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Gabe Talmadge felt the backside of his navel rubbing against his spine. An interesting sensation, he thought before losing consciousness.
He ran from the darkness. He always ran, and it always followed. There was no escaping it. There never would be. The darkness would always be with him, hovering nearby, waiting to encompass him, enfold him, devour him. It would be easy to let it overtake him, to allow it to ...
"Are you hurt?"
The soft, feminine voice came from a great distance.
A hand slipped beneath his head. A small hand, with a touch as gentle as the voice.
"Can you hear me?"
Gabe opened his eyes. A shadowy form leaned forward, the bright light of midday glaring behind the woman, blinding him.
"Here. Take a drink."
His head was lifted slightly, and something cool touched his lips. Water trickled down his chin. Covering the woman's hand with his own, Gabe steadied the canteen, then drank deeply.
"Easy. Not too fast."
His thirst momentarily slaked, he closed his eyes. "Thanks."
"We should get you into the shade. It's powerful hot today. Can you stand?"
"Yes," he answered, although he wasn't as confident as he tried to sound.
Holding his arm, she helped him sit up. "Don't hurry. Take your time."
He thought he could feel the earth turning on itsaxis, and he gritted his teeth against the sensation.
"Ready?" his angel of mercy asked.
He opened his eyes a second time. "Ready." As he rose to his feet, the woman slipped beneath his arm, close against his side, taking his weight upon herself. It was humiliating to be this weak. His mind raged against it, as it had raged against countless degradations in the past, but rage changed nothing, then or now.
He glanced down. He could see little besides a floppy-brimmed straw hat above a narrow set of shoulders.
"We're going over there." She pointed with her free arm toward a good-sized birch tree. "Careful. We'll go slow. Take your time. Not too fast."
He could have told her not to worry—he was unable to do anything fast.
Except Fall to the ground in a dead faint ...
Which he promptly did.
* * *
Well, Lord. What do I do with him now?
Akira Macauley rolled the stranger onto his back. It was difficult to judge his age, given the shaggy black beard covering gaunt cheeks. There were holes in the bottoms of his boots, and the knees of his trousers were threadbare. Both he and his clothes needed a good washing, but Akira guessed cleanliness didn't mean much when one was going hungry.
I hope this hobo's not the one You sent, Lord. He's nothing but a rack of bones. I could make better use of a man who knows sheep, if that wouldn't be too much to ask.
With a shake of her head, she said aloud, "He'll be even less use if he dies."
She stood, grabbed hold of both his wrists, then walked backward, dragging him toward the shade. Despite his rawboned appearance, he weighed enough to make the going hard. Sweat rolled down her spine.
The stranger groaned.
"We're nearly there," she said.
Reaching the cool shadows beneath a leafy green tree, Akira lowered his arms with a sigh of relief.
He groaned again as his eyelids fluttered and eventually opened.
She dropped to her knees beside him and leaned forward, waiting for his vision to clear. When she thought he could see her, she said, "Give yourself a moment. You're weaker than a newborn lamb." She glanced over her shoulder and pointed at the canteen where she'd left it. "Cam, fetch."
Her collie, who'd patiently observed all the goings-on from a short distance, jumped up and raced to obey her mistress's command.
Akira returned her attention to the stranger. "When was the last time you ate something?
"I'm not sure."
How'd he get so lost, Lord? He's a long way from the rails. And any man who could get that turned around would serve me no purpose. I'd spend all my time looking for him in the hills. You must see I'm right about that. Surely You've got a better way of answering my prayers than sending a shepherd who can't find his way.
Cam delivered the canteen, and Akira offered it to the stranger.
With her help, he sat up, then opened the canteen and lifted it to his mouth. He took small gulps this time, washing the water around inside his mouth before swallowing. Finally he lowered the canteen and met her watchful gaze.
Something twisted in her belly, a reaction to the stark emptiness in his brown eyes. She didn't think she'd seen anything so sad in all her born days.
Dear Jesus, he's lost in more ways than one, isn't he?
"How far am I from Ransom?" His voice sounded utterly hopeless.
Still reeling from what she'd seen in his eyes, she couldn't think clearly enough to answer him.
"I'm on the right road, aren't I? For Ransom?"
She swallowed. "Yes. You're on the right road. Ransom's a bit more than fifteen miles to the north." She frowned. "But if you're looking for work at the lumbermill you needn't bother. There's no work to be had."
He turned his head, judging the short distance to the tree, then slowly inched himself closer to it, stopping when he could rest his back against the trunk. He closed his eyes again.
"No work at the mill," he whispered.
