|Rearden: Miners of Refined Gold : May 2012
Author: A Fire Rose PM
Upon their return from Las Vegas, August battles against his own mind, Rearden sees old friends again, Gunnar is weighed down with guilt, and a life-endangering catastrophe strikes the ranch.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Drama/Friendship - Chapters: 2 - Words: 13,312 - Updated: 03-17-13 - Published: 02-22-13 - Status: Complete - id: 3103220
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'er-fraught heart, and bids it break.
-Malcolm from Macbeth, Act IV, scene III
Sunlight started seeping behind the canvas drapes within a couple hours after they arrived. As the alarm clattered in the middle of the room, Rodney pulled the covers over his ears, but Rearden leapt down and threw them back. Everett was already in the shower, but Rafe was battling the desire to return to sleep as he kicked back his covers and rose in a lethargic state. Gunnar mounted himself up on the ladder and gave August a light slap on the chest. The man scarcely stirred, so Gunnar dropped down again and started toward the dresser.
The sun pierced the sky with tangerine rays that spread across the desert and heated the sand, casting shadows behind the structures and animals. The crow of a rooster split the almost silence, and mustangs started peering out their stalls in anticipation of the coming meal.
Rearden stomped his boots before entering into the Garland kitchen with a "Good morning."
"Good morning," Marshall greeted, already seated with a newspaper spread out ahead of him and a cup of coffee beside it. "Did you boys enjoy yourselves in Las Vegas?"
"I am never going anywhere with the five of them again," Everett proclaimed when he pulled open the door and strode across the kitchen to pour himself some apple juice beside Rearden, who was about to help himself to coffee. Rodney shambled in and seated himself only to drop his head down on the placemat, and then Rafe arrived staring down with a coal rim around one eye. Gunnar was the last to appear, and he did so smearing his palms across his eyes repeatedly.
Marshall gave a hum of observation. "I won't even ask where August is."
"He should be around soon," Gunnar rasped as Rearden passed him the coffee pot. He accepted it gratefully and proceeded to pour it into his mug until it reached the brim.
"I will have you clue him in when he comes, then."
"I'm amazed any of you showed up," Wyatt announced as he came in and sat down with his cup of coffee. His silver moustache curled with his smile when he evaluated each of the young men. "I've seen road kill that looks better than you."
"Might have felt better, too," admitted a muffled Rodney into the table.
"Anyway," Marshall laid aside his paper accepted the plate of pancakes Mesa passed to him, "I am going to start discussing the plans of the day, if you're all able to comprehend them at the moment. Rearden, you're making progress with Caliber, I assume."
"Yes, sir," Rearden accepted his plate and seated himself between his boss and Rodney.
"Keep doing that this evening," Marshall responded. "Rodney, I assume you can handle feeding. Any training you can get done in the evening will help. Gunnar, have August assist you with shoeing when he comes around. Rafe and Everett, start saddling the horses to work calves. The Morgans and a friend are going to pick up Gunsmoke and Sunflower, so the girls will be helping with you in a couple hours."
Rodney chewed and swallowed the last of his pancake drizzled in maple syrup and scraped his chair slowly back. "That's all I can manage. Gonna go get August up and get started feeding."
The crisp atmosphere chilled him at the door, and the sun revealed the heather gray heavens. He crunched across the desert to the bunkhouse and cracked the door open. The entire place was dim and still. He made his way across the entry room and to the bedroom, pushing open the closed door. August remained asleep in his top bunk on the opposite side of the room, impervious to the sunlight illuminating the edges of the closed drapes.
"Come on, man," Rodney crossed the room and dragged open the drapes, spilling sunlight across the room. "I know you feel like crap, but we gotta get moving."
"Close those drapes," August demanded beneath his covers.
"We're working cattle today, so we need your help."
"Close the drapes."
"Look," Rodney snapped as he crossed his arms and leaned against the bunk bed, "normally I'd do that and have Marshall or even Wyatt take this up with you, but I promised we'd all be out there in the morning if I was allowed to plan a night in Vegas, so this comes down on me. Get up!"
The covers were cast across the bed and August appeared, disheveled in every sense, and pulled the drapes closed. The room was consumed in shade. He collapsed down again and disappeared beneath the covers. "Go tell Marshall this is on me and get out. Keep the drapes closed."
