The Last Good Man

The Last Good Man

Kathleen Eagle

March 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-092-3


Our PriceUS$14.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Gorgeous, famous Savannah Stephens is back, and no one in her hometown, Sunbonnet, Wyoming, really knows why. Especially not Clay Keogh, the good-hearted rancher who has loved her from afar since they were kids. Savannah's young daughter looks just like Savannah's first love: local bad boy Kole Kills Crow, Clay's half-brother. Has Savannah come home to start a new relationship with Kole?

Whatever her secrets, it's clear that she's deeply troubled and needs a shoulder to lean on. Clay is there for her, and she soon realizes that he's a very special man. But until she can bring herself to share the painful truth about her fall from stardom, the emotional distance between her and Clay may separate them forever.

About the Author: Bestselling author Kathleen Eagle retired from a seventeen-year teaching career on a North Dakota Indian reservation to become a full-time novelist. The Lakota Sioux heritage of her husband and their three children has inspired many of her stories. Among her honors, she has received a Career Achievement Award from Romantic Times, the Midwest Fiction Writer of the Year Award, and Romance Writers of America's prestigious RITA Award. Library Journal named THE NIGHT REMEMBERS one of the five best romances of the year. Kathleen takes great pleasure in reading letters from readers who tell her that her books have tugged at their heartstrings, entertained, inspired, and even enlightened them. Visit her at


"Touching, emotional, passionate and amazing." -- Seriously Reviewed Blog

"...the world she created, in this book, is enduring." -- Judy, Novel Truths Blog

"Kathleen Eagle is a superb storyteller who creates compelling, complex characters, and The Last Good Man is one of her best books. [She] is a gifted, intelligent writer. I highly recommend her books." -- Janga, Just Janga Blog


Chapter 1

The queen bees of Sunbonnet, Wyoming, were all abuzz. Savannah Stephens was back, in the flesh this time.

How long had it been since the last time they'd pulled Savannah, dressed only in satin bra and lace panties, out of their mailboxes? She'd been a regular fixture on the cover of that mail-order catalog for quite a while. Of course, everyone knew all about how those pictures got touched up. But they had to admit, Savannah had the basic equipment. And it was all natural. She was born and raised right there in Sunbonnet. She was all-natural. That dewy-eyed smile had been just the right counterpoint for the flawless body of a woman who didn't have to think twice about walking around in broad daylight wearing nothing but pretty underwear.

Then suddenly she'd vanished. Air-brushed clean away, as though somebody had thrown a coat over her and dragged her back into the house. Had it been three years ago, maybe five?

The drones had noticed right away when it happened, but they hadn't said much. Once Savannah was gone, the men had gotten their catalog back. If anybody was to order anything, it was probably going to be a man. He'd send for something black and lacy for his own lady, something she would put on for him, just so he could take it off. The next morning she would tuck it away in a drawer, and he'd never see it again. Then it was back to the mailbox. Sure, the men missed seeing Savannah, but there was still plenty of diversion on the cover of Lady Elizabeth's Dreamwear Catalog.

Still, the women pondered aloud on occasion. What ever became of Savannah Stephens?

Some had heard she'd found greener pastures, but there were all sorts of tales about the nature of green. A movie mogul with a pocketful of green had her stashed in a cottage beside the green sea. Or she'd starved herself like they all did to stay slim, taken to eating nothing but lettuce and drinking green tea, and she'd just wasted away. Some said she'd made so much green herself, she'd been able to retire and get fat. Heck, she always was pretty sassy.

The ebb and flow of such comments depended on the weather and what else was in the news, but they never sloshed through the door of the Sunbonnet Mercantile, owned and operated by Billie Larsen, the only relative Savannah had left in Sunbonnet. Or anywhere else, as far as anyone knew. The old general store was a gallery of pictures of Savannah dressed in pretty suits and glamorous evening clothes. The catalogs were stashed underneath the counter. Billie was proud of those, too, but she didn't tack them on the wall.

Whenever anyone asked, Billie said that her niece was taking some time off from her modeling career. The response hadn't changed in five years. Conventional wisdom calculated that it had probably been five years since Billie had heard from her once-famous niece, and the conventionally wise were not surprised to hear Savannah had finally come home with her tail tucked between her legs. It just proved that New York City was no place for a nice girl from Wyoming. It was bitch eat bitch in places like New York and L.A., or so the females of Sunbonnet had heard. And so they were fond of saying.

The males of Sunbonnet still weren't saying much. They couldn't imagine pastures any greener than the pages of Lady Elizabeth's Dreamwear Catalog. The thought of that tail and those legs coming home to Sunbonnet seemed too damn good to be true. They'd have to see to believe, and so far, the sightings had been few.

But she was surely back.

Even if every person Clay Keogh tipped his hat to hadn't mentioned it hard on the heels of saying how quickly the weather had changed this week, he would have known she was close by. Suddenly the clean, dry Wyoming air carried her scent again.

He'd parked his pickup in the shade of the loafing shed behind the Sunbonnet Mercantile, which was the oldest building in town. He was careful not to glance at the upstairs windows as he unloaded the tools of his trade. He had as good a buzz on as any bee, and he hadn't even had a drink in weeks. His face flamed in the shade of his cap as he took a quick inventory of the handles in his toolbox. He could have sworn he had Tabasco sauce coursing through his veins, a notion that made him chuckle. Dearly did he love anything spicy, but cayenne in his blood? Not likely. Wyoming dirt made him red-blooded, pure and plain.

Was she upstairs in her Aunt Billie's spare room, fixing a face that never needed any fixing? Or was she downstairs, helping out behind the counter, the way she used to when they were kids? He hadn't noticed any cowboys lining up to buy a pack of gum they might never open or a postage stamp for a letter they'd surely never write. If he hurried, maybe he could be first. Just go on in and say hello before he worked up a sweat over Billie's old mare's shoes.

