"For me, sitting still is harder than any kind of work." - Annie Oakley
Morning atmosphere was sprayed with rays when the sun sneaked above the horizon, mauve tinged with rust and ochre behind the pine silhouettes. Crickets praised God for the dawn in their chirping. It was scarcely five in the morning, but a couple horses raised their heads with gentle nickering when Sarai came out the back door of her house with a precautionary shotgun in her grasp. She stopped short when she caught sight of the open barn door and the pitch darkness within. A rustling started her heart beating out of rhythm as she searched what she could see.
She raised the shotgun to her shoulder and sneaked closer to the door and crept inside, enveloped in darkness. She switched on the lamp. Rearden leaned his shoulder between stalls and smiled with a polite touch on the brim of his chocolate Stetson. "Good morning."
She released her harbored breath and dropped the barrel of the shotgun, a spark of aggravation in her dark hazel eyes. "You're lucky it was me who almost shot you. Solomon would have fired without a second glance and looked to see who it was after."
Rearden smiled. "We both know he would have shot me on purpose."
Sarai rolled her eyes and started toward the feed room to retrieve enough alfalfa-grass hay to start feeding. As she gathered the flakes onto a carrier, she asked, "So what are you doing here?"
"I came to go on a ride."
"You drove all the way here to go on a ride," Sarai searched his eyes as he approached, "and you already live on another ranch. You must have started driving in the middle of the night. I have chores to do, Rearden."
"I got them done."
"All because you wanted to ride?"
"Everyone on Sundown takes it easy on Sunday. Stop looking so suspicious and get a smile on your face. You have nothing you need to do this morning."
A taupe moth spiraled around the lamp. The rustling of hay was audible in every stall alongside the occasional snorting. Sarai considered his proposition a moment or two, then snatched a pair of halters on an iron horseshoe hook beside her. "Let me get Georgia. You can ride Coffee."
He smiled and caught the halter she tossed to him.
They rode around the perimeter of the ranch as the sun rose above the pines and up a steeper path. They managed to squeeze the mustangs together with Rearden closest to the ridge and peered down into the valley that contained the house and barn and pastures. Eventually, Sarai sneaked a glance at him. "So why are you so determined to keep active? Are you missing everyone back home?"
"Yes, I am. Seems people scatter as soon as they become adult. That was never me philosophy, but Da decided to give all of us lads a push in different directions, so I decided to come out here and chase a dream about cattle and wild horses."
They rode in silence across the steep ridge as the sun poured rays into the crisp sky. Sarai met his eyes with a smile and said, "I agree, that becoming an adult doesn't mean leaving everyone you love."
Sparrows started to sing and cattle lowed beneath them. Rearden smiled down at the sight of the creatures treading across the grass in their gentle manner.
"So we haven't touched base in a while," Sarai mentioned. "Eagan still missing in action?"
Rearden dropped his chin in a nod. "Yes."
She released the air in her cheeks. "And does Liam have anxiety?"
"Yes. And he won't forgive Gavin."
"Sorry to hear all that."
He smiled. "Appreciated. You ever see your dad?"
"No," she shook her head.
"Right messes we're in," Rearden smiled wryly at her in a manner that made her smile as they arrived at an area where they could see across the entire valley. Rearden dismounted and led the mare to a metal hitch drilled into a pine. Sarai reached into her leather saddle pouches and extracted a sandwich bag containing two biscuits baked with bits of ham.
"Here," she caught his attention and pitched one to him. "I was going to eat breakfast when I came out to do chores. And I can't imagine you ate after you started driving at midnight to get here."
"I didn't," he caught it and ripped a bite out, removing his Stetson to toss beside him. "Thank you. Well, at least you have a brother and a sister these days. They keep life pretty exciting?"
Sarai snorted and swallowed a bite of her own biscuit. "Exciting is a good way to put it. They're all right to have around. They definitely keep Charlotte running."
Rearden threw himself onto his back in the crisp golden grass and crossed one leg over his knee. Sarai dropped down beside him and sprawled out at an angle, so that her head remained close enough to his to continue their discussion. He raised his eyes to peer at her as much as he could. She appeared to be contemplative, staring at the crisp sky with distant hazel eyes.
"You're concerned about me," he ventured.
"Well, seeing as you drove all night to go on a ride, I have to assume you have problems."
"No matter what your reason," a simper spread across his lips, "your concern is hot."
She snarled under her breath. "You're a moron."
He released his hearty laughter until it almost echoed against the ridge, and it eventually dissolved into a warm smile toward her. "You're too kind, but don't give me a second thought."
An emerald dragonfly or two darted above them, and a red-tailed hawk screech peeled down the ridge. A gentle breeze whispered through the swirling grass, sweeping dust into a miniature tornado in the valley beneath them.
Rearden released his breath.
"Liam was convinced that he was doomed to be alone when Aoife moved to Alabama, and I promised he would never be alone. And when Eagan stormed out of the house last time, he shouted at me to let him go. I promised I'd never let him go; but here I am, thousands of miles away," he raised his eyes to peer at Sarai with peripheral vision. "By setting out on this adventure of mine, I'm letting them down."
Sarai released her breath as well while she considered her answer.
"You know there is nothing you can do about Eagan unless he responds –" she raised her eyes to see that his were closed and his head drooped to one side, while his chest rose and dropped steadily.