Rodney released the air in his lungs and ran a hand through his short sandy hair with exasperation. He stormed out of the room. As he crossed living area again, he heard the lock switch behind the door.
The rest of the men were saddling their horses when he reached the barn to feed the ones in stalls. "I can't get him out," he announced with a shake of his head. "Someone else has to do it, or let him take it up with Marshall later."
Rearden knit his brow with curiosity. "He's not up?"
"Nope," Rodney answered as he stepped into the feed room to retrieve a couple flakes of hay. "And he is not about to be convinced to get up, so I'm leaving it to him."
"I knew that trip was a bad idea," Everett murmured with a shake of his head as he hauled up the cinch on his mustang. Handel stomped one hoof and swished his flaxen tail in protest, snorting his misted breath into the air. "He's probably still drunk."
"Suppose he's all right?" Rafe asked as he peered around River, whose woven teal saddle blanket he was adjusting. Rodney emerged again and threw a flake of hay in each of the first two feeders.
"Well, he looks like crap."
"Leave him alone," Gunnar answered suddenly as he unhitched a saddled Dreamscape and started down the aisle. "I'll look in on him later. Leave Marshall to me, if it comes down to it."
"All right," Rodney called after him. "But I don't want this to backfire on me."
The morning cleared into a crisp, sunny day. A silver pickup with a trailer in tow rumbled up to the ranch with taupe dirt swirling up behind it. Wyatt emerged out of the house with crossed arms and observed its approach with squinted eyes, sneaking them toward Rearden when he and the rest of the men spilled out of the barn to greet their temporary assistance.
"Good morning," Rearden strode toward Jarah with an extended hand as he climbed out of the truck. The man returned his gesture and gave his hand an enthusiastic pump, then slapped his back and started toward Marshall at the house. Sarai climbed out of the passenger seat in a plaid shirt open over a tee, but Poppy leapt out of the backseat cab with a smile. Her flaming waves of hair richened into a stunning rust and was pinned loosely to the back of her head, and her leather boots seemed clean.
"Well, look at you!" she announced with open arms when she saw him, while Sarai approached her side. "You have officially morphed into an American cowboy."
"Hello, ladies," he answered with his warmest smile and an American drawl, reaching an arm around the shoulders of each to give them a squeeze. "Always a pleasure, Sarai. Poppy, you are lovely as ever. What have you been doing with your life?"
"On the Board of Directors of the Tea Party in my area, for one. Considering going into the military; either Marines or Air Force," she answered. "And you, have you been doing anything besides ranching?"
"The usual," Rearden considered her inquiry. "School, girls, keepin' up with family."
"I learned something interesting, by the way," Poppy pointed her index finger at him with emphasis, nose wrinkled with her smile. "And I want to tell you while Sarai puts something in the kitchen for you."
"Red velvet cake with buttercream icing and a Coke," Sarai reached into the backseat of the pickup to retrieve them, "as tradition mandates. Reminds me, I now understand why you all look hungover."
Rearden peered over his shoulder at Rodney, who was somewhat slumped in his saddle as he awaited them with drooping eyes, and Rafe as he covered the yawn erupting from his mouth. "Only a couple of 'em are hungover," he mused as he observed their countenance. "Appreciate the gifts."
"Sure," she made her way to the kitchen with the cake and the soda, Rearden and Poppy trailing behind as Poppy gestured her excitement alongside her words and Wyatt shouted after them.
"Make it fast! We're already late."
"So my cousin Lilac in Alabama says that an Irish girl is staying with the family she works for," Poppy explained as they entered the kitchen and Sarai placed the cake on the counter. "Said the girl was sent to stay with her aunt and uncle because she was with some boy her family didn't approve of. Gavin mentioned once that Liam was angry with him over breaking up a relationship he was in. You can't tell me this could possibly be the same situation."
Rearden released an astonished laugh. "That's her – Aoife Sweeney."
Poppy slapped her hands together with delight. "I knew it! If you let me know how Liam is, I can pass that on to Lilac, and she can keep Aoife updated. Said she's been anxious to know how he is."
"Liam would appreciate that," Rearden answered. "He rents a studio apartment on the property of a rather eccentric couple. Let her know that he has been in a pretty deep pit."
"I will. And ask Gavin to check his email. That boy doesn't understand the purpose of social media."
"Get your butts out here!" Wyatt shouted where he stood outside.
Rearden grinned and nodded toward the door. "Ladies first."
