Read an Excerpt
Riley Blake tramped through the trees, a rifle cradled in one arm, the other hand clutching a stick from which two dead squirrels dangled. No longer walking with hunter stealth, dead leaves rustled beneath his feet.
He emerged from the woods near the road and worked his way through the strands of a barbed-wire fence. As he stood upright and pulled his coat tighter against the cold November air, a movement to his left drew his attention. The late-afternoon sun highlighted a figure in a dress flying down the hill toward him on a bicycle.
He recognized Jolene Delaney's little sister, Irene. A pretty black-haired thing, she had been a familiar sight riding up and down this road from the time she could ride a bike. Riley guessed she would be about fifteen now. But the way she was bent low and pedaling furiously signaled trouble.
Alarm skittered up his spine. Could something have happened to Jolene? Not that she mattered to him in any special way. Not anymore. He hopped across the ditch and waited by the gravel road.
The girl braked and skidded to a stop a few feet past him, hopped off and backed up. "Dad cut his leg with the ax. Bad," she added, struggling to draw air into her lungs. She looked pale and scared. She must have beaten all her speed records on the mile ride from her house.
"Let's get Mom. She'll know what to do."
He set out at a fast clip for the house a hundred yards farther down the road. Irene pushed her bike alongside him. "When did it happen?" he asked, the squirrels flopping against his knee.
"Sometime this afternoon," she managed to say between gasps. "I came home from school and found him on the kitchen floor. He had dragged himself in there and wrapped a towel around his leg."
"She got home right after I did. He wouldn't let us get a doctor."
"Do they know you're here?"
She looked over at him as they turned into the yard. "No. Dad was worried about the chores. I told him I'd do 'em." She leaned the bike against a tree.
Riley nodded and opened the front door of the small-frame structure of weathered wood. "So they think you're at the barn."
She bobbed her head in quick jerks and followed him inside the living room.
"Mom, you here?" he yelled.
His mother appeared in the kitchen door, wiping her hands on the bib apron that draped her thin torso. Her deep blue eyes widened when they landed on Irene.
"What's a matter, child?"
As Irene explained about her dad, Riley considered the fastest way to get to the Delaney house. There was no gas in the old carno money to buy anyplus it had a flat tire. Shucks, they didn't have money for anything these days.
"I'll hitch the team to the buckboard while you get ready," he said, knowing without a doubt his mom would go to help the neighbors. Dad had gone to town on horseback to get a part for the tractor, giving Riley a couple hours off work to hunt squirrels for their supper. Trouble with the machinery was the last thing they needed.
"Have a seat and catch your breath. I'll be back in two shakes." His mom hurried to the back door and stuck her head out. "Clem," she yelled, "come finish fixin' supper. I have to leave."
Riley stepped into the kitchen and tossed the squirrels on the table on his way out the back door. Halfway to the barn he met his youngest sister, Clementine, headed to the house from the woodpile. It took him several minutes to round up the horses from the corral and harness them to the wagon. He was thankful they were in the corral rather than in the pasture across the road, where they ran free when not in use.
On his way back to the house, his mom and Irene emerged and came to meet him. He took his mom's bag and gave her a boost up onto the wagon seat. Then he tossed the bag onto her lap and ran around to climb up beside her.
"Come up here by me," his mom called over her shoulder when the girl shoved her bike up into the wagon and started to climb into the back with it. Riley clicked to the horses and set off while they were still getting settled.
Their faces were red from the cold by the time they got to the Delaney farm. He hitched the team in front of the porch that stretched across the front and wrapped around one corner of the two-story house. His mom went inside. When Irene headed for the barn, he grabbed her arm. "Go on inside with Mom. I'll do your chores."
"Thank you." She rubbed the back of a hand over her eyes and did as he said.
He started to take off, but hesitated. He needed milk buckets, and they had to be inside the house. Where Jolene was bound to be.
Well, so what. His younger sister's best friend, Miss Holier-Than-Thou, wasn't the issue here. It was her injured dad.