He'd seen Savannah only twice in more than a dozen years, but he was counting on one of those hummingbird hugs she'd learned to greet people with since she'd gone away to New York, and he didn't want his shirt to be sticking to his back when she touched him. Right now, his hands were clean and his shirt was dry. He ought to go into the store and announce himself, see if there was any kuchen fresh-baked, ask about the new rasp he had on order. Any other time, he'd do just that.

Anybody but Savannah inside, he wouldn't be acting like he'd never ventured past the county line. He figured he'd see her sooner or later, and later would give him time to imagine the scene a few more ways. The tune he'd just heard on the radio swirled around in the secret part of his head, where he came upon Savannah alone in the store, wordlessly took her in his arms, and welcomed her home with a slow two-step.

He whistled the same tune as he wrapped his leather apron strings behind his back, switched and pulled the ends to the front, and tied them below his belt buckle. He reached for his hoof knife. In his head he was noticing how they still danced well together. He'd improved on the steps she'd taught him long ago. He'd practiced a bit. She hadn't. It's been years since I've danced, she told him. He asked her why, and she said she hadn't had a partner.

He was smiling when he rounded the corner of the storage side of the shed and came knee to face with the most beautiful little girl he'd ever laid eyes on. Standing in the open doorway, she looked up at him, chocolate eyes as big as soup bowls, likely startled by his size, the way most little people were when they hadn't seen him coming. She carried a mewling kitten in each hand. He got his smile going again.

She took a small step back, tucked one gray tiger against her neck, lifted her chin, and said, "Hello.” She sounded all grown up and proper, like she was the lady of the house, rather than a little girl playing with kittens in a storage shed. She gave him an astute once-over. "Are you the horseshoe man?”

"Yes, ma'am, I'm the horseshoe man,” he assured her. She was eyeing his hand and the curved hoof knife he'd all but forgotten about. He quickly slipped it into its pouch on the apron, which was more like a pair of knee-length leather chaps.

"Aunt Billie told me to watch for you. She said you were coming to put new shoes on Dolly and I could watch.”

"She did, huh?” He took a frayed blue halter down from a hook just inside the doorway. "Is Dolly all ready for me?”

"I think so.” She squatted behind the grain box and tucked the kittens into a wooden crate, under the narrow slits of the barn cat's watchful eyes. The mewling ceased. The little girl hurried to catch up with the new activity. "How does she have to get ready?”

"She usually gets Dollied up,” Clay quipped as he unhooked the chain on the corral gate. The child laughed behind his back, and he stepped aside to let her slide under his arm and through the gate ahead of him. "The way all women do when they go shoe-shopping.”

"Does she get to pick them out? Can I pick for her?”

She was grinning up at him now, bright-eyed, and he was thinking he knew her from somewhere. Feeling more than thinking, maybe, because the somewhere wasn't as far off as the sometime, which didn't make a lot of sense. Sun-kissed round face, gleaming dark hair swept up in a ponytail, eyes full of puckish sparkle—unless he missed his guess, the child was at least part Indian, and that was the part he knew without knowing, the part he felt connected to. Clay wasn't Indian himself, but his brother was.

"My shoes only come in one color,” he said. "As far as style, well, we're going to fix her up with a little wedge because she doesn't have much heel left on her.”

"You're going to give her high-heeled shoes?”

"Gonna give her some of them high heeled slippers,” he crooned as he cross-tied the swaybacked sorrel in the loafing shed.

"She'll look silly like that.” The little girl squatted next to his wooden toolbox, hands clasped between her knees, trying hard to look things over without touching. "Are her shoes in here? Can I watch you put them on?”

"How do you feel about that, old girl? Spectators generally aren't allowed, are they? Especially strangers.”

"I'm not a stranger.” She deserted the box in favor of delivering her point at close range. "I live here.”

"Is that a fact?” Clay repositioned the toolbox. "I've lived in this town all my life, and I'm pretty sure I know everyone else who lives here. But I don't know you.”

"You know my mother. Aunt Billie says you do.”

"And who's your mother?” He knew what was coming, but he had to let it unfold. This was the child's way of introducing herself. By way of invitation, he slid her a glance.

"I'll give you a hint.” She beamed, full to bursting with her secret. "My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world.”

"The most beautiful?”

"In all the world.” She shot up, stood straight as a soldier, and folded her arms imperiously. "You know her. She used to live here, a long time ago.”

He raked his fingers through the mare's mane. "The most beautiful woman who ever lived here before, hands down, is Savannah Stephens.”

The little girl was smiling now, like the teacher satisfied with her student's answer. He wanted to follow up with, But you can't be her daughter.

He shouldn't have been surprised that she looked like his brother, Kole. Savannah would have followed him to the ends of the earth when they were kids, and that was exactly where he was now, as far as Clay knew. But Kole had left Sunbonnet long before Clay and Savannah were even out of high school, so she'd have had to hook up with him somewhere, somehow...

He wasn't surprised, hell, no. It didn't bother him, either. They were two wondrous adventurers, Kole and Savannah. Two of a kind, although it was hard for Clay to put them together as a pair. Clearly their paths had crossed at some secret place. For Kole's sake, it had to have been a secret place. He'd been dodging some powerful enemies longer than this little girl with the proud grin had been alive. So they'd gotten together, and this child...

This child was her own person, and she was the one conversing here, not her mother, and not Clay's brother.

He smiled. "But if you're living here now, I couldn't say who's the most beautiful anymore. You'd have to ask that ol' mirror, mirror on the wall.”

"‘You are, my queen!'” she quoted with delight. Then she tilted her head and folded her arms even tighter, and right then he saw her mother in her, in that self-assured little pose. "Oh, but he lies sometimes, that mirror. That's what my mother says. If you're a queen, he might have to lie.”