"But it's still there?"
"The mill? Yes, it's still there."
Silence fell between them. He kept his eyes closed, and she kept hers trained on him.
There's no work for him in these parts. He'll turn around and go back the way he came. As well he should. Look at him.
YEA, LOOK AT HIM.
But, Lord ...
FOR I WAS HUNGRY, AND YE GAVE ME TO EAT; I WAS THIRSTY, AND YE GAVE ME DRINK; I WAS A STRANGER, AND YE TOOK ME IN.
"What's your name?" he asked, breaking into her silent conversation with the Lord.
"Akira. Akira Macauley."
He opened one eye. "Akira?"
"It's Scottish. Means anchor. My grandfather wanted me to have a strong name so I wouldn't be afraid of life, so I'd have a reminder of where to find my Anchor. He placed great store in the meaning of names, my grandfather."
"Mmm." The stranger's eyelid closed.
"And your name?"
"You can call me Gabe."
"Gabe. Short for Gabriel?" She smiled. "Gabriel—a strong man of God."
Eyes wide open now, he gave her a look that was anything but friendly.
"That's the meaning of your name," she explained.
"You're mistaken, Miss Macauley. That's the last thing my name could mean."
She knew she wasn't mistaken, but something in his dark countenance warned her not to argue.
"I'll fetch my horse and take you to my place. Get you something to eat." She stood, brushing the grass and dirt from the knees of her overalls.
"You don't have to bother. I've troubled you enough. I can get to Ransom on my own."
Lord, I have a feeling the trouble's yet to begin. Why is that?
She turned toward the road. "Mister, you couldn't make it fifteen yards, let alone fifteen miles."
With a shake of her head, she strode away, away from the stranger whose brown eyes were filled with indescribable pain, away from the man who denied the meaning of his name.
* * *
Gabe watched her go, her dark red braids swaying against her back, her collie trotting at her heels. Her stride was long and easy, a sign of a person accustomed to walking great distances. She was slender as a reed, but her build was deceiving; she possessed enough brawn to drag a grown man from the road to this tree.
Akira. She was as strange as her name, more than likely.
A strong man of God, she'd called him.
If he'd had the energy, he would have laughed aloud.
But he had no energy, no strength, no courage, no hope. So he closed his eyes and allowed the threatening darkness to move toward him once again.
* * *
When he next awakened, Gabe was no longer lying beneath the birch tree. He was in a room. In a bed. Between two sheets! He ran his fingers over the soft fabric.
What a luxury something so simple could be, he thought. Amazing.
Sounds from the next room reached his ears. He rolled his head on the pillow, searching until he found the entrance. He couldn't see anyone, for the door was only slightly ajar. Delicious odors wafted to him through the opening, causing his mouth to water.
He raised himself on his elbows. The room swam before his eyes, but this time he kept a tenuous grip on consciousness.
The door swung open, revealing Akira, a tray in her hand. "Ah, you're awake."
"I'd begun to wonder."
He glanced around the room, then back at her. "How long was I out?"
"A few hours."
"Did you bring me here all by yourself?"
"No." She smiled; her voice softened. "I always have help when I need it."
Gabe couldn't say why, but there was something about her answer that irritated him. He wanted to lash out, which made no sense at all. Not even to him. Maybe because he wasn't used to being treated with kindness.
"I brought you something to eat."
"Smells good." The words came grudgingly.
She approached. "It's only chicken broth. You'd best see if you can handle that first." Reaching the bedside, she stopped.
He stared at her in silence, noting the smattering of freckles that spilled across her nose and high cheekbones the blue-green color of her eyes, the fullness of her month, the hot-ember highlights in her dark hair.
She was pretty, he realized. He wondered why he hadn't noticed it when she first came to his rescue. Maybe because he hadn't really looked at her. Or maybe he'd long ago stopped noticing anything that was good or pretty. Maybe it was because he only saw what he expected to see—the dark side of this world, the evil of one man to another.
"Can you sit up more?" she asked, that ever-present gentleness in her voice.
He scowled. "You're awfully trusting, bringing me into your home." With effort, he straightened, leaning his back against the headboard. "You don't know anything about me. Maybe I'll rob you blind."
The gentle smile she'd worn faded from her lips. "I don't believe so. Besides, you're welcome to whatever I have that you need."
"Maybe I'm a dangerous man."
"The Lord is the strength of my life. Whom shall I fear?"
Whom should she fear? He could tell her.
He heard the cell door slamming shut. Cold steel against cold steel. Cold, like his heart.
He heard it slamming again ...
And again ...