Wind swept around the structures as they stepped outside. Wyatt was aboard Lasso with the reins of two mustangs saddled and bridled behind him. Rearden leapt aboard Caliber and steered him toward the pastures as the girls each mounted one of the horses Wyatt held.
"Can I help you guys herd the calves and the cattle?" Poppy called ahead to the men.
"Go for it," Rodney grumbled.
Rearden peered over his shoulder at her with amusement. "You're mighty sprightly this morning."
"She drank her weight in coffee all the way here," Sarai replied.
"And I'll be regretting that by noon, but it's cool," Poppy added.
"Noon?" Sarai released a sharp laugh. "Nine."
Poppy shrugged. "Yeah, probably."
Sarai analyzed the herd as they approached, sunlight shimmering in her rich auburn hair. She pointed to the cattle and explained to Poppy the method of gathering them into the pens to be worked, and she listened intently. As Gunnar darted his mustang toward a stray dam and calf, Poppy observed some of the explanation put into practice.
"Yeah, I can do this," she said eventually.
Sarai gave a nod of approval. "Good, because these guys look like crap."
Poppy laughed and gathered together what she had learned. The mustang beneath her quivered with anticipation to drive one of the dry cattle back to her herd, so she released the tautness on the reins and let the horse dart toward the stray and push her back to the rest.
"You're a natural," Rodney praised with a grin when she returned with the cow. "I might have to chase one of others away so I can see you do it again."
Poppy released a sharp laugh. "Was that flirting?"
"Please excuse him," Everett trotted Handel up beside her. "He shares a bunkhouse with five other guys. Opportunities to flirt are a rare treat fir him."
"Hey, now," Rodney twisted around to see him. "I get to flirt at school, at least."
A hawk screeched overhead as it coasted across the cerulean sky and reached its perch in a distant pine. Sarai sneaked a camera out of her dark red sweatshirt pocket and snapped photos of her shadow on the desert earth, the scattered sagebrush, and the riders with the contrasts and complements of their physical colors and clothing against the landscape. She loved the contrast of Everett's ebony complexion against the pastels of the earth and sky, and Rodney's caramel hair that was only shades darker than the desert. She appreciated the rich browns and reds of Rearden, the ash browns and teals of Rafe, and the mostly black and bronze of Gunnar against the landscape as well.
"Stray about fifty feet west," Rearden called as he pushed another of the mooing cattle back to the herd. Sarai looked where he directed and sent her mustang after it. She pushed her back to the herd and they continued to the chutes, where they drove the herd into a large pen. Then they dismounted and hitched their horses to get into position.
"You girls push them down the alley," Rearden proposed while he and Rodney dismounted to position themselves on the opposite end. As the cattle came toward them, they snatched the calves and penned them while the dams continued past and entered a separate pen while Gunnar counted them.
Afterwards, the mustangs were hitched and most of the riders dismounted to set up. Sarai and Poppy gathered the calves into the contained area that led into the chute, shut the gate behind them, and started pushing them down the line. Although soiled and jostled within seconds, they persisted behind the creatures until they reached Wyatt, who pushed each one into the calf table. Rafe spun the table onto its side and Everett caught hold of the calf's head and kept it still. Rearden pressed the branding iron against the haunch and removed it, Gunnar vaccinated, Rodney clamped in an ear tag, and Rafe castrated whenever needed. Afterwards, each one was released into an adjoining pen.
One of the burlier calves was moving ahead of Sarai and determined to not budge. She gritted her teeth and shoved him onward, even as he lashed out with his sharp hooves at her shins.
"Should I ask someone to help you?" Poppy called several calves behind her.
"I got it," she answered resolutely and shoved him with her knees. He resisted against her until she had to grasp the rails to avoid being backed over. Suddenly, he scampered ahead and closed the gap between himself and the calves ahead.
"Well done," Poppy praised.
"Sarai get run over?" Rearden teased as he retrieved the iron to mark another calf.
"Shut up, Rearden, or do it yourself!" she shouted in return. The rich, hearty laughter that reached her ears made her snarl with exasperation.
"'The lady doth protest too much, methinks,'" he called.
"Stop getting distracted," Gunnar mumbled as he returned with a syringe to vaccinate a calf.
"You all right?" Rearden pressed the iron against the calf and smoke rose. "Seem unsettled."