"That's not the way I remember it. Ho, Dolly.” Clay knelt in the straw that covered the dirt floor, balancing the little mare's front hoof on his other knee. He was definitely too tall for this job. "The mirror has to tell it like it is. He'd say you and your mother are both very beautiful.”

"And I'm not a stranger.”

"I still don't know your name.”

"Claudia Ann Stephens.”

"Clay Keogh.” He touched the bill of his cap. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am.”

"You don't have to call me ma'am. I'm only six, you know. Almost six.”

"I wouldn't have guessed. You seem very grown up. But even so, we generally don't allow specta—”

The sound of her feet shuffling in the straw brought his head up to check the child's proximity to the horse. His hands had already made quick work of trimming dead tissue from the sole of the first foot, and he'd begun to shape the hoof. He dropped a crescent hoof paring.

She dove for it. "Can I—”

Clay felt a shift of equine muscle. He dropped the hoof knife and snatched the girl out of the way of a warning kick from a back hoof. The move threw Clay off balance and toppled him on his side, but he managed to cushion the child's fall with his shoulder. He glanced up at the horse, who lowered her smug nose for a sniff at his boot, then dismissed the flattened humans with a snort.

"You okay?” Clay asked, ignoring the twinge in his lower back as he lifted the child away, checking for damage he was pretty sure hadn't occurred.

Two big brown eyes stared back at him, surprised and unsure, little head nodding anyway. "Are you okay?” she asked, her voice small but steady.

"Yeah.” He retrieved the hoof knife and offered her the paring she'd been after. Still staring, she shook her head. "Dolly's kind of a cantankerous old gal sometimes,” he explained.

"Maybe she doesn't want shoes.”

"Want and need are two different things. You still want to watch?”

She nodded bravely.

"Then what I need is for you to help me out just a bit so Dolly thinks you're part of the act.” He moved her to the far side of the toolbox, which stood within his reach. "Do you know anything about shoeing horses?”

"I didn't even know horses wore shoes until Aunt Billie told me to watch for you.” She eased back into her conversational tone. "Aunt Billie said the reason we've been making a mud puddle by the water tank every day was because you said Dolly should stand in mud. Why did you want her to get her feet muddy like that?”

"Well, mud's good for frogs.”

"Frogs? Dolly's a horse.” She risked a small laugh.

The sound of it made him feel better. He knew he'd scared her, knocking her down like he had. He wasn't sure she realized how close that hoof had come. "Horses have frogs in their feet,” he told her. He plucked a gray curl of dried cuticle and dropped it in the shallow tin tray on top of the toolbox.

"Frogs in their feet?”

The way she sniffed at the dead tissue reminded him of the way Dolly had sniffed at his boot, and he laughed when she reacted with a puckered-up face, as though he'd given her a lemon drop. He wondered if he had any in the pickup.

"The mud softened her frog so I could trim it easier.”

"That's a frog?”

"That's part of it.” He patted Dolly's flank, picked up the hoof again, and showed Claudia the T-shaped protrusion in its base. "This is a horse frog.” He grinned. "It can't sing because it has a sore throat.”

"Are you teasing me?”

"Would I do a thing like that?”

"You're not supposed to tease.”

"Who says?”

"My mother. When boys tease, I just walk away.”

"That's a sure way to leave them feeling stupid.”

"Boys are stupid.” Daintily she nabbed the bit of frog between thumb and forefinger. "Sometimes.” She spared Clay a glance before she examined the tissue specimen more closely.

In his mind's eye he saw Savannah, golden hair gleaming in the summer sun as she traced the shape of a petroglyph etched on the rock wall of their favorite hideout, which was tucked up in the hills of his north pasture. Exploring fingers, ever-curious eyes, bright, lilting laugh. He was seeing more and more of her in this child.

Savannah, where have you been these last years? That woman on those slick pages who looked like you, and now this child who doesn't...

"What did your mom have to say about you watching for the horseshoe man?”

"She's resting,” Claudia reported quietly, as though her mother were bunking in with the kittens on the other side of the wall. "She's a lot better now, but she still has to rest. She used to be a famous model, you know.”

He nodded, flipping the better now part over in his mind. Better after what?

"You've probably seen her picture in magazines,” Claudia said as she squatted behind the foot-high box and peered over the top and into the open side. "A lot of people still remember. Aunt Billie has her pictures on the wall in the store. Have you seen them?”

"Sure have.”

He'd also purchased more than a few fashion magazines over the years on the chance of finding similar pictures. Not for the clothes, but for Savannah. He thought of it as staying in touch with a friend.

Claudia tucked the frog peel in the pocket of her bib overalls. "What do you want me to do?”

"See that long, flat thing?” He nodded when she laid her small hand on the steel handle. "That's a rasp.” He extended a hand after repositioning the trimmed hoof on his knee. "It's like a nail file, only big and heavy, so take hold with both hands.”

"I hope my job is more than just handing you things. That's what people always want kids to do, but I can do a lot more than that.” She demonstrated by doing exactly as he'd instructed. "I help my mother all the time.”

"I'll bet you do.” He tried to imagine Savannah doing something domestic with this little girl in tow. He filed, and he shaped, and he pictured short fingers and long fingers, clippers and polish.

Quietly she watched his every move. Patiently she waited her turn.

He put the first hoof down and leaned back. "I'll want you to be the keeper of the nails,” he told her while his practiced eye appraised the angle, hoof to cannon bone. "Now, if you don't think you should be handling nails, just say so. This is a job I wouldn't trust to a kid, and you aren't quite six. You said so yourself.”

"I'm used to handling all kinds of sharp things. I'm very careful.” She took out the small box and shook it to hear the nails rattle. "Why does a horse wear shoes?”

