property. He knew the low spots where water would stand after a rain. If he listened closely, he could hear the rattle of dry seedpods on the hollyhocks outside the kitchen window. He knew the exact point in its arc when the porch swing would begin to squeak. Intimate details. And it puzzled him how he could feel so close yet so distant at the same time.
Rachel's wire had been brief. "Teaspoon ill. Hurry." The cryptic message, printed in tidy block lettering, had nearly been swallowed up by the whiteness of the paper. Three simple words that when read individually had been benign enough, yet the collective meaning had terrified him more than the volume of Poe tucked under his bunk back in Bennett Springs. He had asked the foreman for time off explaining it was a family matter and he was needed at home although "family" and "home" were words he hadn't thought of in quite a while. The words were precious possessions of a past life, wrapped in tissue and tucked away on the top shelf, out of his reach, gathering dust. They were fragile words and could be so easily damaged. Treasured words that spoke of affection and trust and a kinship that was no longer his.
"Damn, it's good to see you, Buck! Where the hell have you been?" Kid clapped his hand across the weary traveler's back with an exuberance he hadn't felt in a long time. The brotherly show of affection stirred the layers of grime and Buck's jacket seemed to cough trail dust. He barely had time to loop the gelding's reins through the porch railing let alone stretch out the cramp in his calf or respond before Kid dragged him up the stairs and into the house. "Lou! Set another plate! We've got company!"
Turning back to Buck, Kid's rapid fire of words continued. "I don't know what Lou's got cookin' but it's bound to be better than whatever you had on the trail. You are hungry, aren't ya? Well, of course you are . . . from the amount of dust you're wearin' looks like you been ridin' all day."
Buck hung back in the doorway and although the aroma of freshly sliced bread made his mouth water and his empty stomach growled like an agitated animal, he was hesitant to enter. "Three days."
"Well, get in here then! We've got a lot of catchin' up to do!"
Buck's eye wandered curiously across the front room of his friends' home. Lou had become an immaculate housekeeper. Each piece of furniture stood rigidly upright as if it was forbidden to relax. Lou and Kid's wedding photograph sat at a perfect angle on a table beside the wing back chair. A stack of books occupied a spot on the table near the window, sitting one on top of the other in graduated sizes. A lap quilt hung exactly centered over the back of the settee. It was an attractive room, but it appeared almost lifeless in its precision. A perfect picture, yet something was missing. Buck thought it looked more like the advertisements in the catalog at the Bennett Springs Emporium that proclaimed to offer everything a woman needed to provide a happy home all in the ease of catalog shopping.
"I'm a mess, Kid." Buck shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other as Lou appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. "I don't want to get dirt all over Lou's front room."
Lou took exaggerated care in drying her hands, then folded the towel neatly lengthwise in thirds and laid the damp cloth over her shoulder. She leaned into the doorway, regarding her old friend as if he was a stranger appearing on her doorstep with unknown intent and crossed her arms over her chest as protection from some invisible threat. Their eyes locked for a brief moment before Buck's gaze skittered sideways.
"I reckon it'll wash," she finally answered, her words as limp as the towel draped across her shoulder.
Layers of the trail washed from his face and wearing a clean shirt, Buck felt almost presentable as Lou called the two men to the supper table. Her features tightened noticeably as Kid sat a bottle of amber liquid beside the plate of bread and butter as if it, too, was a dinner staple.
"Can't you at least wait until after supper, Kid?"
"Lou, I haven't seen Buck in nearly four years," he retorted and filled his glass nearly to the brim. "I think that calls for a celebration."
Flaunting his victory, Kid poured another tumbler full and placed the glass in front of Buck at the table, but he would not find a drinking partner in the Kiowa. Buck shook his head. "No thanks. Coffee's just fine."
"Suit yourself." Kid raised his glass and offered a toast of "To the Pony Express" before tossing the liquor down his throat. Once the buzz in his head quieted to a hum, his mood turned somber, remembering the circumstances that had prompted the reunion. "Shame it's somethin' like Teaspoon being sick that brings you home, Buck, but it is awful good to see you. What are you doin' in . . . where was it? Bennett Springs?"
