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Will Cuddy was one of those local relics. As a resident of a log cabin hamlet called Lost Valley, he pondered the secrets of the past as he watched a young volunteer fireman battle the blaze of a neighbor's home on this cold and damp spring day. Ben Harrigan, now the Sheriff of the county, watched it too as he inhaled deeply on a cigarette that seemed to be a permanent fixture to his mouth.
Harrigan was there to take statements about the blaze. But it wasn't what occupied his thoughts. Nor was it what occupied Will. Three overstuffed mongrels were yapping behind the screen door that barricaded Will's cabin from his porch.
"Shat up!" Will bellowed. The dogs didn't hear him above their own noise, and Will turned back to the sheriff. "Sorry, Ben. They're excitable."
"Yeah, well as long as they're inside," Ben replied. He closed up his notes. He didn't necessarily hate dogs; just yappity ones.
"I told Buck a hundred times. Douse those embers before you head to town. Just douse 'em. He's got more cords in his shed than the whole of us combined."
"Now it's all he's got," answered Ben. He was always quick to be blunt. He took another drag off that cigarette as Will struggled to find a new conversation point; one that would draw attention away from what was really on their minds.
"Best be prepared for flooding."
"Good God, Ben. I've been in this valley forever," Will snapped back. "Whatever Mother Nature dishes out, Barb and I can handle it."
"Put yourself in harm's way for this pile of logs?" He added a quick shake of the head, as if the question really needed an answer.
"It's human nature, risking life and limb for what little we have. You'd do the same if it was yours."
"Only a fool ignores a clear warning." The words hung there. Ben drew in, then snorted out more smoke.
"You're calling me a fool? After all these years? I'm miffed!" If Will was really miffed, it was hard to tell. And Ben Harrigan just continued to watch that young fire fighter. "O'Brien's boy?" Will asked, as if it really needed to be said. Every local knew that Aaron Bonner was O'Brien's boy. His Native American features clearly made him his father's son. "It's a shame he never got to know Joe."
"Is it? Talk about fools."
"He never did recover after that stunt." Will was of course referring to that thirty year dive off that half built bridge. "It broke Mary's heart."
"And yet she still believed him." Will expected the silent glare he got from Harrigan. Joe O'Brien wasn't the only one who never quite got over the event.
Ben and O'Brien had been close friends since their first tussle on the Kindergarten playground. It got them both sent to the principal's office. The fight had been over some stupid crack about cowboys and Indians. At age five, Ben thought his comment seemed harmless enough. He, after all, had dreams of growing up to be a cowboy. Just like Eastwood the cowboy who his father adored. Tall, silent, quick to get the job done. Eastwood was one hombre you didn't mess with.
But little Joe O'Brien, a half breed Iroquois with a stubborn Irish pop, already knew that he stood out against the pale skinned German-Irish stock that composed the rest of his classmates' heritages. Young Ben Harrigan's cowboys and Indians remark was enough for Joe to respond with a fist to the boy's face. After that day, the two boys bonded for life.
Bark! Bark! Bark! Those dogs were relentless. "Ahab! Quit yer yapping!" Will spat. Ahab was clearly the leader. And with a majestic mix of German Sheppard and wolf, Ahab was clearly Will's favorite. Ahab whimpered and pawed at the screen, and Will softened. "I know, I know. Storm's brewing."
Harrigan gave that slight shake of the head again. He wasn't ready to figure out Will's affection for those dogs. He dismissed himself as Will headed for his door. Will gave Ahab his freedom. The other dogs barked incessantly over such blatant favoritism. Ahab frolicked about the yard before he heeded Will's call. He leaped up and licked Will's awaiting cheek.
"It's no wonder they make so much noise the way you favor him," said Barbara his bear sized wife. She stood behind the porch door and tried to calm the other two animals. Will just grinned. He watched Ahab run free for a few more moments. Then his gaze shifted with concern back to Joe's boy, Aaron Bonner.