"Dolly's an old horse. She's got some problems with her feet. I make her special shoes that help her walk with less pain in her feet. That helps her legs, her back, makes her feel better all over.”

"Is she too old to ride? Would that hurt her? Aunt Billie said maybe I could try riding her after you put her shoes on.”

"Have you ever ridden a horse?” He glanced at her as he reached for the nippers. She shook her head. "If it was up to me, this isn't the one I'd start you out on.”

"This is the only one we have.” She opened the nail box and took a peek inside. "But I won't ride her if she's sick. I'll take care of her, just like I took care of my mom when she was sick. She's a lot better now, though. A lot better.”

"So...” How sick was she? How long did it last? How much pain did she... he clamped a back hoof between his knees. "How do you like Sunbonnet?”

"It's okay. My mother says we won't have to move anymore, so that's good. But the only playground here is the one at the school, and Aunt Billie says there's no swimming pool. I want to take swimming lessons.”

"You might have to go to Dubois or Lander for swimming lessons, but we have other things.”

"There's no hospital, either. When is it going to be time for the nails?”

"I have to finish trimming her hooves first,” he explained, wielding the nippers on the mare's overgrown toe.

"Yikes! Don't cut her foot off!”

"I'm just trimming her toenails.”

"She doesn't have toes. How can she have toenails?”

"Hooves are a little bit like toenails.”

"Oh.” She shook a single nail into the tin nail tray, and he thought it was clever of her to figure out what the tray was for. "Do you have any kids? I haven't found anybody to play with yet.”

"I have, uh...” Have?

Hell, yes, have. They didn't live with him anymore, but he'd helped raise them, hadn't he?

"My kids, my wife's kids—” Damn. Exactly how did he want this reported? "My former wife's kids, well, they're a little older than you.”

"That's okay. I can read, you know.”

"Maybe you can teach them,” he said with a chuckle. But the gibe didn't set well with him. Making fun of the kids was not his style. "Just kidding. They read pretty good. They just don't do it very often.”

He glanced up from his rasping. She was arranging nails in the cupped tray, head to head and point to point. "You think you'll be staying in Sunbonnet for a while? Going to school?”

"Oh, yes. I took some tests. They put me in the second grade.”

He whistled. "Pretty damn good for a six-year-old.”

"That's not a nice word, Clay,” she admonished with a frown, sounding like a very young mother.

"Beg your pardon, ma'am. You're right about that.”

"I suppose you might be wondering why I don't have a father.”

"I wasn't—” Damn, she was perceptive for a kid. He wouldn't insult her intelligence by denying the thought. "I wasn't gonna ask.”

"I just don't, that's all.” She shrugged, then set about reversing every other nail in the row she'd made. "Some kids don't. I have my mother, and now I have Aunt Billie, who's really my great-aunt.”

"And that's a nice family right there. I don't know where this town would be without your Aunt Billie. We'd have to drive fifty miles whenever we ran out of toilet paper.”

She brightened, indulging him. "That's funny.”

"You wouldn't think so if it was you who ran out.”

Now they were laughing together.

She was a quick study, this little girl, and he set aside all her connections, real and imagined, and simply connected with her interest in horses and their shoes. He explained to her that old Dolly had worn her heels down, just the way kids did sometimes, but in Dolly's case it was the heels of her feet, not of her shoes. The important part of his job was to get her hooves shaped just right, so he took his time and checked the angles. He stood the rasp on end next to the first hoof to show Claudia what kind of an angle he was looking for. Then he asked for her opinion on the next one. Her perception amazed him. He showed her how he prepared the wedge pad to elevate the horse's heel and let her measure out the oakum he would use as caulking. He mentioned that as long as he talked and moved quietly, Dolly was willing to tolerate him.

"Don't put those in your mouth!”

He jerked the nail away from his teeth and clucked to himself. "Force of habit. I forgot I had an assistant today.”

"That's very dangerous, Clay. I guess I know how to handle nails better than you do.”

"I haven't eaten one yet.” He lined the nail up with the first hole. "Okay, one at a ti—”


He jerked his head up and came face-to-face with terror.

"You're going to put the nails right into her feet? That's what they did to Jesus.”

He smiled, but he didn't laugh. It was no laughing matter. "Jesus didn't have hooves. It's okay to put nails in hooves if you do it the right way.”

She scowled, unconvinced.

"I won't hurt her. I'm the horseshoe man, remember?”

The scowl was unchanged.

He nodded toward the tray. "You're in charge of the nails. If you think I'm hurting her, you can keep the nails away. Now, watch her face and tell me if you think she's getting mad.”

"I'm the keeper of the nails,” the little girl muttered, eyes firmly fixed on the old mare's head.

"That's right. Give me one at a time.”

She watched closely as he tapped in the first one.

"Okay, one at a time.”

Chapter 2

Tap tap tap.

Savannah threw one arm over her eyes, wrapped the other around her waist, above the surgical scar, then rolled from back to belly, twisting in the bed sheet like a corkscrew.

Tap tap tap.

Woodpecker? Some kind of pecker.

Tap tap tap.

Rude pecker. But then, weren't they all?

Savannah burrowed deeper, telling herself it was almost dark, almost night. She knew it wasn't, but she wanted to sleep. She'd hardly slept at all today. It was too hot in the small rooms over the store. Hot and still, even with the window open a crack below the roller shade. But if nothing else, it had been pretty quiet before the pecking started.

Tap tap tap.

What kind of a pecker was that, besides rude? Aunt Billie once had a clock that played a different birdcall every hour, but Savannah vaguely remembered breaking that herself when she was practicing the Baltimore oriole's song. She wouldn't have known a Baltimore oriole if one had landed on her nose, but according to Aunt Billie's clock, those birds had a pretty whistle. She'd seen high school kids imitating birdcalls on the Tonight Show, and she was planning to try out. Maybe Aunt Billie had replaced the clock, or maybe the broken one was still around, stuck at the pecking hour. She couldn't remember what hour that was.