"Probably feels like crap after last night like the rest of us," Rodney answered and clamped a tag on.
"Actually," Gunnar sneaked a glimpse over one shoulder while Rafe released the calf, "I may not be accurate, but we were five cattle short of what I was sure we had here."
"Better tell Marshall," Rodney said as the next calf entered the table and was turned over. "It's happened before, so you might not be wrong."
Wyatt called his son-in-law while moving calves into the table, and the rancher arrived in his pickup within ten minutes. After he was informed of what data was discovered, he promised to alert the sheriff and started to leave.
"Cover me a second," Rafe said to Rodney ("Sure, I'm not already doing something") and darted after his boss. "Marshall." The man pivoted around and Rafe continued, "May I speak with you a moment?"
"Sure," Marshall returned to where he stood. "What's up?"
Rafe bit his lip with uneasiness, then blurted, "I did something stupid and wrong last night."
"I'm listening," Marshall crossed his arms with a furrowed brow and to the softly spoken explanation.
"When we were in Vegas, I met a girl," he started speaking more rapidly. "She was beautiful and bubbly and after a reasonable amount of alcohol, I let myself go a little. She and I kissed before I saw her husband come up and sock me in the mouth."
Marshall could almost see him brace himself for his response. Eventually, he answered, "You made yourself vulnerable with alcohol and you put yourself in a compromising position; that's true. You also caved into your temptations and it was wrong; that's true, too. Pray to the Lord and repent, and learn from that error. You can't undo what's been done. What matters now is how you handle it."
"Thank you, sir," Rafe said with a nod, then returned to his post.
After the calves were all processed through the chutes and released, everyone mounted their mustangs again and herded the cattle against the fence and pinned them by standing in a line. Rafe and Rearden sent their mustangs in the midst of the cattle to cut away those without calves to be delivered to another pasture while the rest were to be driven back to where they were that morning.
By the time all the cattle were where they should be, the riders were smeared with dirt and smelled of burnt hair. Gunnar rode with his eyes steady on the horizon and his mouth clamped shut. Rearden loped Caliber up beside him and eased him back to match Dreamscape's stride.
"You seem more reserved than usual."
He answered with a brusque hum of acknowledgement. A ribbon of wind streamed around them and slithered over the alkaline hills in the distance, whipping the girls' hair around their eyes as it came. An eruption of laughter behind them made Rearden swivel around in the saddle a moment to smile toward his companions, then return to Gunnar.
"I've done a lot of research in the last year about being bipolar," he continued as Caliber released the breath in his nostrils. "And I read that alcohol and being bipolar clash something fierce."
The man gave a murmur of agreement.
"Has he ever been self-destructive?"
Gunnar released his breath as he considered this. "Not directly."
"But you are concerned he may hurt himself this time," Rearden ventured and saw the tightening of his jaw. He waited an answer, then asked, "You've both been here several years, right?"
Another long pause ensued. Eventually, in his usual low tones and abrupt speech, Gunnar answered, "August has been here nine years; came at seventeen. I came a year later. Work was scarce on the reservation. I came to Sundown alone; never lived away from the reservation. August snatched me the moment I entered the door and showed me around with that infectious intensity of his. Got to know him – cared about him, had a lot in common."
"What made you partners in crisis, so to speak?"
"Two years in, he started acting erratic. More intense, spent money, dated multiple women, snapped at everyone. Then he slept all day. He rarely ate, so he started looking skinny. Mesa mentioned that he seemed bipolar. Marshall made him see a doctor, and the diagnosis was confirmed. August denied it. Said he was all right, that sometimes his moods changed and that was that. After he almost got himself killed by a mustang, Marshall threatened to fire him unless he agreed to be treated. He started to pack up and leave one night when reality hit. Only way to convince him to even see a therapist was if I promised to go. Eventually, he started going on his own. After four years, that sums up where we are."
"Seems difficult to bear that burden."
"Not nearly as difficult as it is for him," Gunnar managed a wry smile at his companion. "At least I have an objective perspective."
The basset hounds rushed out to meet them as they reached the barn area. As the rest of the riders dismounted and started to return their mustangs so they could go inside and eat lunch, Gunnar rode to the bunkhouse and dismounted to hitch Dreamscape by the door.
He stomped his boots on the mat and creaked the door open, peering into the shadowed rooms with eyes accustomed to the sun. Their room seemed stagnant and dim when he came in and realized August was still beneath the covers. He seated himself in the wooden chair by the dresser and considered this.
