Authors: Jodi Thomas
Every group seemed to have a few like that. Pilots had their barnstormers who risked death every time they climbed to the sky. Skiers had their hotdoggers. Soldiers had their Special Forces. From the beginning of time they’d been the heroes, the legends . . . the men who came home on their shields.
The whole town talked about Noah McAl en like he was a star, but Reagan just wanted him back as her friend.
“Noah!” she yel ed over the thunder. “What are you doing out here?”
“I couldn’t take your uncle and Miss Pat arguing any longer. When I left they were rehashing a fight they had before the war. Sixty years and they stil can’t settle it. I suggested dueling pistols and the only ground they found in common was to order me out.”
Reagan laughed. Almost from the moment Pat Matheson moved in to help, uninvited, she and Jeremiah had been arguing about everything. Though they drove everyone crazy, the two senior citizens seemed to be having a bal . Jeremiah hadn’t looked as good in months.
He refused to use his chair. He’d had Reagan trim his hair.
If she didn’t know better Reagan would think the two of them were courting again.
“Get in!” Reagan ordered Noah. “I’l run away from home with you.”
He laughed and swung into the cart. “I don’t care where we go, just get me out of here.”
“I know just the place.” She drove to the garage and they switched to her old pickup.
In ten minutes they were turning onto the old McAl en ranch, which Noah’s father had given him the day he turned eighteen.
Reagan slowed and looked at him. “I thought you’d like to drive over to your land.” She could see that she’d made a mistake.
“It wasn’t meant to be mine, you know,” he said, more to himself than to her. “Dad always said he’d split it right in half and give Warren and me each a share. He thought we’d run it together, and Alex would eventual y get the house in town.
“I don’t remember much about when the family lived here, but Alex and Warren used to talk about when we al lived out on the ranch before Dad and Mom separated.
Dad loved it out here, but I don’t think he ever loved ranching. For him it was the rodeo, and when he gave up the blood and the mud, he couldn’t seem to make a go at just ranching.”
Reagan slowly moved toward the ranch house. “How old were you when your brother, Warren, was kil ed?”
“Thirteen. Sometimes when I think back to the days after he died, it seems like I was just standing in a corner watching. Alex had just finished her master’s in criminal justice and was home celebrating. Warren had only been a highway patrolman for a few years and he was so proud of her. He was on a late cal the night she got home. Walked up to a parked car and was shot in the face, probably by a drug dealer. That’s al I remember. He and Alex were so much older than me, I thought of them more as a second set of parents than my brother and sister. Even now, if she knew I was home she’d be over here tel ing me how to run my life.”
Reagan pul ed up to the abandoned ranch house.
“Where are the couple who lived out here and kept the place up?”
“They moved on. I told Dad to sel the few cattle to pay the taxes, and last I heard Hank and Alex were looking after my horses.” Noah looked over the winter landscape, watching tumbleweeds blow in the wind. “You know, Rea, I think this place is jinxed.”
“It’s beautiful. It’s your land. How could it be jinxed?” Noah shook his head. “My sister doesn’t want any part of it but that little cabin down by the brakes. Warren never wanted it; his goal was to be a Texas Ranger. Mom and Dad always fought over it. The only square I’l ever real y feel like is mine wil be the square I’l be buried on.” Reagan cut the engine. “Let’s walk.”
“It looks like rain.” Noah gripped the window frame with his hand as if he thought about refusing to move.
Reagan ignored him and climbed out. She walked to the front of the pickup and stared out at the beautiful open land.
When he final y climbed out, she took his hand and pul ed. They walked across land that had been owned by McAl ens for more than a hundred years. The corral gate was down. Tiles had blown off the roof of the main house and were scattered around, baked terra-cotta planted in forgotten gardens.
Reagan fought down tears. She didn’t care how run-down the place looked; it had once been Noah’s dream.
He’d talked for hours about what he was going to do with his land when he won big money in the rodeo and came home. He’d said he’d have hundreds of head of cattle and rough stock for al the little rodeos around. He’d laughed and said he wanted a houseful of kids to help with the chores.
“What do you dream?” she whispered. “What do you stil dream, Noah?”
He shook his head, knowing what she was asking.
“Nothing,” he final y said. “Nothing about here. I used to love riding across this place, but now I don’t want to even see the few horses I stil own. Hank can have them for al I care. I dream of making the best time at the next rodeo. Of drawing a good bul . Of having enough gas to make the next town in time, but I don’t dream of coming home any more.”
Reagan put her arm around his waist and hugged him as they walked. Final y, he stopped and stared out over rol ing hil s and brakes that he once thought would make the perfect horse ranch. For as far as they could see there was nothing but his land. Abandoned land. Forgotten land.
“Like Dad, I can’t sel this place, but I can’t see living here like I used to think I would. I’m no longer that guy.”
“No bars around for a drink. No buckle bunnies wanting to two-step,” she teased.
“Believe me, the nights were not as wild as the old-timers talk about.”
“What do you dream?” she asked again.
He shook his head. “I used to dream of the lights and the money at nationals, but lately I’m not even sure I want to go back.” He was silent for a moment and said, “I’m not sure I can go back, Rea. The fear of climbing back in the chute makes me shake. And worse than that fear is the realization that I don’t know what I want any more, and that scares the hel out of me.”