* * *
SPLAT! SPLAT! Heavy rain clouds were making good on their threat. Aaron Bonner shut down his nozzle as other fire fighters cheered on the rain.
"Let's go, Bonner! Speed up the process!" Devin said that. He was a wise cracking young volunteer who always enjoyed being the first to bring up a stupid and obvious Indian reference. Devin added a little dance and a whoop just in case Aaron missed the point.
"Funny," Aaron replied. He never missed the point. Sure, it was all in good fun. But the novelty of being part Native American wore off oh so long ago. Aaron knew that Devin was incapable of giving the Indian jokes a rest. So he made the best of it by ignoring Devin whenever he could.
Aaron tended to his hose. The fire was out. The house was gone. Mother and child stood watching a safe distance away. The little girl must have been eight years old. As Aaron crossed their path, the girl reached for the cuff of his heavy jacket. "My kitty is missing," she told him. Her big brown eyes implored Aaron to do something. After all, he was a fireman. Isn't that what firemen do? Save cats from trees? It must be a required fireman job skill.
Aaron glanced back at the gutted, smoldering remains of the cabin. If there was a cat in there, it was nothing but a charred mess now. The girl's mother pulled her close. "They did the best they could," she comforted. But Aaron could still see the girl's pleading eyes. He knelt beside her.
"She was probably out of the house before anyone else knew."
"She's a he," the little girl corrected.
"I promise I'll keep my eyes open." He gave her a reassuring smile. He spotted Sheriff Harrigan heading toward his squad car in the near distance. Aaron quickly dismissed himself.
Trying to catch up with Harrigan and his long, even stride proved to be a challenge for Aaron, so he shouted. "Sheriff! Sir." The words came out with an abrupt urgency that Aaron immediately regretted. Harrigan stopped. And waited. He blew a steady stream of smoke that Aaron could imagine the man roasting him with if he could only find the right spit to skewer Aaron with first.
Aaron tried his best to be casual. "So, I'll see you later-"
"-Why's that?" Harrigan's glare cut through Aaron as quick as his words did.
"I, uh- ... We're supposed to-"
"Make this quick? I've got a call." The squad car radio crackled with static. Harrigan continued to hone in on Aaron with that overbearing glare until Aaron felt himself backing off. It was as if the sheriff could push Aaron away with the force of his own mind. Harrigan spun on his heel, slipped behind the wheel of the squad car and spun his tires in a spray of mud before the paralytic spell on Aaron was broken.
Asshole. That's what Aaron would have said, if he'd had any guts. He looked down at his mud spattered coat, and he swallowed the frustration that welled up in his throat every time he tried to extend friendship to the sheriff. The man was a dinosaur. Unfortunately, the man was also his girlfriend's father, a judgmental fool who would rather see Sara live out a miserable life with an abusive husband than to divorce and start a new life with Aaron. And tonight, Sara's brainstorm of an idea involved bringing everyone; Aaron, Sara, mom and sheriff, together for dinner. The time for Aaron to be on call for county wide emergencies was never better.
Mew. Aaron looked up. Sitting on a branch above his head was the little girl's stranded Kitty. Aaron grinned. "Hey there, little kitty. Are you stuck?" The cat made an exasperated face before it shook the rain off of its ears. Aaron shed his coat and began to climb.
Will Cuddy watched from the steps of his porch. He watched Aaron climb. He watched Ahab's ears prick up at the sound of a stranded cat. He heard his own voice spit out a warning that he knew wouldn't be heeded. "Ahab! Stay!"
Aaron tucked the cat in his arm and dropped to the ground. Ahab launched himself through the air. The cat hissed, spat and sprung its claws across Aaron's face in escape. Aaron got half a curse out before the wolf dog landed on him.
