"Oh, my God!" Her hand flew to her mouth. Rass was going to see the damage she’d done to Mad Dog’s back. And he was going to know what had gone on last night.
"Oh, my God."
She ducked back in the window and ran for her ar-moire. Yanking out a plain brown skirt and shirtwaist, she dressed quickly and raced down the stairs, her bare feet thumping on the sagging steps.
She lurched into the kitchen and saw the remains of breakfast sitting on the table.
God, she’d missed breakfast.
She ran through the room and half stumbled down the porch steps. When she finally reached Mad Dog and her father, she was red-faced and winded, clutching the stitch in her side.
"Hi." The word came out as a high-pitched squeak.
Rass looked at her briefly, frowning. "Mornin’, Mariah. We missed you at breakfast." He started to say something to Mad Dog, then slowly turned back to Mariah. "Your hair’s down."
She gasped, plastering a hand to her unbound hair. "I … I misplaced my hairpins."
Rass gave her an odd look. "Now, that’s a first."
Mad Dog laughed. "Not precisely."
Mariah rammed her elbow into Mad Dog’s side. He made a satisfying grunt of pain and covered it with a cough.
She tried to smile at her father.
Rass stared back at her. A small frown pleated his forehead. "Everything go okay around here last night?"
Mariah felt the color drain from her cheeks. "Fine."
They all stood there for a moment longer, staring at one another, nodding. No one said a word.
Finally Mad Dog turned to leave. "Well, I’d best—"
Mariah grabbed his arm. "Don’t go."
He frowned at her.
She realized suddenly how foolish she must look. A middle-aged spinster, hair a tangled mess, clinging to the nak*d arm of a man she barely knew. As if she had a right to touch him.
Forcibly, gritting out a smile, she released her hold on Mad Dog and reached for the black shirt heaped on the ground. "I simply wanted to remind Mr. Stone to wear a shirt." She turned to him, shoved the shirt at him with a pointed look. "It isn’t fitting to go about half-clothed."
"Really?" The single word was steeped in irony. She had no doubt whatsoever that he was picturing her as she was last night—naked, laughing, astride him.
Heat splashed across her face. "Really."
Rass whistled cheerily and shook his head. "Why is it I feel like I’m missing something?"
"Can’t imagine, Rass," Mad Dog said, slipping into his shirt.
Mariah let out a relieved sigh as his back was covered. "So," she said, searching for something to say, "did I hear the word ‘clouds’?"
Rass nodded. "I was just about to tell Mad Dog about cloud-watching. It’s a grand day for it."
Cloud-watching. Mariah felt a warm rush of bittersweet memories. "We haven’t done that in years. Not since . . ." Her voice snagged, caught.
Rass gave her a smile. "Not since you were a child." He turned to Mad Dog. "It used to be one of our favorite pastimes."
Mad Dog turned to Mariah. "Do you want to do it?"
His words were spoken quietly, with a concern that wrenched Mariah’s heart. She looked at him, wanting desperately to touch him, to say thank you for so many things. But all she said was "Yes."
In companionable silence, the three of them walked toward the knoll alongside the river. As they passed the barn, they saw Jake, painting fences. Rass called out to him, waving the boy over. "Come on, Jake. We’re going on an adventure."
Jake set down his paintbrush and hurried over to the group, falling into step between Rass and Mad Dog.
Rass led them all to the grassy rise and then stopped. "Okay, everyone lay down.
We want to make a cross formation, with the tips of our heads touching."
The four of them lay down, forming a cross in which Rass lay north; Jake west; Mad Dog south; and Mariah east. In the center, their heads touched in a connecting circle.
"You start us off, Mariah," Rass said quietly.
Mariah closed her eyes. The chilly wind rippled across her skirts and fluttered against her cheeks. As she lay there in the cold, drying grass, she felt herself falling back into the past. Once again she was a child. …
They had done this for endless hours, she and her parents; it had been one of their great family adventures, a time to explore hidden dreams and find forgotten laughter.
A tine to share and talk and giggle.
Their heads had to be touching, she remembered, because Rass believe! they could meld their thoughts that way, that within th; family, a magical, timeless connection could somehow be made.
She smiled at the memory. As a child, she’d believed absolutely that they could read one another’s minds; it seemed as if they could. But then, as she got older, she stopped believing. Her adolescent mind questioned everything, and her heart began to see the truth. Somehow, in some quiet, intangible way, she was excluded from the circle o; love. Even though her head was touching, she read her parent’s thoughts anymore. But they could read each other’s, always.
That’s when she’d stopped playing this game. She told her parents it was because she was too old, that she didn’t—couldn’t—Jelieve anymore, that it was a silly waste of time. It was the first of many self-protective lies she told herself, and them.
She thought that they’d stop playing, but, of course, they hadn’t. They’d played on without her.
Somehow, that had been the most painful part of all. She remembered standing on the porch, watching them walk, hand in hand across the fields, lying down together.
They didn’t seem to miss her at all.
"Mariah?" Rass’s soft voice brought her back to the present.
She blinked hard, feeling the sting of tears. She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting for control. Gradually the hot moisture dissipated, leaving her dry-eyed once again. She cleared her throat and studied the heavens.