"Workin' on a ranch. Gatherin' up mustangs mostly."
"Lou said you left last year to help the army negotiate some big treaty with the Kiowa. Everything work out all right?"
Buck's fork hovered in mid-air for a moment waiting for his senses to catch up. Suddenly aware of the awkward position, he lowered his hand to the table and set the utensil aside. To buy a little time, he picked up his napkin, pressed the cloth to his mouth and stole a quick glance toward Lou over the square of blue calico. But his hostess seemed to have taken great interest in the piece of bread on her plate and left Buck feeling a bit naked, forced to cover himself on his own.
He supposed that was as good a lie as any. For a moment Buck considered concocting some details to support the untruth, perhaps invent terms of the treaty, but decided against it. Lying didn't come that easily. "Turned out fine."
The shadow of guilt that crossed Buck's face didn't pass unnoticed and Kid was quick to offer his reassurance of what he assumed to be its cause. "You don't go feelin' bad about havin' to leave, Buck. You remember I told you when I left that you weren't obligated to stay. Hell . . . who knew I'd be gone that long? I'm grateful for the time you were here. What I don't understand though, is why you didn't come back to Rock Creek if you decided not to stay with the Kiowa?"
Buck composed his answer carefully and this time he didn't have to lie. "Being in Rock Creek reminds me of things I don't want to remember I guess." Eager to steer the conversation on a different course, he motioned to the plate before him with his fork. "This is good, Lou. Beats the jerky I was gonna have for supper hands down," he added with a hopeful smile.
Lou didn't answer, merely nodded her acceptance of the compliment.
"You're awful quiet, tonight, Lou," Kid said. "You've barely said two words since Buck got here. Somethin' wrong?"
Lou looked up from her plate, startled. "Been sittin' with Teaspoon all day. It wears on me."
"Have you heard from Cody or Jimmy?" Buck asked.
Lou shook her head. "Last we knew of Jimmy, he was in Denver and Cody headed east after the war. Rachel's still tryin' to track them down." A slim smile threatened across Lou's face at the mention of their missing friends. "We got a letter from Cody last October . . . said he was thinkin' on writin' a book about his adventures scoutin' during the war. Cody always said he'd be famous some day."
"Well, I'm sure that'll be a fine work of blue-belly fiction," Kid said. "But I reckon it'll sell just fine in Thompkins' store. Nobody out here cares what it was really like."
"Nobody forced you to go, Kid," said Lou.
"You know, Lou, Buck didn't agree with my leavin' either, but at least he respected my decision to go. That's more than my own wife could do."
Retreating from the sparring match, Buck leaned back in his chair until he felt the wooden spindles press against his spine. Lou's independence versus Kid's overprotectiveness had provided the riders with a ready source of entertainment during their Express days and an argument between the two was nothing new. Jimmy had once likened their arguments to the tennis game Teaspoon had tried to teach them and it did seem an apt comparison - opponents swatting some silly ball of contention back and forth. But their battles had been merely an animated way of feeling each other out and setting the rules for their relationship. So set in their opinions, their arguments were almost comical at times. From these bitter tones, it was evident that Lou and Kid's bickering had moved into a more heated sport and there was nothing funny about these practiced jabs.
"Well, you weren't married to Buck now were you?" Lou retorted. "Must we talk about this now, Kid? Like you said, we do have a guest."
Buck cleared his throat before Kid could throw a counter punch. "Thank you for supper, but I'd best be gettin' on to the hotel. It's been a long day."
"Hotel? What are you talkin' about, Buck?" Kid asked. "Why spend good money on a hotel room when there's a bed upstairs still has your name on it?"
Buck shook his head. "No. I don't want you to go to any trouble on my account. Lou's already worn out from tendin' Teaspoon."