The Delaneys had always had a nicer house and more money than the Blakes until things got so desperate for everybody. Like so many farmers, Sam Delaney had lost his savings when the banks closed, and then the drought had forced him to sell his cattle at a loss, even slaughter some of them. He was a good man, but now he was as poor as everyone else.
As Riley's mom disappeared inside the house, the door started to close then opened again. Framed in the doorway, Jolene stood, looking as beautiful as no, more so than ever.
Riley's heart almost forgot to beat, numbed by the sight. She was still slender, with big brown eyes that glinted under dark brows, her long wheat-colored hair pulled back from her oval face. Five more years of maturity had only made her more beautiful than she had been as a teen.
She didn't look overjoyed to see him. Well, the feeling was mutual.
He opened his mouth to speak. Closed it. Cleared his throat and tried again. "I uh it's nice to see you again." The words came out thick and unnatural as his thoughts rattled around in his brain.
"I'm fine," she said, a hand moving to her mouth in a nervous gesture. She seemed as shocked as he at their meeting.
Seconds passed, during which silent messages of angerremembrancespassed between them.
"You look good," he said, his lips releasing his thoughts without any conscious planning on his part.
Pink colored her face. "Thank you," she said softly.
He'd taken care to avoid her for years. Now he stood here like a lightning-struck idiot. He squared his shoulders. "I hope your dad is all right."
Concern instantly clouded her features.
"We appreciate you coming and bringing your mother," she said, seeming to squeeze out the words.
He closed his eyes for a moment and fought for control. When he opened them, he managed to focus on the present. "Got a couple of milk buckets I can use?"
She hesitated, as if struggling to think. "I'll get them," she finally said. She turned and disappeared, and then reappeared moments later with a pail in each hand.
He stepped near the doorway and reached for them. Their hands brushed, causing both of them to flinch and complete the transfer quickly as he wrapped his fingers around the pails. "I'll feed the animals."
Regret ate at Jolene as Riley strode toward the barn, his back ramrod straight. Why had she managed to alienate him?
Her breathing was labored, her ability to think halted. She wanted to go after him, to try to make it right. With a sigh she closed the door. She didn't have time to make it right. Even if she did, she didn't know how.
Irene turned from stoking the fire in the kitchen stove. "Sorry I ducked out on chores."
Jolene nodded, her mouth locked in a tight line. "It's okay. You were scared. So am I. I'm glad you went for help."
Her sister winced. "Even if Riley came?"
"Yeah, even if Riley came," she said as she fought the memories stirred by his arrival. "Dad didn't leave you any choice about not getting the doctor."
So Irene had taken the next best action. Her little sister had grown up way too fast since their mother's death five years ago. Jolene had never minded being left with the responsibility of raising her then ten-year-old sister and taking her mother's place as the woman of the house. She had accepted that it meant not being free to marry like her girlfriends had done. But having Irene beginning to make decisions was a welcome lightening of her load.
"I'll invite Riley and his mother to supper." Irene's statement held a question.
Jolene sighed. "It's the right thing to do." Even if they wouldn't stay. Riley wouldn't, anyhow.
Back in her dad's bedroom, Jolene watched Dessie Blake check his leg and remove the bandage that Jolene had wrapped from below the knee almost to the foot. "I cleaned it good and soaked it in coal oil like he ordered," Jolene explained.
Dessie didn't look up. "You done good, Jolene. But I think we better stitch on it. I'll get a needle and thread sterilized."
Her dad glared up at them through eyes glazed with pain. "Don't need you gals fussin' over me. I'll be fine. I have to be." He moved to rise up in the bed.
Dessie put her hand on his chest and pressed him back onto the mattress. "Sam Delaney, you use some 'a the good sense the Lord give ya and stay off that leg. That's a real nasty gash. It looks like it went clean to the bone. If ya take off on it too soon, you'll end up makin' it worse, maybe even lose the leg."
He glared like he was set to argue, but then he looked back and forth between Dessie and Jolene and eased back onto the bed.
"Riley's taking care of the chores," Dessie informed him. "So don't you worry none about anything."
Jolene exhaled a long breath of relief. Dad listened better to Dessie than to her or Irene. The older woman, her best friend's mother, had a reputation as a healer. Even Dad respected her air of authority.