Noah rubbed his eyes and swore at the damn mist in the air. “I once dreamed of me and you, Rea, but now I feel lucky to have you as a friend. From the very first you saw right through al my BS, and you stil do.” She couldn’t stand to see Noah broken. He’d always been the one to help her stand up. He’d always been her anchor, her friend. “Stop it.” She poked him in the ribs.
He groaned and she almost apologized. “If you talk any more I’l have to write everything down for your obit. We both know I had to stand in line in high school just to get to talk to you. Half the guys in town wish they were you right now.”
He turned to face her, anger flashing in his eyes. “You’re right. I’m sorry to unload on you, but you started it. You brought me here.” He leaned down and kissed her hard on the lips. Not a sweet kiss, or a loving kiss, but a chal enge.
“That’s what I think about, Rea.” He stepped back, stil angry. “That and a whole lot more. I think about you.” She watched him, more confused than mad. Who was this man and what had he done with Noah? Slowly, the truth sank in. Noah was no longer a kid. Part of her had kept him in her mind and heart as the boy she’d first met, but this man before her was different.
When she didn’t move, he broke the silence. “Forget what I said. Hel , forget that I kissed you. Let’s go back and see if old Jeremiah has his sweetheart from over sixty years ago in bed yet.”
She laughed, glad to have the Noah she knew back.
The man she’d glimpsed was too unsettling. “Stop it. I don’t even want to think about Aunt Pat and Jeremiah that way.”
“Trust me, Rea, fighting is just one step away from foreplay. Her support hose might already be around her ankles.”
Rea took off running.
“What’s your hurry?” Noah smiled. “It’s going to take them a while.”
“I’ve got to stop it. What if Aunt Pat gets pregnant?” The old Noah was almost back as they drove home. He made al kinds of jokes about the old couple and what the families would have to say about them rol ing in the hay.
Rea knew Noah’s joy was forced, but she didn’t care.
She had her best friend back for a time. Maybe he’d forget about the kiss he’d given her. Maybe she would too.
When they reached the house it was almost dark. Rea jumped out of the pickup and looked back at him stil sitting in the cab. “Aren’t you coming in?” she asked. “Cindy’s making smothered burritos.”
Noah slid over to the driver’s side. “I think I’l go for a drive if you got enough gas in this old thing.”
“It’s standard. Can you handle shifting with your arm in a cast?”
“I’l manage.” He shoved the gearshift into reverse and was gone before she could offer to go with him.
Reagan watched him drive out onto Lone Oak Road.
When she walked back to the porch, Jeremiah was sitting in his favorite chair.
She sat down next to him, knowing better than to ask him how he was feeling.
“That Noah?” he said after a few minutes.
Reagan nodded. “I don’t know where he’s going, so don’t bother asking. He makes me so mad. One minute he kisses me and the next minute he can’t get out of my sight fast enough.”
Jeremiah stared out at the sunset. “Ain’t nobody who can make you mad, kid. You have to get there by yourself.”
“You’re right.” She thought of adding that she planned to stew in her bad mood a while, so he could keep his advice to himself.
After a while he added, “I’m guessing the same is true of kissing you. Nobody better even try unless you want them to.”
She didn’t answer. She wasn’t wil ing to admit she wanted him to, but she hadn’t stopped him.
Final y, Jeremiah unfolded from the chair. “Come on, girl, let’s go eat. Don’t worry about him. A man’s got to fight his own demons. You can’t do it for him.”
Reagan pul ed her knees to her chin. “I don’t understand why he came back here. He’s not happy and he doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.”
Jeremiah chewed on that for a minute, then answered so low his voice blended into the wind. “Maybe he came back here to fal . Maybe right here is the only place he knows he’l be safe if he crashes. Funny thing about rodeo heroes, or any kind for that matter; when they fal it’s sometimes farther to ground than they thought.” Reagan decided her uncle was slipping. Noah had relatives al over town and a family who spoiled him. He could have gone back to any of them and been welcomed.
She stood and helped her uncle inside. Before they reached the kitchen, she said, “I didn’t let him kiss me. I just didn’t stop him.”
“Oh,” Jeremiah says. “Makes perfect sense. What you planning on doing next time . . . let him or stop him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Might want to make up your mind, ’cause I got a feeling next time wil be coming.”
BEAU YATES AND HIS FRIEND BORDER BIGGS
CLAMBERED in the back door of the Buffalo Bar and Gril with al their equipment.
Harley, the owner, stood with his arms folded over his massive chest waiting for them. “’Bout time you boys showed up.”
Beau set down his keyboard. “We got here as fast as we could.”
Harley nodded as if to apologize. “I guess you did. The band out of Lubbock cal ed half an hour ago saying they were having car trouble. This was the second and last time they’l be canceling on me.”
“Can we have their slot?” Beau asked.
Harley laughed. “You got more than six songs?”
“Sure, we got eight.”
“Good enough for this crowd. I’l pay you the same money and you now have two nights a month.”
“And a meal at break,” Border said. “I didn’t have time to eat before we loaded up.”
Harley nodded. “Give the cook your order before you climb in the cage and I’l make sure he delivers it on break.” Ten minutes later they broke their first song to an almost empty bar. One table of cowboys in from one of the big ranches for the evening was talking so loud they could have been playing the theme to
and no one would have noticed. Two couples more interested in each other than dancing and one lone man at the back booth with a cast on his arm.
Beau watched him as they moved from song to song.
He never looked up except to wave for another beer. He was young, probably only a few years older than Border, but he looked hard. Like he didn’t care about anyone or anything but the beer.