"I think he loved you," he said softly.
There was a bng, quiet moment, and then slowly she nodded. "So do I, Jake."
They lapsed back into a familiar silence. He dug deep for the courage to say what needed to be said. "My mama loved hin, too."
She turned to him, surprised. "What?"
Jake tried to smile. "I’m his son."
She seemed for a moment to stop breathing. Her eyes widened. "Does he know?"
He nodded. ‘He asked me to go with him when he left."
A sad smile shaped her lips. "That sounds like him. Why didn’t you?"
He gazed steadily at her. "I .. . J guess I thought you Were as much a mother as he is a father."
"Oh, Jake …" She breathed his name, too moved by his simple words to say more.
"He’ll be back."
She shook her head, dashed away tears with the back of her hand. "No, honey, he won’t be back."
"I’m not just saying that. I’ve gotten to know him. He’ll be back."
She gave him a fragile smile, but didn’t say anything.
Jake wouldn’t give up so easily. "He’ll be back." He said the words over and over again, trying really hard to make himself believe them.
Two short, sharp blasts of the train’s horn roused Mad Dog from a restless, dreamless sleep. He blinked blearily and pushed away from the cold, shuddering boxcar wall.
Running dirty fingers through his equally dirty hair, he sat up and glanced outside.
The countryside whipped past him in a freezing white blur. He had no idea where he was; the landscape looked like Texas, or Arizona, or New Mexico—any of a dozen places he’d been in the last few weeks. The days and nights were beginning to blur together in his mind, merging into a hazy, forgettable collage of snow-covered towns and empty train cars.
Jesus, it was cold. He rubbed his hands together and blew into them, trying to create the momentary illusion of warmth.
The horn blared again; its piercing wail hovered for a split second in the frosty air, then melted into the wheezing chugs of the locomotive and disappeared. Giant iron wheels locked and screeched, grinding and bumping along the tracks as the engine began to slow down.
The train’s speed decreased, and the whipping air faded into a gentle, snow-scented breeze. Without the wind, the pungent smell of the boxcar became overpowering.
Old horse dung, musty burlap . . . human sweat.
Mad Dog winced. Christ, he needed a bath. He tugged on the wiry hair at his chin, and stared outside. Before he knew it, he was thinking about Lonesome Creek again.
Her name came to him on the breeze, winging through his mind like a breath of fresh air. He’d done that a lot lately, thought of Mariah and Jake and the farm. It was strange; all his life he’d thought about where he was going. Every new town was like an unopened Christmas gift, a treasure just waiting to be found. But lately things were different. He was thinking more about where he’d been and what he’d left behind. And more and more, that place, that time, felt like the unopened present.
He sighed, shoving his hand through his hair again. He’d never done that before, looked back, and he didn’t like it.
He’d done the right thing. Of course he had. Sooner or later, he’d forget Mariah. He always forgot women. It was one of his gifts.
That and offending people.
The memory of their conversation came at him out of the blue, surprising him with its bittersweet punch.
Irritated, he grabbed hold of his bag and clutched his hat to his head. With a holler, he jumped off the slow moving train, landed hard. Pain ricocheted up his legs and lodged in his knees.
"Jesus Christ," he cursed, bending over until the pain passed. Then, slowly, he straightened.
And found himself on the outskirts of Albuquerque.
He smiled. "Well, I’ll be damned." Albuquerque. It was one of his favorite towns.
There was a hell of a tavern here, and the prettiest little whore on the whole line.
This’II clear your head, he thought with a smile. Now, finally, he’d start to forget the only woman he’d ever remembered in the first place.
He strolled through the thin layer of new, airy snow, kicking it as he walked down Main Street. It was a quiet day for Albuquerque; no people running through the square, no Indians selling their crafts along the boardwalk. He walked through the new section of townj and into the old.
As he neared the Tip ‘Em Back saloon, familiarl noises and smells spilled into the street, drawing him in, welcoming him in the way this town had a dozen times before.
He tilted back his hat and pushed through the swinging half doors.
And was thrust into the seedy, smoking tavern. He coughed, blinking hard to see through the thick layer of gray haze that coated the room. From somewhere came the musical thumping of hard hands on a tinny piano. The clattering din rose above the boiling cacophony of raised voices, laughter, and hacking coughs.
He let the door swing shut behind him. The smoke greeted him like an old friend.
Familiar smells assaulted his senses, reminded him that he had been away for a while.
The sharp tang of tobacco, the musty odor of a place that hadn’t been aired out in years, and the pungent stench of human sweat and dirty clothes.
It was raucous and loud, jam-packed with people who didn’t ask names and didn’t care where you were from. Just the kind of place Mad Dog had always belonged.
He tossed his bag into the corner and watched it land. Then he crammed his hands in his pockets and ambled to the long oak bar.
He was halfway there when a male voice boomed above the melee. "Jee-sus Christ, it’s Mad Dog Stone back from the dead!"
Mad Dog glanced up and saw old Freddy Tomlinson still tending bar.
Freddy grinned, showing off a full set of yellow, rabbit-large teeth. "Hell, Stone, I figured you died."