Dessie pulled a needle from her bag and held it up. Jolene took it to the kitchen and lifted the front lid on the stove. Holding the needle with a pair of pliers from the work drawer, she extended it over the flames a few seconds. Then she took it back to the bedroom.
As she held her dad's leg in place for Dessie to stitch it, Jolene's stomach knotted at the sight of the horrible wound and the reddened area around it. To help block out the sound of Dad's groans, she let her mind envision Riley hunkered down on the low milk stool out in the barn. He had lost none of his affect on her.
As soon as Dessie finished, Jolene got out of the room, fighting to keep her stomach from emptying. In the kitchen, Irene stood at the stove, stirring a pot of potato soup. She appeared on the verge of tears. More accurately, she looked like she had been crying.
Irene looked around at her. "Do you think I should stay home from school tomorrow and look after Dad?"
Jolene shook her head. "You can't miss that big math test you've been studying for all week."
"But you have to teach."
Irene was right. As a rural teacher, Jolene didn't get time off for vacations or sickness. Any days she missed would have to be added to the end of the school year. Dad knew all that and would never hear of her staying home to "babysit" him.
She wiped a hand across her brow, too tired to think. "Let's talk about it after we eat and get the work done."
A scream from outside the house made them both jump. Jolene dashed to the door and jerked it open. At the edge of the yard she saw that Riley had a young boy gripped by the shoulders, marching him toward the house, the kid kicking and yowling in protest. In a move of exasperation, Riley yanked the boy up under his arm and carried him. Twisting and struggling, the boy almost got away, but Riley tightened his hold and kept walking.
Jolene stepped out the kitchen door to meet them.
When Riley set the boy on his feet, she saw his face for the first time. "Why, what's the matter, Kurt?" She gripped the boy's shoulders and stooped to peer into his face.
"I milked one cow and set the bucket aside while I milked the other one," Riley explained when the boy didn't speak. "I heard something and looked around. This young man was scooping milk outa the bucket with his hands, slurping it down."
Jolene stared at Kurt. He was small for an eight-year-old, but still heavy enough to have her straining to hold on to him. She squatted before him. "You're hungry, aren't you, Kurt?"
His head bobbed, his overlong blond hair nearly obscuring his eyes.
"Where are your parents?"
His mouth locked in mutinous silence.
She looked up at Riley in the fading light. "He's tired and hungry."
"I'll finish milking while you feed him."
Jolene didn't have time to watch his departing figure the way she would have liked. She got to her feet, keeping a firm grip on Kurt's hand. "Let's find you something to eat."
She led her former student inside and pressed him into a chair at the table. Then she poured him a glass of milk.
"Here's some corn bread," Irene said as she pulled a pan from the oven. She cut a piece and put it on a saucer. Jolene buttered it and took some bacon from the platter Irene was filling.
The boy shoveled food into his mouth like he hadn't had anything all day. Jolene sat in the chair near the corner of the table where she could be at eye level with him. "Did you come out here this morning instead of going to school?"
Kurt swallowed and gave a silent nod, his eyes not fully meeting hers.
"Why did you do that? Don't you know your parents are worried about you?"
His lip trembled, but he finally spoke. "I hate that school. The kids talk mean and make fun of me because I'm from the country."
Oh, dear. Jolene understood only too well how hurtful children could be to one another. "But you have to go to school. Your mom and dad want you to learn things that will help you as you grow up."
He gulped, and one big tear oozed from the corner of his eye. "I know. I want to do that. But I can't go to that school. Can't I come back to your school?"
Kurt was not the brightest scholar she had taught in her seven years at the Deer Creek School, but he had never been a problem child and he worked as hard as any of the children. It broke Jolene's heart to see him so unhappy.
Riley came to the door with the full milk pails. He hesitated before entering.
"Come on in," she invited. She got up and took one of the buckets. As she set it on the table, Irene took the other bucket and said, "I'll strain it."
Jolene glanced down at the unhappy child. "Can you also watch Kurt for a few minutes?"
Irene looked at Riley and then back at Jolene. "Sure."
Jolene spoke to Riley in a low voice. "Let's step outside."