Some damned daylight hour.

She thought about getting up. If she got up, she'd have to put on her clothes and brush her hair. She brought her face up from the pillow and looked at the big shirt and the shapeless jeans draped over the arm of the white wicker chair sitting under the window. She could get up now and put those on. That was all she had to do for now, just that much. Don't worry about the brush. Start with the jeans. One move at a time. Do one small thing; one thing leads to another.

She dropped her face back into the crook of her elbow, hoping the thought would go away. It was so blessedly quiet in this town that you could actually hear natural sounds. She'd never appreciated that about Sunbonnet. The absence of horns was nice. She almost smiled as she amended that thought with "car horns.' Animal horns abounded, but they weren't noisy, and they weren't rude as long as you kept your distance. Neither was the meadowlark tweedling somewhere out back. That was one bird she could actually recognize. It had a lovely voice that demanded nothing of her. No bread for lunch, no going to the playground, no look-see what that boy was doing out in the hall. They had Aunt Billie now, and Aunt Billie would look-see.

Aunt Billie, look. See what Mama made for me to wear to the Christmas program? She says it's my color. Blue is my special color.

Mama used to say that Savannah's good looks and her singing would get them out of Sunbonnet. Savannah couldn't sing worth a nickel, but Mama had been right about her other assets. The world loved a beautiful woman. People dressed her up and took her picture, praised her and paid her well. It was a curious kind of love. First it made you warm, and then it turned you cool and slick. But it gave you a living, as long as your assets were intact.

Savannah's were not.

Tap tap.

Rude tapping. Crude tapping. Restless, impatient tapping. Just what she needed. From the inside out, her body wanted tapping. The urge came on her like an itch, small enough to be ignored at first, but real, growing, nagging. It would go away.

Tap me gently, tap me slowly.

Like an ostrich with her face in the bosom of her pillow, hidden even from her own reproach, she slipped her hand between her legs. Slight, slow, steady, and soft. It was her hand no longer. Not her own doing, but that of some faceless tapper, nameless banger, voiceless pecker who would tap her and touch her and take her away, take off with her, off the bed off the roof off the planet, and bring her...

. . . blessed release.

Savory, sweet, soothing, suspended in pleasure for a moment. But the pleasure evaporated, leaving her nothing but a sour aftertaste. She shoved herself up, quitting what she'd done, what she'd had to do. Relieved but not satisfied, she couldn't lie on the white sheets any longer with that sense of self on self. Without Claudia to urge her along, disgust was an effective way to drive herself out of bed and force herself to get dressed. She hated the prodding, hated herself for needing it, but there it was.

She'd made it this far. She could take one more step. She'd taught herself that the hatred would recede if she simply managed to move along. She remembered to duck this time. Getting up on the wrong side of the bed was hazardous with a sloped ceiling, but that was the side she favored. It was like burrowing into a pocket.

She raised the white vinyl window shade and surveyed the backyard. A colorful array of small pants and shirts waved at her—Come and get us—from the clothesline. After nightfall, she thought. If you're still there. Then maybe she would venture into the ramshackle shed.

All she could see was the storage side, which shared a wall with the loafing shed, a makeshift barn inside the split-rail corral. Maybe she'd say hello to Dolly, who was Aunt Billie's only livestock now, her only dependent. Savannah wondered where the old mare was and whose pickup was parked next to the shed. But it was only a vague and idle wondering, as inconsequential as her memories of riding Dolly or riding around in a pickup, riding deep into the foothills that looked as distant from her small window as those times felt.

She'd forgotten how many different shades of brown those hills wore, relieved only by broad slashes of blue-green pines. Somewhere out there was a configuration of round hills and tabletop butte that some pioneer had thought looked like his wife's sunbonnet. Savannah couldn't see the bonnet any better than she could find images in cloud formations.

She remembered lying up there on a summer afternoon with Clay Keogh and Kole Kills Crow. Such a long time ago. Kole was in high school, but she and Clay had barely hit their teens. Clay knew every inch of those hills. Their father's cattle grazed up there, and while Kole saw the Keogh ranch merely as temporary bed and board, Clay was the consummate ranch hand. He knew livestock, and he knew the land. He could always find a patch of grass, a good place to stop, a chance for the horses to "laze and graze.”

Laze and graze. That was Clay's way of slowing his half-brother's pace. Kole was their hero, so much older and wilder. He hung out with his juniors only when he had nothing better to do. When they went riding, as soon as they got away from the house, Kole had to cut loose, "run for the sun,” he called it, chasing what was to be his unsettling destiny. The order was always the same—Kole champing at the bit out in front, Savannah dragging on the bit and bringing up the rear, Clay bridging the two. He never let Kole leave them in the dust, but neither did he prod Savannah to go faster than she dared. He stretched himself like a piece of rubber, banding them loosely together.

Sooner or later Clay would convince Kole to stop for a cigarette. Clay smoked only when his brother was around. According to Patty Keogh, Kole liked to corrupt Clay every chance he got, but what Kole actually liked was aggravating his stepmother. The part of the corruption Clay liked was the chance to share a bit of Kole's space, any fragment his brother would allow. Savannah wasn't sure what her part might be, except to worship the ground Kole's shadow graced, to come to attention whenever he called her name. She didn't want a whole cigarette. Just a puff. She was eager to put her lips where Kole's had been. She knew Clay was watching her, reading her the way he always did. He was the more subtle competitor for Kole's attention. Subtlety had never been Savannah's strong suit.

She could see Kole leaning back on his elbows in the grass, blowing a long stream of smoke at the cotton-candy clouds in a blue china-bowl sky...