In his mind, it was as if he was plunging down to earth from the coal storm clouds above. Wind whistled past his ears and spiraled around him, sweeping him onto the back of one of the mustangs thundering across the high desert in a herd. The dust that sprayed up behind their hooves was scented with the pipe tobacco aromas of wood, rich spices, and a shade of cherry. The sun was on the horizon ahead, but even as he squinted, he could not distinguish whether it was rising or setting.
The echoing crack of a shotgun startled his eyes open to see pitch blackness. He removed the Stetson Sarai used to cover him from the sun and smeared the bleariness from his brown eyes. The horses remained at the hitching post, snorting and antsy, but Sarai was gone.
He scrambled to the edge of the ridge and peered down, but saw only the house and the barn, as well as the cattle and horses. He returned to where he started and pushed himself upright, surveying the land around him.
"Sarai," he watched the grass sway in the breeze. "Sarai?"
"Down here," came a voice down the trail. He started down the path they had ridden up, eyes darting all around him, until he reached Sarai. She was also peering over the edge of the ridge, and when he arrived, teased, "Almost suspected you might sleep all afternoon."
"Solomon with the shotgun?" he asked.
"Yeah. Mountain lion's been coming around."
"Ah. Makes quite an alarm clock."
She snorted. "I can imagine. We should get back to the house. The shot was over there," she pointed across the valley, "so we should be in the clear, but keep an eye out."
"Will do," he started back up the path to their resting point and gathered what little they had strewn about. Then he leapt aboard Coffee and Sarai remounted Georgia, and they started back with their minds on alert. The horses carried their heads high, ears swiveling this way and that, nostrils snorting.
"She may be more easily startled than Georgia," Sarai advised.
"I believe that," Rearden answered as he guided the mare with somewhat shorter reins than usual. Coffee skipped ahead a bit, progressing toward a crow hop. "Easy, girl."
"Maybe we should go another route," Sarai mused, examining the trails around them. As soon as she spoke, Rearden caught a glimpse of a beige tail disappear up on the ridge. Coffee leapt into a gallop, soon bucking to throw away any hindrance as she went.
Although he assumed the right posture, Rearden was sent into the air and came down on his shoulder. Sarai came loping up beside him and reined Georgia to a stop.
"Get up here," she rushed, reaching a hand down to help him onto the mare behind her. He scrambled up and accepted her grip, swinging onto the mustang mare an instant before she started on the trail to the barn again. Rearden, in an attempt to not be rattled from her rump, hooked an arm around Sarai until they reached the mouth of the valley. Solomon stood close to the barn with a shotgun in his grip and narrowed brown eyes. Clenched in his opposite hand were reins, and attached at the end of these was a prancing Coffee.
"What were you doin'?" he demanded sharply. "Been a mountain lion around!"
"Wasn't around the last couple days!" Sarai answered as Rearden leapt down. "I really assumed we'd not have any issues this time."
"Mr. Rearden!" Meegan emerged out of the bunkhouse and rushed toward him, cranberry dress swishing around the grass, and threw her arms around him. She released him with a smile. "We didn't expect to see you so soon! Are you back the whole day?"
"So long as you'll all have me," he returned her smile and raised his eyes to her eldest brother with an acknowledging nod. "Solomon, you got any use for me today?"
"Get yourself some breakfast, and if you get your butt back here in time, we'll do some work."
Jarah received Rearden into the stone farmhouse with a slap on the shoulder and the teasing remark, "You made it an entire day?" and started down the hall to dress for the day. Charlotte retrieved him two slices of toast with grape jam and bacon with a mug of steaming coffee. Sarai repeatedly chased after Adah, who rushed down halls with her recently-discovered ability to run, coiled ringlets awry, but James clasped his arms around Rearden's knee while he ate.
"I am so sorry," Charlotte apologized meekly when he reached down to unlatch the toddler's arms.
"Lad has a sound judge of character," Rearden praised with an amused spark in his eye. He swallowed the last of his coffee with a word of appreciation to Charlotte and darted outside to meet Solomon, who checked the time in the barn the moment he arrived.
"Made it. Come."
The risen sun warmed the land, stretching the shadows behind the pines and animals. Meegan rushed to the Morgan house as they emerged with the children to drive to church. Rearden watched them climb into their truck and disappear down the lonely dirt road as he trailed after Solomon.
They traveled to a stretch of fencing where the chicken wire peeled away and set to work, repairing each gap they came across until the end was reached. Solomon pointed to another stretch of fencing, and there they continued to repair until evening.
By this time, Meegan had accompanied them to each fence thereafter. She chattered away with Rearden while Solomon remained silent but for the occasional necessary command to his repair partner. Then, when the time came to eat dinner, Meegan was sent to ask Rearden to come eat with them.
The sun disappeared beneath the horizon by the time Rearden was driving to Sundown. The radio station dissolved into static and made the night drive rather desolate. The only signs of life were the occasional passing vehicles and the animals squinting back to his headlights.
Sundown seemed strangely foreign to him when he pulled the pickup to the bunkhouse. He listened to the settling of the engine when he parked a minute or so before he climbed out and started toward the door. The only illumination was at the porch, confirming his suspicions that everyone was asleep.
Sneaking through the creaking door, he closed it behind him and crept up to his bunk, more alone than ever in his core by the time he crawled beneath the covers and heard only silence.