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It was the screaming that woke him.
Jeb bolted upright in bed and forced himself to look around the darkened room, to recognize familiar details. Four years had passed since the accident. Four years in which his mind refused to release even one small detail of that fateful afternoon.
Leaning against his headboard, he dragged in deep gulps of air until the shaking subsided. Invariably with the dream came the pain, the pain in his leg. The remembered agony of that summer's day.
His mind refused to forget and so did his body. As he waited for his hammering pulse to return to normal, pain shot through his badly scarred thigh, cramping his calf muscle. Instinctively cringing, he stiffened until the discomfort passed.
Then he started to laugh. Sitting on the edge of his bed, Jeb reached for his prosthesis and strapped it onto the stump of his left leg. This was the joke: The pain Jeb experienced, the charley horse that knotted and twisted his muscles, was in a leg that had been amputated four years earlier.
He'd cheated death that day, but death had gained its own revenge. The doctors had a phrase for it. They called it phantom pain, and assured him that eventually it would pass. It was all part of his emotional adjustment to the loss of a limb. Or so they said, over and over, only Jeb had given up listening a long time ago.
After he'd dressed, he made his way into the kitchen, eager to get some caffeine into his system and dispel the lingering effects of the dream. Then he remembered he wasout of coffee.
It didn't take a genius to realize that Sarah had purposely forgotten coffee when she'd delivered his supplies. This was his sister's less-than-subtle effort to make him go into town. It wouldn't work. He wasn't going to let her manipulate himeven if it meant roasting barley and brewing that.
Jeb slammed out the back door and headed for the barn, his limp more pronounced with his anger. His last trip into Buffalo Valley had been at Christmas, almost ten months earlier. Sarah knew how he felt about people staring at him, whispering behind his back as if he wasn't supposed to know what they were talking about. He'd lost his leg, not his hearing or his intelligence. Their pity was as unwelcome as their curiosity.
Jeb hadn't been particularly sociable before the accident and was less so now. Sarah knew that, too. She was also aware that his least favorite person in Buffalo Valley was Marta Hansen, the grocer's wife. The old biddy treated him like a charity case, a poor, pathetic crippleas if it was her duty, now that his mother was gone, to smother him with sympathy. Her condescending manner offended him and hurt his already wounded pride.
Jeb knew he made people uncomfortable. His loss reminded other farmers of their own vulnerability. With few exceptions, namely Dennis, the men he'd once considered friends felt awkward and uneasy around him. Even more now that he'd given up farming and taken up raising bison. For the past three and a half years he'd maintained a herd of fifty breeding animals. He'd learned mostly by trial and error, but felt he'd made considerable progress.
Genesis, his gelding, walked to the corral fence and stretched his head over the rail to remind Jeb he hadn't been fed yet.
"I haven't had my coffee," he told the quarter horse, as if the animal could commiserate with him. He hardly ever rode anymore, but kept the horse for company.
He fed the gelding, then returned to the kitchen.
Cursing his sister and her obstinate ways, he wrote a grocery listif he was going into town he'd make it worth his whileand hurried toward his pickup. The October wind felt almost hot in his face. A few minutes later, he drove out of the yard, sparing a glance for the bison grazing stolidly on either side. He moved the herd on a pasture rotation system. Later in the day he'd separate the weanlings and feeders from the main herd.
Buffalo ranching. He'd made the right decision. They were hardy animals, requiring less care than cattle did. The demand for their meat was growing and often exceeded supply. Business was good. Currently his females were worth more as breeding stock than meat: just last week, Jeb had sold one of his cows for a healthy five thousand dollars.
To his surprise, he enjoyed the fifty-minute drive to Buffalo Valley, although he rarely ventured into town these days. Usually he preferred to drive with no real destination, enjoying the solitude and the changing seasons and the feel of the road.
When he pulled into town, he was immediately struck by the changes the last ten months had brought to Buffalo Valley. Knight's Pharmacy was and always had been the brightest spot on Main Street. Hassie Knight had been around as long as he could remember and served the world's best old-fashioned ice-cream sodas. He'd loved that place as a kid and had considered it a special treat when his mother took him there on Saturday afternoons.
Like Marta Hansen, Hassie Knight had been a friend of his mother's; she was also the one woman he knew, other than Sarah, who didn't make him feel like a cripple.
3 OF A KIND, the town's only hotel, bar and grill, was down the street from the pharmacy, Jeb had briefly met Buffalo Bob a couple of years earlier. He never did understand why a leather-clad, tattooed biker with a ponytail would settle in Buffalo Valley, but it wasn't up to him to question. Bob had lasted longer than Jeb had thought he would. People seemed to like him, or so Calla, Jeb's niece, had informed him.
The Pizza Parlor was new, but now that he thought about it, he remembered Sarah telling him Calla had started working there part-time. Good thingthe kid needed an outlet. She was fifteen and full of attitude. Jeb suspected that Dennis and his sister would have been married by now if it wasn't for Calla.
Sarah's quilting store came into view next and despite his irritation with her, he couldn't squelch his sense of pride. Her quilts were exquisite, crafted from muslin colored with various natural dyes that Sarah derived from plants, berries and lichen. She managed to make something complex and beautiful out of this hand-dyed muslin, combining traditional methods with her own designs. The store was a testament to her talent and skill. She took justifiable pride in her work, displaying quilts in the front window of what had once been a florist shop. The Spring Bouquet had been closed for at least fifteen years. Folks didn't buy a luxury like hothouse flowers when it was hard enough just getting food on the table.