"You ain't no trouble. You're family for God's sake, Buck. You can head into town in the mornin' to see Teaspoon. It's likely too late to see him tonight anyway. You're stayin' here and we ain't takin' no for an answer. Are we, Lou?"
Lou was quiet for a moment then offered a smile to assure her houseguest that he was indeed welcome. But her smile seemed nearly painted on like a doll's smile - a bit too perfect, a bit too forced and about as welcoming as her front room. Buck wondered if he turned to the next page in the emporium catalog if he would find a likeness of Lou there, too.
"Kid's right," Lou said. "No need to waste money."
"You stay put," Kid added and shook his finger in Buck's direction to accentuate the order. He pushed himself away from the table and reached for his glass to finish off the whiskey. Shouldn't waste it either. "I'll see to your horse. Doubt you'd make it to town anyway. You're 'bout half asleep just sittin' there."
Buck realized he was tired and the admission only added weight to his drooping eyelids. He hadn't slept much since receiving Rachel's wire, but instead laid awake in his bedroll, the simple words of the telegram twisting and turning his gut into a tangle of knotted threads. The thought of settling his weary bones into a mattress that remembered the shape of his body was tempting. But even a year later, Lou's words still resounded like thunder in his ears.
"I don't want you here."
The tines of Buck's fork clicked on his plate as he pushed bits of food back and forth, occupying himself until the door closed behind Kid. Even though they were alone, his words were hushed. "I'll go on to town if you want me to leave, Lou."
Her last memory of Buck as he rode away a year earlier was of a despair so deep it flooded his eyes with pain. But rather than move on with time, the pain had settled in and found a home in his dark eyes. Lou looked away uncomfortably and fiddled with her napkin, folding and unfolding the cloth. "No . . . no it's all right. Kid's all excited about havin' you stay."
"I won't be here long," Buck promised.
Lou agreed with a quick, stiff nod of her head. "That would be best."
Buck had arrived at Rachel's house a little past sunup and they sat drinking coffee and talking quietly for a time until young Thad Cooper's overzealous ringing of the school bell called her away. Buck hooked his boot heels on the top rung of the stool and propped his elbows on his knees. Rachel didn't tell him exactly what to do other than just sit with Teaspoon, so he watched and he waited and each movement from the sick bed created a mixture of anticipation and dread.
Teaspoon's fevered ramblings ran on through the morning like white water tumbling over and over upon itself with no direction. The random words bubbled together and had no clear meaning - at least none that Buck could discern. The stream of babble reminded him of a child learning to talk, saying whatever happened to come into his mind. Teaspoon had shivered all morning and although Buck had taken care to keep the fire burning steadily, the warmth could not persuade the chill inside him to lie still and rest. Nearly hidden under a layer of blankets, his pale skin tinged a malarial yellow, the older man looked almost as transparent and fragile as a locust shell. And very small. Sad how war could shrink a man.
Had a man Teaspoon's age come to the aid of the Confederacy at the war's infancy, he would have been thanked for his patriotism, but told that young fighting men were plentiful and because the Confederacy would rise to independent glory once the Union was fed a taste of a Southern boy's mettle, his services would not be required. But as the conflict wore on and many a Southern boy's mettle was spilled bloody and broken across the homeland, any man with a trigger finger was given a gun and pointed in the direction of a battlefield. Teaspoon had served three years in the boggy deltas of the deep South where insects and disease were as great a threat as any regiment of blue-coated infantry. It had been suggested on more than one occasion that since the mosquitoes were big enough to tote a rifle, they should be conscripted into service and increase the Confederate ranks by ten fold. But the insects seemed to have no particular affinity for either side and found a Billy Yank's flesh every bit as tasty as a Johnny Reb's and both armies suffered equally in the illnesses planted by the winged enemy. It was one of those illnesses that Teaspoon had carried home.