"Okay, you guys, what do you see up there today?”

"A kangaroo,” Clay said immediately. "See the tail and the two humongous springer legs? And there's one little front leg, see?”

"Where's the other front leg?” Kole challenged. Savannah was still looking for the "springer” legs.

"Down in the pocket.”

"Playing with his balls?”

The boys guffawed.

"Playing with her baby,” Savannah said. She couldn't see it in the clouds, but she liked the way Clay's vision took shape in her head.

"Yeah,” Clay said. "Only the females have pockets.”

"The males have the balls and the females have the pockets,” Kole said. "Why didn't we think of that? Makes for a much more interesting game of pocket pool.”

"Jeez, Kole.”

Savannah giggled. She didn't have to see Clay's face to know that he was blushing. "I think I see a snowman,” she said.

"Yeah, right there.” Clay pointed overhead. "Hat, nose... I only see one eye. No, he's winking.”

"I meant there. Those two... clouds. They're just clouds, Clay. One on top of another.”

"A girl after my own heart,” Kole said. "She sees clouds mating.”

All she heard was A girl after his heart. Nobody was completely sure Kole Kills Crow had a heart, although a fair number of girls had searched him high and low for one. Savannah would have gladly given him hers, but he'd warned her not to be falling for any guy until she was at least eighteen. She'd taken that as a hint that he might be ready for her then.

Meanwhile, she and Clay would have followed Kole anywhere. He'd jerk his chin toward his battered blue pickup, and they couldn't pile in fast enough, with Savannah happily sandwiched between her two best friends. She remembered how safe she'd felt. Barreling down Main Street, Kole would slap at her hand when she'd reach over and toot the horn at some kid from school. But he'd always miss, and Clay would always laugh and wave with her. Hanging out with Kole Kills Crow was a rare and risky privilege, even for them. He was gone by the time they were eighteen, and in the years since, he'd looked back only once, as far as Savannah knew. When he'd sent for her and given her his child.

She jumped at the sound of more tapping, this time on the bedroom door. She grabbed her shirt off the chair.

"Savannah, are you all right?”

"I'm getting dressed.”

"Figured I'd check and make sure you're still alive.” The door creaked on its hinges. A frizzy gray head eased in. "You are, aren't you? It's been pretty busy downstairs today. Hope it wasn't too noisy for you.”

It was an exchange they'd had every Saturday morning when Savannah was a teenager. "Noisy enough to wake the dead, Aunt Billie.” It always felt like a daring comeback, a challenge for any ghost that lingered in the old rafters. Especially her mother's.

"Guess you're alive, then.” A hundred creases went into the making of Aunt Billie's soft smile. The old floor creaked as she stepped into the room on crepe soles. "Leanne Ames came by a little while ago, said to tell you to call her or stop in at her shop anytime. She runs a beauty shop in her house now, and she does them long fake nails. You ever try those?”

"I've never had acrylics, no.”

"Natural beauty from the minute you were born, just like your mama always said.”

Savannah zipped her jeans. "All babies are beautiful, Aunt Billie.”

"If you like that pruny look. Babies look like tiny old people, all wrinkly and bald. But not you. Your mama would have put you into TV commercials right away if she'd been livin' anywhere but Wyoming.”

The two sisters had lived in Wyoming all their lives, like their mother before them. They had inherited the store, but Caroline Larsen's dreams had not included storekeeping. She'd run off with Jack Stephens, the driver of a produce delivery truck, when he'd bought his own rig. Jack was going places, she'd said. Two years later she'd returned, battered suitcase in her hand, bruises on her body, baby in her belly.

Like mother, like daughter, Savannah thought, except that the men driving Savannah's getaway vehicle hadn't been truckers. Nobody had ever dared hit her. And, heck, she'd had nice luggage. She wished her mother could have been there to see the dream she'd invested in her come true.

There. I did it. Are you satisfied?

"Did you think about getting Claudia into it?” Aunt Billie asked cautiously.

Savannah dismissed the question with a cool look. She'd never do that to her daughter. For Savannah, it had started with her first beauty pageant. She'd barely been out of diapers. Aunt Billie had never thought much of her sister's obsession with little Savannah's "career.” But her mother had been right about the money she'd earn someday. In a few short years she'd earned more money than her mother had seen in her entire life. Then came Claudia, and Savannah had quickly discovered what it meant to be a mother. She had plenty of money, so she took time for her baby. A year stretched into two, then three. About the time she decided to go back to work, she discovered the lump she'd dreaded, the one that might kill her the way it had killed her mother. Then came the two longest years of Savannah's life.

What was that old saying about money? Easy come, easy go? That was bullshit. Fast, maybe, but not easy. There'd been nothing easy about it.

"Well, she's a beauty, too, like her mama. Only she's got her own...” The old woman glanced at the rumpled bed. "Well, she's got her own pretty coloring.”

"Yes, she does.”

Aunt Billie was fishing again, but Savannah had never been one for explaining. She had a six-year-old daughter whom she hadn't told anyone about. With her body widely displayed in full, slick color, she had become fiercely private. She'd quickly learned to protect her tender places and cut all chafing ties. She'd seen no reason to send out new-baby announcements. No amount of explaining would change the fact that Claudia was hers and hers alone. Maybe she should have handled things differently, but she wasn't planning on having her body turn on her during prime time. Who would? So Aunt Billie could stop dropping these hints any time now, stop giving her that sad little why-didn't-you-tell-me look.

Because it did make her feel bad.

"I'm going to help out here, Aunt Billie,” Savannah promised quietly. "Just as soon as I get my bearings, I'm going to quit being a mooch.”

"For all the business we generally get, Claudia could run the store. Folks want to drive down to Lander or all the way to Casper for a loaf of bread these days.”