"Sun and activity may help."
"Stop," he moaned. "Let this subside some."
Gunnar murmured his disagreement. "You've got to seek help. You're reacting to the alcohol."
The window behind August was jammed so that it was permanently cracked open. Sunlight seeped into the shaded room behind the canvas curtains, and sparrows chattered outside the screen. He lay in such a manner, veiled beneath the covers, that his eyes were closed to the middle of the room.
"At least go shower," Gunnar proposed.
"Leave me alone."
Gunnar crossed his arms and rested his leg on his knee and analyzed the situation. He stared at the clock on the dresser and listened to the seconds tick by.
"Get out of the room!" August snapped.
"You know this won't subside unless you start acting against it," Gunnar reasoned. "Let me help you."
"I said to get out."
"All right," Gunnar griped and rose to leave the room. "Be miserable. But I should let Marshall know what happened last night."
August raised himself up enough to reveal his luminous eyes. "You do that, you're dead to me."
Gunnar pursed his lips and started toward the door, stopping long enough to say, "I pray not."
He stormed out of the bunkhouse and unhitched his mustang to lead him to the barn so he could get his lunch at the main house, where Rearden cornered Marshall as he came inside.
"Mind if I discuss something with you before we eat?"
Curiosity sparked in his eyes when he answered, "Sure."
They retreated to the empty living room, where Rearden stared down at the cranberry runner before raising his eyes to say, "I may have made a mistake in that Vegas party. You saw that everyone was rather roughed up when they returned."
Marshall gave a nod of understanding. "Being in Las Vegas alone does not get a man into trouble. It depends on what he does while he's there."
Before Rearden could reply, Rodney peered into the room and announced, "Lunch is on the table!"
"Much obliged, Marshall," Rearden gave him a polite nod and disappeared into the kitchen. Mesa had set out a platter of meats, cheeses, lettuce, and tomatoes. She was at the counter with a wildflower printed apron on, slicing open loaves of sourdough bread and sweet rolls to put on plates.
"Pick a soda or something out of the fridge," she invited their guests, two of whom were now dressed in clean clothes with their hair in some sort of order.
"Thank you," Poppy opened the refrigerator immediately and plunged into the cool air to reach toward a can or orange soda. Julius was beside her, slapping her shins with his tail as she passed a bottled mocha to Sarai. "There's some coffee for you."
"Won't argue that," Sarai accepted it and popped the cap open.
"Already wearing out?" Rearden asked.
"I never said she shared that coffee on the way here."
He smiled and crossed the room, where he cracked open the fridge again and withdrew the red velvet cake and the bottle of Coke.
"I'll share, but you all better hurry before I eat it."
"Rearden," Mesa scolded with a scowl that suppressed a smile, "You're not going to use any of these nice things I've sliced up to make a sandwich?"
"Of course I will," he promised her sincerely. "After I eat cake."
Rodney stopped beside him as he reached toward a knife and sliced the cake into sections. "Pass me some of that. Looks pretty good; maybe enough to make my day."
"You're welcome," Sarai volunteered as she assembled a chicken sandwich at the counter.
"Save me some roast beef," Rearden called as he started toward the porch with his slice of cake. "I'll be claiming it after I enjoy me dessert."
"Hey, I want a ginger ale and peach cobbler when my birthday rolls around in February," Rodney shouted after him, causing Mesa to wince and clamp a palm over one ear.
Gunnar emerged into the house and let the screen bang shut behind him, then reached the counter and started assembling his roasted beef and lettuce sandwich with abrupt movements. When he was done, he accompanied everyone out to the porch and stood in the corner to eat while Marshall started to explain the rest of the afternoon.
"Gunnar, you got someone to shoe with?"
He met eyes with Rearden and nodded. "Yeah."
"You two get that done while I show the Morgans and Miss Montgomery the training Gunsmoke and Sunflower have completed. Rodney, you are scheduled to clean the stalls today. Rafe, you clean up the tack room. Everett will ride some of the green mustangs, and the rest of you can when you're done."
"Sounds good," Rodney rose and dusted his Stetson against his jeans before pressing it onto his head, pausing enough to tip it toward Sarai and Poppy. "Ladies. See you after I pitch crap into a wheelbarrow."
"Well, that started out classy," Poppy grinned to her companion, who snorted and rolled her eyes.