Oh yes. He could tell her whom she should fear."
She set the tray on his lap. "If you tolerate this broth, I'll serve you something more substantial later." She closed her eyes, bowed her head, and blessed the food in a low voice.
But Gabe wasn't listening to her prayer. All he could hear was the slamming of that cold steel door.
* * *
Hudson Talmadge stood as straight and tall at the age of sixty-five as he had when he was in his twenties. An imposing man with granite-gray hair and beard and piercing blue eyes, he used his physical appearance to his advantage, ruling his empire with an iron fist. He brooked no questioning of his authority and was unashamedly merciless.
Mercy, in his opinion, was a sign of weakness, and Hudson was not a weak man.
"You'll be gone from the house by tomorrow," he said as he stared out his second-story office window.
"But, Mr. Talmadge, the boy meant no harm. He—"
"You heard what I said, Wickham. By tomorrow. You and your family."
Charlie Wickham was silent awhile before saying, "We've nowhere to go, sir, and my wife's health isn't good."
"That isn't my problem." Hudson turned. "The house you live in is company owned, and you and your boy are no longer employed by the mill."
"I've worked for you for nearly fifteen years, Mr. Talmadge."
"And now you don't."
Charlie Wickham obviously saw the futility of arguing—his shoulders sagged as he turned away. "We'll be out by tomorrow. Just as you say." He departed, cloaked in an air of despair. His eighteen-year-old son, Mark, followed after him.
"See that you are," Hudson said before the door closed again.
Hudson turned toward the window, his gaze rising toward the pine-covered slopes of Talmadge Peak.
He felt no spark of remorse over what had transpired moments before. Young Mark Wickham had cost the mill a day's production with his carelessness, allowing the engine on the number-three saw to run low on oil. Granted, production wasn't as important now as it had been in the prosperous twenties. There was little building going on and few orders for Talmadge lumber. But Hudson never tolerated foolish behavior. If it cost him a penny, it cost him too much. The Depression couldn't last forever. One day this country would recover, and when it did, he planned to be even wealthier than before.
The squawk of the intercommunication system broke into his thoughts. "Mrs. Talmadge is here to see you, sir."
He frowned. He disliked Pauline coming to the mill. It was bad enough he had to spend his evenings in her company.
He returned to his desk, pressed a button, and said, "Send her in."
A few moments later, the door opened, and his wife, the third Mrs. Hudson J. Talmadge, entered his office. An attractive woman in her midthirties, buxom and dark-haired, she was impeccably dressed, as befit her station as wife of the town's patriarch.
"What is it you want, Pauline?" There had never been any pretense of devotion between them, although at one time they had at least been congenial. Now even that was gone.
Hudson had married the former Miss Hinnenkamp to provide a Talmadge heir; she had married him for his money. He'd kept his part of the bargain, but after seven years of marriage, she'd failed to keep hers. Twice she'd miscarried early in pregnancy. Twice she'd been delivered of stillborn girls. After the birth of the second daughter, the doctor had warned that another pregnancy could endanger Pauline's life. She'd locked Hudson out of her bedroom from that day on.
He couldn't honestly say he cared.
"Only a moment of your time, Hudson," she answered him, drawing his attention as she settled onto one of the chairs opposite him, opened her handbag, and withdrew an envelope. "We've been invited to a ball at the senator's house in Boise. I assumed you would want to know."
He took the invitation. "A ball." He hated those things, but he knew he would have to go. Plenty of deals were made in smoking rooms, and the senator had promised to help him with his land acquisitions.
"It's in two weeks," Pauline continued. "If you don't mind, I'd like to go early so I can visit my parents."
"Why would I mind?"
She smiled with false sweetness. "I knew that's how you would feel. I'll have Eugene drive me down in the morning. That will give me time to shop for a new evening gown."
"Would you have me appear as if we hadn't any money? The women will notice if I wear something they've seen before, and they in turn will tell their husbands."
He scowled. Unlike most people, he'd done well since the crash of twenty-nine. When people had been forced to sell off their land and businesses, Hudson had been there to buy them out. Paying as little as possible, of course.
He was a powerful, wealthy man, but he had greater ambitions still to achieve. He'd learned that perceptions were as important as reality.
"Fine. Buy whatever you need."
She stood. "I will." Without another word, she left his office.
Hudson sank onto his desk chair, leaned back, closed his eyes. Then he muttered a curse. Whatever mistakes he'd made in his life, Pauline was definitely one of them.
* * *
Akira worked the pump handle until water gushed from the spigot.