"I'll start tomorrow. I promise.”

"You don't have to promise nothin'.” The old woman's voice was thin and tight. Savannah wasn't big on explaining, but she'd promised things before, like calls and visits. "You take it easy on yourself,” Aunt Billie said.

Savannah turned to the window again. "Where's Claudia?”

"She's out there with the kittens.”

"By herself? Where's that cranky old mare?”

"Where she always is.”

"That's not your pickup out there, is it?”

"All I got to drive is that old van,” Aunt Billie said, obviously enjoying the fact that she had a few mysteries of her own. "That pickup belongs to my farrier.”

Tap tap tap.

"You have a farrier for old Dolly?” Savannah cast a furtive glance at the bed. The pecker wasn't a bird. It was a blacksmith. "But nobody rides her anymore.”

"Somebody looks after her, though. Only the best for my Dolly, and Clayton Keogh is the best farrier in the state. Best in the whole region.”

Clay? "I thought he'd joined the army.”

"You know full well he did, but that was about fifteen years ago. We've all found ways to keep ourselves busy since you left.”

Savannah spared her aunt a smile, but it was the pickup that held her attention. "Clay Keogh,” she mused, imagining the boy, wondering about the man. Another tie she'd cut, simply by not answering his letters.

Forget I asked, he'd said. I don't know what I was thinking. We'd be stuck in Sunbonnet forever. We've both got things to do, places to see. Only, please write to me. It's pretty lonely in boot camp, even though I've got guys with funny accents either yelling in my face or breathing down my neck all the time. How about you? (Ha ha.)

"I hope he hasn't changed too much,” Savannah said.

"Go on down and find out.”

"I should get Claudia out of his way. She'll talk his ear off. I should...” She watched, wishing he would step into view. But he was working. Her old friend was busy doing a job, and her daughter was down there watching him, conversing with him. Savannah could do that. "Oh, but not today.”

"I expect his ear'll be gone by tomorrow.”

Savannah closed her eyes and smiled indulgently. "I'm not ready, Aunt Billie. The woman in those pictures downstairs doesn't exist anymore, and when she did, she was never...” She searched for understanding in Aunt Billie's eyes, glistening pale blue behind glasses rimmed with gold wire. She'd forgotten how utterly reliable those eyes seemed. "I don't know what to say to people. Things haven't changed here.”

"What things?”

"People don't—”

"People do.” Aunt Billie laid hands on her arms and gave her a quick shake. "People do, Savannah. Maybe I've been an old maid since the day I was born, and maybe this store ain't never gonna be no Wal-Mart, and those hills sure don't plan on moving, but just because we're still here don't mean we've been sittin' on our hands.”

"I know.”

"No, you don't. But you look around, you're gonna find out. Clayton Keogh isn't a soldier anymore. Leanne Ames isn't working as a waitress in Cody anymore. Lucille Bosch—remember my friend Lucille? She was in this morning, too. She isn't county superintendent of schools anymore, you know.”

Savannah swallowed the So? "She finally retired?”

"They finally stopped appointing her when the teacher they stood for election refused to serve, but if you asked her, that's not the explanation she'd give you. 'Course, she ain't exactly world-famous,” Aunt Billie allowed, lifting one bony shoulder as she let her hands slide away. "But her picture got published regularly in the weekly Sun-Bee, right next to her school attendance report. So she was pretty famous around here, even though a lot of people didn't exactly know about the deal she had going with the county auditor to keep her in that job when she wasn't technically qualified. It's a nice title, county superintendent of schools, and Lucille had an annoying need to go bandying it about. I know she still misses that title, but she's able to hold her head up pretty good in public now.”

With her own head full of fuzzy old images, Savannah had no idea which one went with Lucille Bosch. All she knew was the eyes. Everyone had eyes, and the minute she went downstairs, the eyes would turn.

"You don't think people wonder about me?”

"Oh, they've been wondering what happened to the modeling, but they won't be asking you right off.” The old woman folded her arms. The skin in the crook of her elbow crinkled like tissue paper. "They'll ask you where your husband is first.”

Savannah groaned.

"But not Clayton,” Aunt Billie said. "He'd be a good one for you to start with.”

Savannah stared out the window. The tapping had stopped, but there was no man, child, or horse in sight. "He'll ask, unless he's already figured it out. Please go down and bring Claudia in for me, Aunt Billie. I can't do the catching-up thing right now. I just don't feel up to it.”

Billie headed for her backyard corral. Her pace was purposeful, not because she'd been sent, but because she was running out of patience. For over a week Savannah had been holed up in the bedroom of her childhood. Homecoming was a fine thing, but Savannah's seemed like an attempt to return to the womb. Sooner or later she was going to find out that there was no womb here for her. There was shelter and food and an old woman who still cared what happened to her, even though Savannah had all but ignored her for years. But no womb. Billie Larsen's female plumbing had been ripped out before she was thirty. Not that it would have been any use to her without a man.

But she'd raised Savannah. Caroline was the mother the girl missed and mourned and romanticized, but Billie had done the practical part. She'd kept the store going, kept food on the table, kept the roof over all their heads. After Caroline died, Billie had managed to convince the strong-willed girl to stay in school until she graduated. Billie hadn't favored the modeling idea—that was Caroline's dream—but she'd given in, because it was what Savannah said she wanted. Billie had found a nice family for Savannah to stay with in Minneapolis and had paid for the six months of school and the makeup and the portfolio and the rip-off contest fees. Billie hadn't favored any of it, not one bit, yet she'd had to do something to keep Savannah from running off with some damn truckers. She'd had a little savings and no children except Savannah, whom she loved.

So did every camera the girl had ever met.