Mad Dog sidled up to the bar and sat down on the cracked, painted stool. "You shoulda known better than that, Freddy. Only the good die young."
Freddy laughed hard, his hand pressed against his wobbling girth. "Yeah, you’re right there." He slapped a wet rag on the bar and started sloshing it back and forth.
Mad Dog grinned. "You gonna make me ask? What’s the point of bein’ a regular if the bartender can’t read your mind?"
Freddy tossed the towel down. It landed with a moist thwack and slid toward Mad Dog. Turning, Freddy grabbed a bottle of tequila and a shot glass from the mirrored shelves behind him and clanked them down in front of Mad Dog. Then he went back to wiping the bar.
Mad Dog frowned at the shot glass. Had they always been dirty? He couldn’t remember. He’d never even thought about it before, never wondered. Never cared.
The realization that he cared now made him angry. What the hell difference did it make if the glass had a little dust or dirt on it? Who cared?
He curled his fingers around the tequila bottle and poured himself a healthy shot.
The pungent, eye-watering scent of the alcohol floated to his nostrils. He tipped the drink back and downed it in a single swallow.
Then he poured himself another. He leaned back in the chair and stretched out his legs, glancing around him. The place was filled with familiar faces. Men hunched over dirty tables, playing poker. Painted women standing alongside them, cheering for whoever paid them the most money. Cards snapped on wooden tables, chips clattered together, men cursed.
It was too goddamn loud in here. He frowned at the thought. He’d never thought saloons were too noisy or too smoky or too anything. Everywhere else had seemed dull and boring in comparison. But now, sitting here alone at the bar, sipping bad tequila, he found that he missed the quiet—-He shook his head, disgusted. "Jesus Christ, Marian, are you going to ruin this for me, too?"
Somewhere, a woman shrieked. "Mad Dog Stone, as I live and breathe!"
Mad Dog winced and glanced toward the wide stairway. Martha—or was it Matilda?—was shoving her . way through the prostitutes and patrons on the steps, making her jostling, shrieking way to the bar. She half ran the last ten feet and came up beside him, breathing hard.
She smiled down at him, a practiced, pretty smile that for some reason set his teeth on edge. She fluttered her heavily kohled eyes and pressed a hand to her heaving cl**vage. "Well, my, my," she sighed, dragging her tongue along her painted lower lip. "I was beginnin’ to wonder if you forgot me."
Mad Dog frowned up at her. He’d slept with this woman a dozen times over the years, and he’d always had a hell of a time. He’d always thought she was pretty in a loud, overblown sort of way. But now he saw her as she really was. A young woman aged before her time by booze and a bad life.
"Buy a girl a drink?" she purred, patting her bleached blond hair.
"Sure." He shoved the bottle at her.
She frowned prettily. "No, thanks. That stuff makes me puke."
Mad Dog smiled in spite of himself, remembering. "Yeah, it has that effect on some women."
You shouldn’t compare me to other women.
I didn ‘t know it was important to be the first to throw up on someone.
The woman—Margaret?—touched him. "It’s been a while, Mad Dog. Where you been hidin’ out?"
He took a drink, let it linger for a second on his tongue before he swallowed. "I wasn’t hidin’ anywhere. I was just—" Home. The thought stunned him, confused him so badly that for a moment he couldn’t speak.
He shrugged, pushing the thought away. He didn’t want a home, didn’t want to think he had one. He liked \ his life on the road, goddamn it. He loved it. "Nowhere. So how’ve you been?"
"Fine." She pressed against him, rubbed her satin | skirt against his thigh in a slow, erotic invitation.
It left him cold. She smelled of old sweat and cheap perfume, of tawdry back rooms and hasty couplings.
"You wanna go up to my room?" she whispered ‘i throatily against his ear. Her gloved hand dove beneath the table and settled between his legs, squeezing lightly.
He almost said yes without thinking. But when he looked up at her, into her sharp, painted face and emotionless blue eyes, he knew he couldn’t.
The realization shocked him. He didn’t want her, and she didn’t want him. Not really. They wanted … a connection. A time to pretend they felt something they didn’t feel. Once, that hadn’t mattered to Mad Dog. Hell, he’d liked that cold anonymity, enjoyed women who cared nothing for him and less for themselves.
Women who asked nothing of him and didn’t care if he forgot their names.
But he was different now. Mariah and what they shared had changed him. He knew the difference between sex and love—Jesus, the difference—and he couldn’t go back to the old way anymore.
He looked away, unable to face her, and took another sip of tequila. "Sorry, M . . ."
"Millie," she said softly. There was a quiver of hurt in her voice he never would have noticed before.
"Sorry, Millie. Not this time."
She sagged beside him, dropped an elbow on the table and stared at him. "You find yourself a woman, Stone?"
He couldn’t answer.
She tossed back a shot of tequila and shuddered, wiping her mouth on the back of her sleeve. "If you have, and you care enough about her to stay away from me, then what the hell are you doin’ here on Christmas night?"
Her jerked his head up. For the first time, he noticed the dying, empty tree leaning in the corner behind the bar. And the music. That tinny piano was banging out a staccato version of "O Holy Night."