Lord, the weather's been cruel, and this drought's been hard. If it be Your will, I'm asking that this well not dry up.
She glanced toward the house.
And, Lord, about Gabe. That man's got a terrible hurt inside him. I know You've got Your reasons for sending him here, but I can't say I understand what they are. He was hungry and thirsty, and I fed him and gave him something to drink. He's a stranger, and I took him in. But now what, Lord? Is there more I'm to do?
She moved the bucket, then gave the handle one more vigorous push. She cupped her hands beneath the flow of water and splashed her face with the cool liquid.
Maybe later, she thought, after the sunset, she'd go down to the creek. It was running low, but there was enough water to get good and wet all over.
She dried her face on her shirt sleeve. As she straightened and turned, bucket in hand, her gaze swept over the surroundings. Sheep grazed peacefully in the gently rolling valley, a valley sheltered by pine- and aspen-covered mountains. Purple wildflowers bloomed in defiance of this season of drought, laughing at the clear, cloudless skies.
A feeling of joy welled in her heart as she gazed at the valley the Macauleys had called home for three generations. She set down the bucket, raised her hands toward the sky, and began to twirl about in circles while singing, making up the melody as she went along.
"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before His presence with singing."
It didn't matter to her that she could barely carry a tune in a basket. She was glad to praise Him with her joyful noise.
"Know ye that the Lord He is God: it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of His pasture."
She closed her eyes, twirled with more abandon, sang louder.
"Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His name. For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endureth to all generations."
She fell to the ground, dizzy from spinning. She hugged her arms over her chest and reveled in the sense of well-being.
"Ach! Have ye lost yer senses, lass?"
Akira opened her eyes to see Brodie Lachlan's slow approach. He struggled with his crutches on the uneven ground, obviously hating every awkward step.
"No, I haven't." She sat up.
"Ye looked it."
Brodie was pure Scot, from the top of his head, ablaze with carrot-red hair, to the tip of his boots. He'd come to work for Akira's grandfather Fergus Macauley a few months after getting off the boat in 1901. He'd long since ceased to be an employee. Now he was family to Akira. In many ways, closer to her than her own mother.
"How's your leg?" she asked as he drew closer.
"Are you hungry? There's chicken soup on the stove."
"Nay, lass. I've had my supper."
"Did you find someone to help move the sheep?"
Shaking his head, he sank onto a large, granite boulder near the pump. "None I'd have. Any man worth his salt who's in need of work has left Ransom. Those who remain aren't to be trusted." He rubbed his thigh with one hand, adding with a sigh, "Besides, there's none that know sheep. Farmers and loggers, the lot of them."
"You can teach anybody what they need to know." She glanced toward the house. "Perhaps I found someone. I gave aid to a stranger today. He was on his way to Ransom, looking for millwork. He was so weak from hunger, he fainted."
"From the look on yer face, I'd guess the stranger ye speak of is in the house. Am I right?"
"Ye're too trustin', Akira."
"I trust in the Lord. He told me to bring Gabe home."
The Scotsman arched an eyebrow. "Gabe who?"
"He didn't tell me his last name."
Brodie rose from the rock, slipping the crutches beneath his arms. "I'll have a look at this stranger of yours, if ye don't mind."
She smiled as she stood. There was no point arguing with him, and well she knew it. He would do what he pleased. If there was a more stubborn race of people than the Scots, Akira had yet to meet them. And she should know, being herself one of God's most stubborn children.
* * *
When Gabe saw the tall, beefy, full-bearded man standing in the doorway to the bedroom, leaning on a pair of crutches, he assumed he was about to be tossed out on his ear.
"My name's Brodie Lachlan, and who might ye be?" He entered the bedroom, moving slowly but steadily.
Gabe didn't answer.
"Did ye not hear me, lad?" Despite his injured right leg, he looked plenty able to do Gabe harm.
"And is it a secret?"
Gabe knew the sound of disdain. He'd lived with it for most of his life, first from his father, then from the prison guards, and finally from strangers who didn't want to look at another hungry beggar.
Brodie arrived at the bed, demanding an answer by his sheer presence,
"My name's Gabe."
Brodie squinted his hazel eyes and pressed his lips together in an unyielding line. It was obvious he wasn't satisfied with only a first name.
"Talmadge," Gabe added reluctantly.
A soft gasp from the doorway alerted him to Akira's presence.
"Gabe Talmadge?" Brodie said in a low voice. His eyes narrowed even more. "We'd heard ye were dead."
Gabe closed his eyes. "I was."
Maybe I still am.
Posted July 6, 2009
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Posted May 27, 2010
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