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Sharon Majors saw the man walking up the dusty drive to her house. No car, a knapsack on his shoulder, a slight dragging of his left leg.
Another drifter, common enough in Conard County, Wyoming during these hard times. Not a week passed that she didn't have someone show up at her door looking for work around her small ranch.
Not that she had much, usually. Since Chet had been killed in Afghanistan, she hadn't even had the heart to try to keep it up. She rented her grazing land to her neighbor, who pastured his sheep on it, while wind, sun and snow began to take their toll on outbuildings, fences and even the house. Lately she'd been trying to shake herself into taking some action about the deterioration.
But what did it matter? If she could sell the place she would, just to escape all the memories. But people weren't buying small ranches these days.
Such dreams, she thought sadly. Chet had always wanted to have a small spread that he could work when he retired from the military. When he'd come home on leave four years ago, they'd settled on this one. Now those dreams were turning to dust and she just plain didn't care.
She watched the stranger come closer. She could afford to hire help to do some small things, but she almost never did because she knew nothing about these drifters. Instead, she'd sit them on the front porch, give them a sandwich or two and something to drink before sending them along.
The summer days were the hardest, when she didn't have her teaching to rely on to keep her busy. All her friends, free of the classroom, found excuses to get away, to visit family or take inexpensive vacations. She could have gone away, too, but a solitary vacation didn't interest her, and her family, such as it was, didn't really appeal to her. The years had turned her once-beautiful mother into an alcoholic, and her father into a man angry with life.
So she stayed here, knowing she was paralyzed and doing everything wrong, yet unable to take action. She told herself she couldn't abandon the ranch. But that was just an excuse. If she walked away from it, who would care?
She sighed and went to stand at the screen door, waiting for the man to reach her porch, to ask the inevitable question.
She was surprised, however, when he got close enough to make out details. Unlike most drifters who showed up here, he didn't look at all unhealthy despite that hitch in his gait. His dark hair was just a bit too long, not quite shaggy, and it looked clean. His face was careworn, but not pinched. And his clothes, ordinary denims and dusty boots, looked relatively new.
Had she been in a healthier frame of mind, she might have even thought him good-looking in a slightly rough sort of way. The flicker of attraction shocked her, and she quickly stomped down on it. She felt guilty enough for still breathing when Chet was gone. She wasn't going to make herself feel even guiltier with a momentary sexual attraction to a stranger. That part of her could stay dead and buried along with Chet.
She remained standing behind the door, the hook still latched, until he reached the porch steps.
He stood there for a minute, looking up at her, then he said words that turned her world upside down.
"You're prettier than the photo Chet had of you."
She gasped and grabbed the doorjamb as all the blood drained from her head. The world tunneled into darkness and spun.
"Crap," she heard him say as she began to sag. Dimly she was aware that he yanked on the door and swore again when the hook didn't yield. Then she heard another yank, heard wood splinter, felt strong arms grip her and steady her.
Those arms lifted her as he kept right on cussing himself. "Talk about ham-handed," he muttered. "No 'hello, I'm Liam,' no warning. No, just spit it out like a total idiot."
Her body suddenly remembered how to breathe, and she drew a deep, gasping breath just as he set her on the couch. Her whirling mind seized on one word: Liam. Chet's oftenmentioned buddy. Liam.
Gradually the world came back into focus. Breathing helped, as did sitting down. Bit by bit, all the pieces came back together and the carousel in her mind slowed down.
Squatting in front of her was a large man, his face creased with concern. "You gonna be okay?"
"Yes. Yes." She closed her eyes a moment, gathering herself. "Just so unexpected."
"Yeah, I know. I was an idiot. I'm an idiot a lot these days." As she opened her eyes to look at him again, he tapped his head. "TBI."
"Traumatic brain injury. I used to have more social skills."
"It's okay." God, when had she lost the ability to talk? Shock, she told herself. The last thing she'd been prepared for was Chet's past to arrive on her doorstep today. She thought that chapter had been closed after the funeral, when the last condolences had been offered. Apparently not. "I'm fine," she managed after a moment or two. "I'm fine." Repetition made it sound like a mantra, and perhaps it was. She'd certainly whispered it to herself enough times.
"You still look pale," he said critically, but he retreated, standing across the small room, giving her space.
"Yeah. Liam O'Connor. I guess Chet mentioned me."
"Many times. Please, sit."
He looked around and settled on the recliner that had been Chet's favorite. Her heart squeezed, and she told herself not to be ridiculous. Nobody had sat in that chair since the last time Chet was home, two years ago now, but it was ridiculous to treat a piece of furniture like some kind of memorial.
She hesitated, not sure what to say. What had brought him here after all this time? And a traumatic brain injury? God, one of the few things she had managed to be grateful for was that Chet hadn't faced that. Now here was his best buddy, sitting across from her, a victim of that very thing. She didn't know what to say, what to ask.
At this moment, just dealing with a ghost out of the past seemed to be testing her ability to cope.
"I, um, broke your door," he said. "Well, not the door, but I splintered the jamb." He looked down at his big hands, clenching and unclenching them. "Too much weight training, I guess. I'll fix it before I leave."
She started to tell him to forget it, but for some reason she felt that could be the wrong thing to say. "Uh, why too much weight lifting?"
He raised his head, and for the first time, she saw that his eyes were an unusual light green. "It was a way to work things out."
"Oh." She didn't know how to approach that, either. And he thought he was ham-handed.
"Look, I'm sorry. I should have called or something. But honestly, I didn't know how. Struck me as wrong to dump this over the phone. So instead, I show up and nearly give you a heart attack. Did I say I'm not so good socially anymore?"
