NOTE: Occasionally, someone writes me a rant to tell me how I totally got the whole Amish experience wrong, even though I have always admitted in my disclaimer that I know nothing about Amish culture, that my goal was to say something about Jim and Blair, not the Amish way of life. So now, let me make it clear that this has absolutely nothing to do with the Amish. This is my own made-up culture, a group of people set apart from mainstream society, living a more traditional life that is based on agriculture and infused with religious sensibility. And if you still feel the need to write me with complaints, at least use a valid address so I can respond. Thank you.
Jim Ellison was a man alone. Once, this had been his worst fear. But as the years passed, each one so very much like the last, the land with all its same exigencies, the work just as austere and strangely comforting, exactly like his faith, he found that he no longer minded his solitude. He believed with everything he was in God's infinite wisdom, in the surety of his great design. If he was alone, then there was a reason for it. If he was different from the others, even avoided by them, then that was part of the plan. And if this suited him just fine, if he preferred his own counsel to the company of others, then that was just as God intended it.
He squinted at the sky, taking in the angle of the sun on the horizon, calculating how much daylight he had left. There was still a long stretch of fence to mend. He carefully unwound the barbed wire from the bail and began to string it between the posts. He spent more time than he could figure mending this fence, but somehow, he never minded. It was a task that required concentration but no real thought, and that always gave him a feeling inside like a cleared forest, everything open and empty and tranquil, the way he liked it. Or at least the way that was familiar.
When Caroline had been alive, he could never indulge this need for separateness, for silence. His wife had always wanted to be in the thick of things, to be at the center of their community, respected, looked to for leadership and answers. Since it would have been unseemly for her or any woman to put herself forward in such a way, she had settled instead for pushing her husband forward. First, she had wanted him to study with the parson, eventually to take his place and his position of honor. When that had not happened, she had been determined that they would have the most prosperous farm in the county, despite the fact that their tract was not nearly as large or productive as so many of the farms that surrounded them. Finally, she had set her sights on Jim's becoming a member of the counsel of elders. But there was never any more than one representative from a particular family, and when their father died, his younger brother Stephen had easily been chosen over him to speak for the Ellisons.
The great unanswerable question, even years after her death, still remained; perhaps he would never truly understand why Caroline Plummer had chosen him, when there were so many others who were eager to court her, his brother among them. Stephen would have been able to give her all those things she wanted, the position and the prosperity, and she must have realized that even as she was making her choice. It had never been a particular secret of the Ellison family that Stephen was the one destined to take his father's place, even though Jim was the elder son. Over the years, Jim had come to feel that Caroline's choice of him over his brother had more to do with who she wanted to be than who he actually was. There was a direct, vigorous quality to her nature, an active energy that would have been a fine asset to any man, but foundered for expression in a woman's life. It seemed to him that she had married him because she needed a project, and remaking him was the closest she could ever get to satisfying her ambitions.
If only Jim had proven more susceptible to her efforts, perhaps things would not have ended the way they did, perhaps she would still be alive.
The light began to fade, and Jim hurried the last of the repairs before it was too dark to see. Fortunately, he had always possessed especially acute senses, and his eyes could pick up even the faintest last rays of daylight. He managed to finish the task and was about to head back to the house when he heard a commotion coming from over the slight rise that led to the neighboring farm, the one that belonged to his brother-in-law, Ethan Plummer. He concentrated on the sound and could make out a chorus of familiar voices, raised in anger. Something was wrong, and his neighbors were in an uproar.
He ran in the direction of the voices, across the fields, past Ethan's house, toward his barn. He could hear them all gathered there. He rushed inside and found his brother-in-law slumped on the ground, eyes wide and vacant, blood all over his face and puddled beneath his head. It looked to Jim as if he'd been dead for some time. His first thought was that there must have been an accident. There was also blood on the iron plough share, where Peter had hit his head. Farming was often dangerous work, and Ethan was not always as methodical and careful as he might have been. But when Jim looked around more, he could see signs of a struggle, the ordinarily neat barn disordered, implements strewn around haphazardly, straw scattered everywhere.