"May be the closest he's ever been," she answered and rose to dispose of her plate.
"You've outdone yourself with this cake, Sarai," Rearden called after her.
"Marshall," Gunnar started toward his boss, who raised his eyes with surprise as everyone dispersed.
"Yeah?" he inquired with trepidation. Gunnar stared down at the ebony Stetson between his hands and rotated it while he cleared his throat and scraped together a response from his scattered mind.
"August is still asleep."
Marshall darted his eyes to each side. "Yes, I noticed."
"Got hid bad by that night in Vegas. I should have stayed with him."
Marshal gave his shoulder a squeeze and met his eyes. "You cannot blame yourself for another man's decisions. He knows what to avoid to minimize his symptoms, and you cannot control whether or not he succumbs to temptations. All you can do is be supportive, and you are. Seeking treatment, medicating, and getting out of bed are all his decisions," he slapped his shoulder and added, "And quite frankly, I'm relieved any of you made it out of bed this morning – let alone five out of six."
Gunnar managed a wry smile and gave a sincere nod of appreciation before replacing his Stetson on his head and striding across the desert soil to the barn. Rearden already leaned against the wall with Caliber exploring the soil with his mouth at the end of a slack lead rope.
"Ready to get started?" he asked.
"Move him here," Gunnar pointed down when he stood several feet away. He was silent as he gathered his forge and the rest of the equipment, then retrieved and secured the leather chaps around his legs. The rustle of shavings and plopping of manure in the barn, coupled with the clatter of metal and low roar of the forge were the primary sounds. Sometimes the chickens would scuttle across the ground and a rooster may crow. A slender sable cat sometimes slithered around their legs with a mew.
About ten mustangs later, Rearden peered down at his companion. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Gunnar answered and started to scrape the file across the hoof propped on his knee. Rafe stepped out of the tack room with a dampened rag that he used to clean saddles with.
"You know that bridle with the silver conchos I won at that cutting competition last year?"
"Yeah," Gunnar answered as he filed the toe and shavings sprinkled the ground.
"It's not there."
Gunnar frowned as he set the hoof down and straightened. "No one else has any reason to use it."
"There you go."
The last voice was Marshall, who stood back as Poppy settled herself in the saddle aboard Sunflower, flaming hair curling around her eyes in the wind and a vibrant smile on her lips. She eased the Kiger mare into an easy stride as Rearden approached the fence and Rodney emerged outside.
"Hey," she called to them, "You guys wanna go on a ride when you're done?"
"Yeah," Rearden started across to the paddock behind the barn, where a blood bay mare called Carmen raised her muzzle in the air and snorted at his approach. When he saddled and bridled her, he led her out beside the round pen where Sarai had mounted Gunsmoke. Reins in his grip, he approached Carmen on one side and leapt smoothly into the saddle.
Poppy snorted. "All right, now you're just showing off."
He erupted into hearty laughter and directed Carmen out to the range. "Come with me."
Sparrows darted above and Carmen skipped in her step with a snort. Rearden gave her a pat when she continued onward and pioneered the trail beside the trickling creek.
"Let me know if you get unsettled about anything," he called over his shoulder to the girl in the back.
"She's doing great," Poppy answered.
"You might be the one who should be concerned," Sarai pointed at the mare beneath him, whose raised nose and swishing tail were ever more alert.
Rearden raised his shoulders and dropped them. "She's green, but she's a good mare."
Sarai stared down at the stream beside them and returned her eyes to Rearden. "You seem to be doing really well."
"I am. And Sarai," he twisted around with a spark in his eyes and a genuine smile, "thank you."
Wind rustled the poplars and Carmen snorted. Rearden murmured to her in Irish with deep tones and she seemed to settle her head back to an average level. A hawk soared above on the currents and started screeching when it reached its perch on a distant ponderosa pine.
After some time, the poplar with the rope and tire swing came within sight. There was a hitching post beside this, and a narrow wood planked bridge that crossed the creek. Rearden dismounted and drew Carmen toward it, but she snorted and leaned away.
"Come on, pretty girl," he murmured and clicked his tongue. She nosed the edge and smelled the corners. She snorted against and raised her head suddenly to move away. "Teacht liom."
Sunflower pricked her ears with curiosity and Gunsmoke started to snort.
"Wonder what they smell," Poppy mused. Rearden mounted again and steered Carmen away.