Her heart squeezed again, but this time for him. She couldn't imagine what it must be like to have suffered a brain injury; couldn't imagine how that must have changed him and his entire life. "There was no good way," she said finally. "But why did you come?"
"I promised Chet." It sounded like the simplest answer in the world, but it wasn't. To Sharon, those words sounded heavy with significance. "I would've come sooner, but things kinda happened. I meant to be here on my first leave after he was killed, but I wound up in pieces, instead. Then it took me a while to get to the point where I could I could " He trailed off. Then, "I was in the hospital for a long time. Didn't much know whether I was coming or going."
He shrugged. "Took me a while. To get well enough. To get my memory back, at least most of it. Then I found the letter."
"Letter?" Her heart almost stopped, then resumed beating nervously.
"Yeah, um Are you sure I'm not going too fast for you? Maybe there's a better way to beat around this bush?"
He shrugged again. "Mrs. Majors, I don't know half the time anymore if I'm leaving stuff out, talking too fast, whatever. I'm doing better, but " He shook his head. "So if I come on too strong, or skip things, just stop me, okay?"
"Okay." She waited. He didn't say anything, but seemed to turn inward. She wondered if she should just let him be or ask him to continue.
Then those light green eyes fixed on her again. "Sorry, I wander a bit, too, sometimes. Anyway, nothing like coming straight to the point, I guess. I don't seem to know any other way these days. Chet and I were buddies. But you know that. Like brothers. I always meant to come here with him to meet you, but we never got leave at the same time. He always talked about you, about this place after you got it. I remember thinking he was a little crazy."
"Crazy?" She didn't like that word.
He shrugged. "Not in a bad way. Just different. I never met anyone else who talked about using a ranch to rescue animals."
"He really wanted to do that. All kinds of animals, not just pets."
"I remember. Sometimes when things were quiet, we'd lie there in our tent, or under the stars, or in a cave hell, we slept just about everywhere. But he'd talk about all kinds of animals that didn't have good homes. He wanted to save them."
She nodded. "Yes, he did."
"Every time he talked about it, he was saving more of them. Last I heard, he was going to have a wolf pen and a whole herd of mustangs, too."
Sharon's mouth curved into an unexpected, unfamiliar smile. "I can just hear him."
"I never figured out how he'd keep wolves, though."
"We had forty acres he wanted to fence off just for a small pack."
"Well, if there was one thing I knew about Chet, he'd do it if he wanted to. He was like that."
"Yes, he was."
"Said he was going to use the place to teach folks."
"He wanted to give tours, mostly to school children." Liam nodded. "Good idea. Anyway, I remember how those ideas used to get bigger every time we talked about them. I got the feeling he'd need more than one ranch."
That surprised a real laugh out of Sharon. "You're probably right. He always dreamed big."
"It was a way to pass some long nights." He paused. "I think I better get to it. I didn't mean to impose on you."
Get to what, she wondered uneasily. But he looked around, then said, "Guess I left my pack outside. Be right back."
She watched him cross to the front door and for the first time took in the splintered doorjamb. He'd pulled the hook right out. That was amazing, but it didn't frighten her. He'd done it to help her when she was fainting.
And that hitch in his step wasn't quite a limp, she noticed now. It was more like his leg didn't quite remember how to work.
He came back quickly, carrying his backpack, then resumed his seat with the pack on the floor in front of him. He opened a small pocket and reached in a couple of fingers.
"We gave each other letters to take home if something happened," he explained. Then he pulled out a small envelope and handed it to her.
She took it with her heart in her throat and turned it around until she could see her name written on it in Chet's familiar handwriting. And then she saw the brown spot on one corner.
She sucked in a sharp breath. "Blood?" The thought curdled inside of her.
"Not his," Liam said swiftly. "Mine."
She lifted her eyes, eyes that had begun to burn. "And that makes it better how?" He didn't answer.
"Did you read it?" she asked, reluctant and eager all at once to open it.
"Hell, no. It was his private stuff for you. In case anything happened. Well, it happened, damn it."
"It sure did." She squeezed her eyes shut to stop the burning, then looked at him. "You could have just mailed it."
"I promised to deliver it personally." He rose suddenly. "Why don't I just wait outside while you read, and then I'll fix that door before I go."
Before she could summon a response, he vanished onto the front porch.
Her fingers trembled, and her heart seemed to be lodged firmly in her throat. Sixteen months, she reminded herself. Surely she could handle this after sixteen months. She'd handled the worst already.
And how many times had she wished she could hear Chet's voice one more time, get one more letter, one more something from the man she had loved as much as life? She doubted there was a single thing in that envelope that she didn't already know, things he just wanted to remind her of if he didn't come home. Things he had probably told her many times.
Carefully, slowly, she lifted the flap. With time, the glue had dried, and it almost popped open at her touch. Then she drew out a single, small sheet of paper, and felt her eyes flood as she saw his penciled handwriting.
Sharon, my dear, if you're reading this, well, it's obvious. I want you to know that I don't forget you for an instant out here, not one. No matter what's going on, you're on my mind. You're my home fire, the reason I keep going. All I ever really wanted was you, and all I want out here is to get back to you.
Just remember all the joy and happiness you've given me, all the happiness we shared. And when you remember that and remember me, remember also what I told you more than once.
Move on, Sharon. Make a life for yourself, find that happiness again. Because if you don't, my heaven will become hell. Love forever, Chet
Trembling, Sharon clutched the crinkly paper, then doubled over sideways on the couch and gave in to grief in a way she hadn't in a very long time. Deep, wrenching sobs escaped her, and the tears scalded her cheeks and soaked the couch. She felt as if the pain were tearing her in two.