"Ahab! You get back here! Ahab, down!" The dog was off of Aaron and bounding after the cat before Will Cuddy could reach him. Aaron sat there covered in mud and ash and blood. He wiped at his scratched cheek as he watched the cat take refuge in a new tree.
"Cat's safe!" Aaron yelled to no one in particular as Will Cuddy hobbled toward him.
Will offered Aaron a hand that Aaron took with hesitation. "My apologies," he said.
Aaron began brushing himself off. "... All in a day's work, I guess."
Will nodded. He waited for Aaron to finish before he thrust his hand out for a shake. "Will Cuddy."
Aaron surveyed the eager introduction. Something about it didn't make him comfortable. He took Will Cuddy's hand.
"-Bonner," Will finished. "I know." He pumped Aaron's arm like he was pumping well water. "I was a friend of- ... Mary. Your mother. A long time ago."
"Well it would have to be, wouldn't it." Oh my God. Did this man just bring up his mother? Aaron's mother, Mary Bonner, died giving birth to Aaron. All he knew about his parents came from stories told by the grandparents who raised him, Nana and Pop Bonner, both now deceased. Aaron's mother was raped by Joe O'Brien, who was killed in a shoot out with police after holding her hostage in an episode of insanity. And stories of Joe O'Brien's bouts with insanity were the kinds of stories that kept old town folk mythologizing it for generations to come. The last thing that Aaron wanted to hear was how this old timer remembered the death of his mother.
But Will Cuddy didn't do that. He honestly didn't know of a tactful way to begin that story. So he set his sights on his dog. "Ahab, get over here! Get! Now!" Ahab wagged his tail, committed to keeping post at the base of the cat's new refuge. Will sighed. He took slow, achy steps toward the tree and dragged the protesting dog away by the collar. "You've seen that tabby every day for four years! Now suddenly he's prey?" He tipped his brow at Aaron in passing. "It's nice to see you all grown, Aaron. It truly is."
Aaron softened. "Okay. Yeah, thanks." Maybe it was the relief that came from not having to listen to another stranger mourning the long ago loss of his mother. Either way, he appreciated the man for his refrain. He watched Will Cuddy cast a worried look toward the thick clouds overhead before he gave a pointed little nod at Aaron. Odd.
Aaron looked up too. SPLAT! A heavy drop got him in the eye. The clouds let loose with a downpour. Aaron stood there and sighed, then hurried back to help the fire crew pack up.
Every Spring the rains and the mountain thaw would make a mess of the Schoharie Valley, and the old farmer Whitman Duffy would be the first one to tell you. His family owned acres of land along the temperamental Schoharie Creek for well over two centuries. His family cleared that land, farmed that land and passed that land on from one generation to the next since the first day the Duffy forefathers set foot on Colonial American soil. If ever there was a dinosaur to be found in the Schoharie Valley, it was Whitman Duffy.
Today he cursed the downpour that was making his field into a fine venue for mud wrestling. "Every year," he muttered. "Every God-damned year." He glared at the I-90 Thruway down creek from his land. Cars skated across the six lane concrete bridge-way that spanned the creek's roaring waters; the same waters that deposited dirt and debris and all forms of trash onto his land. His fields.
Every Spring Duffy would grumble while spending hours trudging through the muck, a peach basket in hand to collect the bottles, the plastics and the occasional used condoms left in the woods the previous Summer and Fall by the alcoholic college rejects that this valley seemed to spit out ad nauseam. Every God-damned Spring. His feet squished with each step, and he bent down to add other pieces of trash to his collection.
He paused. "Well, I'll be," he said aloud. He pulled up a dense grey bone half buried in the mud. It was a femur by the look of it, and a damned big one. The glint of another bone stuck up from the muck, and as he pulled he exposed another. And another. Every piece was big and smooth and sturdy. Whitman Duffy eagerly collected them into his basket. He dug up several of those bones, including a skull that was distinctly animal. Then he turned tail and headed for his shop at the edge of the field.