"Gonna get some of her energy out," he said as he sent her into an easy lope in a circle. Another breeze whistled past them, and she started to crow-hop toward the other mustangs. They snorted and backed as she escalated into bucking with Rearden determined to clamp down and stay on.
"Hang on," Sarai told Poppy as she steered Gunsmoke away from the bay mare, but she came close enough that he reared and sent Sunflower racing in the opposite direction. Rearden was cast away and hit the earth, Gunsmoke bucked and threw Sarai, and Poppy pulled the reins until Sunflower swiveled in another direction and she tumbled to the ground. Sarai leapt up and started brushing the dust from her sleeves and jeans while Poppy pushed herself up and examined her exposed elbows for scrapes before starting toward her companions. Rearden rose rather carefully and reassembled with them.
"Sorry about that. There are always scents on the wind, and some seem to 'look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it,'" he said as he analyzed their conditions and gently raised Sarai's arm, where the sleeve was ripped.
"I'm good," she said and dropped her arm.
"And you, Poppy?"
"Yeah," she answered. Rearden stared past them at the disappearing mustangs and attempted to smother the smile developing on his lips.
"Shut up," Sarai smirked and slapped his arm. "You do realize we're going to have to go all the way back on foot, right?"
"And you don't want to be a mess when you go to prom with Daryn tomorrow," Poppy teased with a spark in her electric blue eyes. Rearden stared at Sarai with mock astonishment, but she snorted.
"Good shower and I'll be clean. Let's go."
The sun was starting to drop toward the horizon by the time they were a quarter of the way across the high desert to the barn. After some time, a silhouette emerged against the sunlight. It was a man on a horse who was leading two others by the reins. Rodney approached on Carmen with Gunsmoke and Sunflower behind them, and when he was close enough, he crossed his arms and leaned them on the horn with a simper. "So what entertaining story precluded this moment here?"
Rearden smiled. "Wasn't more entertaining that you puking at the casino last night."
Rodney aimed a pointed finger at him. "That's not funny. Now," he gestured at the mustangs behind him, "Because I'm on Carmen, we have a couple options. Rearden can get on one and the girls on the other, or two of you can get on your own and Poppy can ride back with me."
Sarai slapped a palm to her eyes and rolled them. Poppy smiled and accepted the reins attached to Sunflower. "I think Sarai and I can manage together."
By the time they returned, Rearden recommended the girls go inside to get ready to eat dinner while he stripped each mustang of their tack and swept a dandy brush across their hides. Rodney leaned against the door and crossed his arms.
"August is still inside. I'm so doomed."
"Let me see him when I'm done."
"I'll be praying for a miracle," Rodney uncrossed his arms and disappeared to make his way toward the main house. Rearden continued brushing down the horses before returning them to their stalls and starting toward the bunkhouse.
The bedroom was draped in darkness, besides the sunlight that streamed in the cracked open window as evening approached. August was smothered under the plaid covers and all seemed still.
"'What's done cannot be undone,'" he seated himself in the wooden chair and crossed his arms and his leg across one knee. "As Shakespeare said, 'security is mortals' chiefest enemy.' You start to stay where you are and stop moving ahead. You got hit hard last night, but you can't undo that. Get up and start moving ahead again, 'come what come may.'"
There was a snort and a stirring beneath the covers, and August murmured, "I love that all the people outlining what I should do and how I should feel are perfectly healthy and happy people."
Rearden smiled. "I get that. But me brother Liam has anxiety and gets depressed. To some degree, we let him process it in solitariness. But there are times where we scarcely see him days on end, and those are the times where we interfere because we love him."
"I haven't even had days to be scarcely seen yet."
"Good point," Rearden rose and started out the door. "Seek our help anytime."
Mesa heaped beef stroganoff into a variety of colored bowls and set them each at different places on the rectangular table as wranglers and guests seated themselves. Rearden stomped on the mat before coming into the kitchen and closing the door behind him.
"Right on time for the blessing," Mesa said as everyone clasped the hands on either side of them and made room so Rearden could be seated. They closed their eyes and lowered their chins while Wyatt said the prayer.
"Heavenly Father, we thank You for these friends who have joined us today. Thank you for the great weather and the opportunity to cultivate Your land and work with Your animals every day. Thank You that we have each other and that we always have what we need to live and live well. Please bless this food ahead of us and bless our time together. In Jesus' name I pray, amen."