Buck didn't know what to do. No more than he had known what to do as a twelve-year-old boy sitting by his mother's side. He closed his eyes and could still see her - her copper skin, pale and pock marked with the white man's sickness. Her dark hair pasted to her face with silver beads of sweat. He saw himself turning away and listening to the sound of her shallow breathing. If he tried very hard, he could make himself believe she was merely sleeping and she wasn't leaving him. A twelve-year-old could easily deceive himself in that way. He remembered touching her hand, curling his fingers around hers. It seemed to give her some comfort.
The thought of another bedside vigil opened an old wound like a rusted knife twisting in his gut. Losing Ike had been painful - spirit breakingly painful - and he had grieved himself raw over the loss of his friend. But it had been the loss of a sibling. An equal.
Teaspoon's eyes roved and darted about the room and it puzzled Buck how eyes that had been sharp enough to look through Cody's arrogance and Hickok's bitterness and saw all the way to his own self doubt could have grown so dim. Glazed over, they looked like the eyes of a man buried under a sheet of ice, struggling for an opening, trapped by a treasonous body, and Buck had to look away. The glare of the fire cast a dull glint on the assortment of medicine bottles arranged on the bedside table and behind the table the walls quivered in the yellow light. Quiet now, Buck wished for Teaspoon's fevered ramblings to fill the emptiness and cover the sounds of fear pounding against his chest.
He dipped a cloth in a pail of cool water and pressed it to Teaspoon's face, sponging gently until the cloth absorbed the heat and a spark of recognition flared in Teaspoon's eyes.
"Yeah, Teaspoon. It's me," Buck answered quietly, breathing a little easier.
Teaspoon's eyes narrowed, bringing the image into closer focus, and reached out a shaky hand to make certain the vision before him was real and not some apparition of his fevered mind. "Come closer, son. Lemme get a look at you. My eyes . . . my eyes ain't what they used to be."
Buck moved almost timidly from the stool to the edge of the bed and reached for Teaspoon's hand. The old man smiled weakly. "Yes . . . yes. That's my boy. Why ain't you come home sooner, Buck? I been worried about you."
"My foreman ain't as good about givin' time off as my old boss was. I'm doin' fine," Buck assured him, amazed at how each new lie came a little easier than the last.
"Are the others here yet?" Teaspoon asked, his voice raspy. "Hickok and Cody . . . I need to see my boys."
"No. Not yet," Buck answered and smoothed aside a fly-away wisp of silver hair from Teaspoon's forehead. "But you don't worry about that. Rachel will find them."
Growing weary, Teaspoon sank back into the mound of pillows and closed his eyes to preserve what vision he had left. "Not much sand left in this old hourglass. Need to see my boys 'fore it runs dry."
Buck swallowed hard, but the lump in his throat was securely lodged. "Don't talk like that Teaspoon. You're gonna be fine. Probably out live us all."
"I'm just so tired," Teaspoon mumbled, his voice so low Buck had to draw closer to hear. "Sleep more'n a newborn babe but . . . still tired. Can't seem to get enough."
"Then why don't you rest some? You'll feel better then," Buck answered with more confidence than he felt. "I'll be here when you wake up."
Teaspoon drew a weary breath, the rise and fall of his chest settling into a ragged staccato rhythm. Buck took Teaspoon's hand into his own and tenderly brushed his thumb along the tracks of welted scars and powder burns. The cracked skin felt withered and dry as an autumn leaf turned brittle by an early frost. When had the hand that had so often applied balm and bandage to his wounded soul become so old and fragile?
Buck wanted to shake him awake like a frightened little boy in need of his father's comforting touch in a storm. He wanted to tell him everything. Wanted to feel the man's strong grip around his shoulders, wanted to fall limp into the embrace and confess his sin. Needed to hear his gruff voice telling him that it would be all right now and in Teaspoon's magical way he would make everything better. But the man beside him was no longer the icon of strength and understanding he had depended upon to reel him back in when he drifted, but a frail old man with the light slowly fading from his eyes. There would be no prescription of penance, no words of reassurance offered and there was no magic that could ever turn back time and make everything the way it was before.