The shop was Whit's passion. It was a miniature bright red barn with an elaborate wooden sign over the door. The sign was carved to read Whit's Antiques. Below that, it said; buy a piece of history at a decent price. Yes, Whitman Duffy was a relic of the Schoharie Valley, and his business was to preserve the historical relics of time, including him.
* * *
Whitman Duffy wasn't the only person cursing the rain. Sara Harrigan was also cursing under her breath, although not with as much spite and might as the old man down by the river. She peered out at the downpour from the entrance of the small unpainted stable that was home for her Chestnut colored horse Kareem. The horse spluttered his discontent at being confined for another day, and Sara stepped up to stroke his mane in sympathy. "It's okay, boy. The first day of sunshine, and you and I will go in for the slam dunk." Sara was a basketball fan, probably the influence of her father 'the sheriff,' and her younger brother Chris. Like Kareem, Sara was a free spirit. That rebellious streak was apparent from the day she was born through the twenty three years of her life that forced her back home to seek refuge for her and her daughter from her hot headed husband Brad Myers. It killed Sara to be living back home with her father. She didn't like having to admit that maybe five years ago he was right.
The familiar sound of a pickup truck caught the attention of both Kareem and Sara. Sara's silent brooding over past mistakes quickly melted away. She kissed Kareem on the nose and headed into the downpour.
Aaron stepped out of his pickup. He was cleaned up from the day's earlier fire, dressed in simple jeans and T-shirt with a flannel shirtcoat to offer little protection against the rain. It didn't matter. What did matter was the approach of the chestnut haired beauty named Sara. She coupled her hands into his and they kissed. They were oblivious to the rain. They were content with the warmth of each other. They drank in the aroma of their love for each other as if savoring an expensive vintage wine. And they tasted that fine flavor with another kiss. Maybe Sara's father was right about Brad Myers five years ago, but nothing could be closer to right when it came to how she felt about Aaron. Nothing could break them apart. Except maybe the sound of a police cruiser pulling into the drive. Aaron quickly distanced himself from Sara as Sheriff Harrigan cut the cruiser's engine.
Aaron gave Harrigan a curt nod as the man stepped out of the car. "Sheriff," he said. Harrigan squinted at him and snuffed his cigarette into the wet ground.
"Hi, Daddy," Sara offered cheerfully.
"Sweetheart." The sheriff swung his arm around Sara's shoulders clearly separating her from Aaron. He added a quick peck to the top of her head as he led her toward the house. It was easy to see that Ben loved his daughter even though he didn't always understand the girl's choices. It was easy to see that he would protect his family at any cost.
Aaron stood there and watched the sheriff take the love of his life away from him. He was now fully aware of the cold rain soaking his skin. Having dinner with the Harrigans was a bad idea. Aaron was pretty sure that he disliked Ben Harrigan as much as Ben disliked him. But if that's what Aaron had to do to prove his worth to Sara, then that's what he was going to do. He took determined steps to catch up with father and daughter before the door could be shut in his face.
* * *
"We're entertaining him now?" Ben asked his dutiful wife Melanie after giving her a peck on her awaiting cheek. She was in the kitchen stirring up a steaming pot of savory smelling stew. Her reply was one he wasn't allowed to argue with.
"And you'll be on your best behavior." If there was one thing that Melanie Harrigan shared with her husband, it was the ability to tell it like it was, or in this case, how it was going to be. Ben responded with the slightest grumble before he turned toward the stampede of little feet. It was Heather, his five year old granddaughter.
"Grandpa!" Her curly locks bounced as she tackled his legs. He gathered her up into a warm hug.
"There's my ray of sunshine." The smile on his face was rare. But it was the easiest thing for little Heather to put there.
Excerpted from "The Schoharie"
Copyright © 2017 Diane M. Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of BookBaby.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Long Days Ahead,
Distant Screams for Help,
Old Bones Buried Deep,
An Eye for an Eye ...,