The dry hinges on the gate announced that Billie was letting herself into the corral. She heard little Claudia suggest it might be her mom, so Billie called out before she made her appearance, just so everybody could relax while she hooked the chain around the gatepost. That little one had spunk. It was Billie who'd enrolled Claudia in school and taken her in for her starting-school shots. She'd acted so grown up about the whole thing, Billie could hardly believe the girl hadn't even turned six.

"How's Dolly holding up?” she asked as she approached the big man and the small child, who stood side by side, admiring the swaybacked mare's unremarkable feet.

"Not too bad for an old gal with worn-out heels,” Clay said, greeting Billie with one of those easy, sparkly-eyed smiles of his. He swept off the sweat-stained Sunbonnet Mercantile cap he'd been wearing since Billie had given them out five years ago to celebrate the store's centennial anniversary. "'Course, I had me some help,” he allowed as he wiped his face on his faded blue shirtsleeve. "Claudia wouldn't let me put the nails in my mouth.”

"It doesn't hurt at all when he pounds nails into the horse's hooves.” Claudia got busy with the nails left in the tray on the top of the shoer's toolbox, putting them back in their package as though the kit belonged to her now, too. "Where's Mommy? Is she still resting?”

"Well, she's...”

"She's awake now? I'm hungry. I bet she is, too. I bet we could have some lunch together now.” She looked up at Clay. "Would you like some lunch?”

"I already had mine, thanks. But I—”

"I did, too, but I'm gonna go now, okay? Thank you for the horse frog.” She patted the big pocket on her chest as she backed out of the shed and into the afternoon sunshine. Her hair suddenly gleamed like black satin. "I'm gonna show it to my mother and tell her how I helped you put shoes on Dolly.”

"Tell her...”

Claudia tipped her head expectantly, eager to carry something to her mother.

The man wanted to tell her himself. Billie could see the wanting in those bright blue eyes of his. But, big as he was, Clay Keogh was never one to push, so he just said, "Tell her Clay Keogh says hello. She might remember me.”

"I will,” Claudia promised, squinting against the sun. "Bye, Mr. Horseshoe Man.”

He'd already taken the child to heart. Billie could see that in his eyes, too, the way he watched Claudia scamper across the corral, dodging little piles of horse apples. She climbed over the bottom rail and took off for the house.

"Of course she remembers you.”

His smile dropped away when he looked at Billie, expecting truth now. Bottom-line truth. "Is she okay?”

"She had an operation, and she's taking her sweet time about getting over it.”

"So she's home to recuperate?”

"She's home. That's all I can say for sure.”

He put his cap back on, pulling it down to his eyebrows, then shoving it up about an inch. "Maybe I oughta pop in and say hello myself.”

"Well, she's...”

He waited, and when she didn't say any more, he smiled. "You said that already.”

"I did, didn't I? She's as stubborn as ever, is what she is, but the truth is she's here because she doesn't have any place else to go. She hasn't worked in quite a while.”

"Because of her health?”

"If you ask me, which you just did, I'd say it's mostly because of her head. Everything else seems to be in working order.”

"What kind of—”

"That's for her to say, Clayton. But I'll warn you, she sure don't say much. The last few years I barely get a ‘Merry Christmas' out of her, and when I called her, half the time it wasn't her number anymore, so finally I just gave up. Then she comes home with a child. Where did that child come from? She let me know pretty quick, just with that look she can give sometimes, you know? Ask her no questions, she'll tell you no lies. That's about what it amounts to.” Billie wagged her head. "Sweet little thing, that Claudia. Savannah has to be doing something right, I guess, but I couldn't tell you for sure what she's done or what she'll do next.”

"I only meant to ask about her health, Billie.”

"I don't want to push too hard, you know? That's on the one hand. On the other, I'm gettin' too old to beat around the bush.” She eyed her niece's childhood friend. He'd been as lanky and rawboned as a young hound back in the days when Savannah used to run around with him and his half-Indian brother. She'd sure be surprised when she saw him now, if she ever got around to sticking her head outside that room. Billie figured Clayton had put on at least thirty pounds of muscle, mostly because of the kind of work he did. No longer awkward and gangly, Clayton Keogh had grown into his paws, all right.

Yessir, Savannah was sure to be pleasantly surprised.

"What Savannah needs is a husband,” Billie said, flattening the beat-around bush with both feet. Clayton's eyes doubled in size. Billie shrugged. "Stands to reason, don't it? She's got a child. She's had more than her share of trouble lately, and she needs someone to lean on. She's got me, of course, but a man, the right kind of man, would be so much better for her. She needs a good husband, pure and simple.”

Clayton stared at her for a moment. Then he laughed. When he quit laughing, he stared again, but the laughter lingered in his eyes. "You got somebody in mind, Billie?”

"Yes, I do. Indeed I do, and it can't be just anybody.”

"But somebody, pure and simple.”

"Somebody who loves her. Somebody who loved her long before he had a chance to see her in her underwear.” She stood her ground, lifting her chin high so she could look him in the eye when she handed his own words back to him after nearly fifteen years. "Somebody who's always loved her.”

"That was supposed to be our secret. You just ruined my faith in sweet little old ladies.”

It was Billie's turn to laugh.

Clay nodded, smiling. "I was, what, about eighteen? Since then I've been a husband, and I'll tell you what, it ain't simple. Plus, I couldn't save myself forever. I'm no longer exactly pure.”

"You've got the purest heart in the county, Clayton Keogh. Your ex-wife would be the first to say so.” Billie jabbed a finger in the direction of his square chin. "And that's a sure sign right there. You're blushing.”

"I don't think I've ever been sweet-talked quite like this before. I don't know what to think.”

"There's no need to think when you know how you feel. Besides...” She laid a hand on the man's arm, adding a warm touch to that feel part. She knew just exactly what words Clay would take to heart. "Savannah needs you.”

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