"Amen," everyone raised their heads and Poppy cleared her throat and continued eating the meat and pasta she already tasted before saying grace. Rafe ate a couple bites of dinner and chewed them enthusiastically before he cleared his own throat.
"Hope I'm not impolite," he said with a nod toward their guests, "but I plan to turn in early tonight."
"We understand," Jarah smiled at him.
As soon as dinner was eaten, Marshall addressed the purchase of the mustangs with his guests and discussed the training completed and different methods that were successful with those particular horses. Poppy asked about what she could do to advance Sunflower's experience, and Marshall explained his answers. Rearden interrupted to give Jarah's hand a pump and embrace the girls before going out to the bunkhouse with the others. After an enjoyable visit, Marshall and his guests went outside to load the horses and start toward home.
The bunkhouse was cool after the window had been jammed open so long. Rodney and Everett watched Batman Begins, and Rearden dropped down onto the couch between them. Rafe planned some leather designs to tool, and Gunnar completed a book on Shoshone history his mother sent.
Rafe was the first to traipse to bed, and Gunnar was soon after. After the movie, Rodney and Everett played a couple games of cards that cost the latter his stash of Swedish Fish while Rearden lay on the couch and read Macbeth. By nine, the aforementioned trudged to an early bedtime as Rearden stove to remain awake. But even he, after an hour, crawled beneath the covers and dropped into sleep to the distant yelps of coyotes and chirps of crickets and frogs.
Rearden started awake with searing nostrils. When he peeled his eyes open, he could see smoke seeping into the cracked window beside August. He scrambled up and leapt over the edge of his bunk, attempting to shout "fire!" but could not manage any more than a croak. Rafe was the first to stir, and he dashed to rouse Gunnar and Rodney while Rearden searched out an escape with Everett suddenly at his side. August leapt over the edge of his bunk and hit the wood planks with a thud a moment before flames seared down the canvas curtains, disintegrating them into blackness, and ignited his covers. He dove across the room to the dresser and started wrenching open drawers.
"Stop!" Gunnar pleaded and pulled up on his arms. "We have to go!"
"Go ahead; I have to get something."
"I'm not about to watch you die!"
Rearden threw open the door. Sparks rose ahead of him and part of the ceiling crashed down, crushing the flames almost at the door. He slammed it and sprang onto the bunk ahead to punch the window. On the second attempt, it shattered and shards pierced his knuckles. Crisp air poured into the room. Everett passed the wooden chair up to him, and he smashed it through the glass. Everett scrambled up the ladder and he shoved him out, and the young man started toward the main house. Rearden then reached toward Rafe and pulled him up so he could leap outside. Flames started around the exterior corner of the bunkhouse, and would soon consume the window. Rancid smoke seared his nostrils and made his eyes sting until tears streamed down his cheeks.
"Get up here!" he demanded down inside. August twisted loose when Gunnar and Rodney reached around his shoulders to drag him away and continued rummaging around the drawers, the second sputtering an assortment of pleas and swearing.
"Leave!" August implored. The two answered with silent astonishment before Rodney resumed his pleading and swearing as another fiery torrent surged up the second set of curtains. Rearden sensed his heart thundering in his chest as he darted his eyes between the escape of the arid desert and his companions beneath him, almost surrounded by fire. Waiting until they came up would not do any good, but leaving them seemed cruel. Rodney swiveled around to him and pointed out the window.
"Get up here!"
Rodney stared up at him with a sense of desperation in his eyes. He peered at the two men beside him and uttered one last plea, which was received with emptiness. He returned his eyes to Rearden with a fresh edge of determination. Within seconds, he scrambled up the ladder and plunged into him, crashing through the remaining shards of glass to the desert ground.
August scarcely registered the smashing sound in his hazy mind as the flames consumed more of the room, almost choking him with its rancid smoke. Gunnar was struggling to haul him up while he threw article after article out of the drawers, in search of one possession until he clamped his hands around it.
An image of the seashore popped into his mind. He could almost smell the salt air, hear the crashing of the waves. There was a trail of footprints in the sand that led to a pair of girls in their prime, adorned in soft ivory dresses. They raised their eyes and met his, starting into a run with their ebony hair streaming behind them. When he rushed to embrace his sisters in each arm for the first time, a second crash snatched his attention as a fiery beam above him came down.