Today the sky was an unbroken curve of cerulean blue, interspersed with puffy, floating white clouds.
A snowman-shaped cloud broke free of its moorings and drifted to the left. "I see a little boy in a bowler hat. . . ." Her voice cracked. Memories of Thomas seeped into her heart, squeezing until it hurt to breathe.
Beside her, there was a whisper of movement in the grass. Before she’d identified the sound, Mad Dog’s hand curled around hers, warm and reassuring.
Her whole body seemed to dissolve at the comfort of that touch.
She turned her head toward him and found him staring at her. Their faces were close, separated only by a studded thicket of browning grass. He didn’t say anything, just stared at her, his gray eyes filled with an impossible understanding.
Mariah felt a surge of gratitude and caring. For the first time in her life, someone had reached out to her, said—however silently—that she wasn’t alone.
She wanted to weep at how much that simple touch meant to her. But, of course, she didn’t. She smiled and squeezed his hand, saying nothing.
She didn’t even know what to say.
"What’s the boy doing, Jake?" Rass said, moving the game forward.
Slowly Mariah turned her attention back to the sky. So did Mad Dog, but he didn’t draw his hand away.
"He’s leaving home," Jake said. "That big cloud— that’s home. The other one, the skinny one, that’s his father. He’s moving toward his dad, but he can’t catch up. The wind is taking them in different directions."
"I don’t see a dad," Mad Dog said. "I see a barmaid with big br**sts and too much hair. She’s chasing the dad, too." He grinned, pointed up. "The dad’s slowing down for her."
Jake laughed, and with that buoyant, juvenile sound, the pallor of old sadnesses evaporated, floating away in the apple-scented air.
For hours, the four of them lay in the fragrant, drying grass, amid a blanket of fallen autumn leaves, staring up at the blue, cloud-strewn sky.
Never once did Mad Dog let go of Mariah’s hand.
Jake felt acutely conspicuous as he stood by the bunkhouse, waiting for Mad Dog.
He flexed his fingers, then curled them tight, then flexed them again. Nervously he bounced on the balls of his feet.
He tried to make himself smile, tried to feel confident.
He could do this, he could. He’d just tilt his chin up, meet his father’s eyes, and ask him. It was just a question, after all. Just a stupid question.
Mad Dog, would you mind teaching me to fight!
He frowned. No, that wasn’t right. Too formal. His father would probably laugh and keep walking.
Hey, Mad Dog, you wanna boxl It sounded like he was offering him a present.
He flexed and unflexed his hands again. He needed something just right; the perfect words to make Mad Dog notice him.
That was the key.
Jake tried not to think about how much that hurt.
Mad Dog hadn’t noticed him yet. Oh, he’d spoken to Jake, he’d even laughed with him a couple of times. But they hadn’t . . . connected. The magical father/son tie Jake had always believed in didn’t seem to exist. At least not between him and Mad Dog.
Even yesterday while they’d watched clouds together, there’d been nothing special between them. They’d laughed and talked some, but it wasn’t what Jake had dreamt of all his life. What he ached to find. Even his obvious hint about the cloud/boy searching for his father had fallen on deaf ears.
"Hey, kid, you’re lookin’ pretty down in the mouth. What’s up?"
Jake’s head snapped up. Mad Dog was standing in front of him, smiling.
Mad Dog walked toward him. "You okay?"
Jake couldn’t move, couldn’t even nod. Humiliated, he started to turn away.
Mad Dog touched his sleeve. "Hey, kid, did you want something from me?"
Jake froze. Reluctantly he glanced at his dad. "Wh— What do you mean?"
Mad Dog laughed. "Well, you’re hangin’ around my place, I just thought, you know, you wanted something."
Surprise shot through Jake when he realized the importance of what had just happened. Mad Dog hadn’t just walked on past, uncaring. He’d stopped, asked Jake what he wanted. Almost as if Jake mattered to him.
Hope spilled through Jake in a dizzying wave.
This was it. He had to do something to get to know his dad. He looked up, trying to keep the hope from his eyes, and knowing he failed. "I was just thinking .. . er, wondering … I mean … hoping—"
He licked his lips nervously, clenched his hands. "W-Would you teach me to fight?"
Mad Dog frowned. "You want to learn to box? Why?"
He hadn’t laughed! Jake felt a pounding sense of relief. Taking a deep, steadying breath, he surged ahead with the plan. "I-I’d want to be able to protect myself if something happens." His gaze fell. "You know … be like you."
There was a long silence before Mad Dog said quietly, "You don’t want to be like me, kid."
"Yes I do."
Mad Dog gave him a surprisingly sad smile. "I’ve made . .. mistakes in my life, kid.
Big ones. I’m no one to look up to."
Jake’s heart seemed to stop beating. He leaned forward. "What mistakes?"
"Nothing worth talking about. Just mistakes."
Jake knew his next question shouldn’t be asked, but he couldn’t help himself. "Do you . .. have any kids?"
Mad Dog snorted. "No, I’m not that stupid. That’s the sort of mistake you can’t walk away from."