Then he also saw the source of the commotion. Brother Mueller was holding a struggling boy by the collar of his jacket, preventing him from running off.
"Let go of me!" the boy kept demanding, continuing to resist Brother Mueller's hold on him. "I didn't do anything. I swear!"
The boy looked young to Jim, maybe still a teenager, although he couldn't be sure. In the outside world, young people took on adult responsibilities far later than they did among his own people, so somehow they always looked young to him. There was also the boy's long curls, which gave him a youthful air, and his blue eyes, which had an innocence about them, even though they were now clouded with panic and anger. He feared, though, that the other men gathered there would not recognize this innocence. They would see only the earrings and the scruffy clothes, the boy's unkempt appearance, as if he had been on the road for quite a while, without a regular place to sleep or enough opportunities to bathe. They would certainly draw their own conclusions about why this boy had been drifting around so rootlessly, and it would not come out in his favor.
Worst of all, the boy had blood on his shirt.
"What are you doing here?" Brother Anderson, the senior member of the counsel, asked him.
"I was looking for a place to sleep for the night. I didn't mean any harm, I swear. It's just that it was getting cold, and I didn't have anywhere else to go. I waited until it got dark and then I sneaked into the barn. But when I came in, I saw this guy on the ground. He was face down, but I could see that there was blood. I thought I could help. So I rushed over to him and turned him over. But then..." the boy broke off with a little tremor in his voice. "I saw it was too late. He was already dead."
"Is that how you got his blood on you?" Jim asked him, gently.
The boy nodded. "I touched him to check for a pulse, just in case. I got blood on my hand and wiped it on my shirt. I was just about to go for help when you all showed up."
"How did you all know to come?" Jim asked.
"I heard from some of the farmers down the way that there was a young drifter in the area headed in this direction. I gathered together some of our men, and we were coming to warn Brother Plummer," Stephen said and glared at Jim, obviously annoyed that he had spoken up with a question when representing their family was his role. "I, for one, must wonder how we can possibly believe anything this young man claims, when he's already admitted to breaking into Brother Plummer's barn."
Jim could see the boy trembling. "I was cold," he said. "I just wanted a warm place to stay the night. I wasn't going to take anything, and I would never hurt anyone."
"That's not a very convincing story, when we've found you here kneeling over the dead body," Stephen said.
But Jim could tell that the boy spoke the truth. He listened to the rhythm of his heart beat, the sound of the breath in his chest, and it all sounded like fear, not dishonesty. He studied the blood on Blair's shirt and then on his brother-in-law's head. It was too dark, too dried. He knelt down beside the body and lightly touched the man's skin. It was already cold.
"The boy's telling the truth," Jim said. "The blood is no longer fresh, and the skin is greatly cooled. Ethan has been dead for hours."
Brother Anderson frowned and then also knelt beside Jim. "Brother Ellison is correct. This evil deed is not recent work."
"That's no evidence that this outsider isn't still responsible. He could have committed this ill act earlier in the day and then returned for some reason. Perhaps he was not satisfied with what he'd already robbed from Brother Plummer."
The boy shook his head desperately. "No, no. It's not like that. I swear. I never took anything that didn't belong to me. I don't have any money. You can check my things. I only just got here. Wait! I can prove it."
The boy's trembling hands began rifling through his pockets. It appeared to Jim that he was not only terrified, but also quite exhausted. He must have been out walking for some time.
Finally, the boy found what he was looking for, a cash register receipt, which he handed to Brother Anderson. "I bought a candy bar at a store over in Rosenville this afternoon. That receipt has the name of the store on it, the date and the time. I walked all afternoon to get this far. I would never hurt anybody. I swear."
Jim studied the boy's appearance, taking in the pallor and dark circles under his eyes, the extreme slenderness that looked out of keeping with his sturdy frame. It made Jim wonder if that candy bar was all he'd had to eat that day or when exactly his last good meal had been. He suspected it had been quite a while.
"That still doesn't mean anything," Stephen protested. "He says he walked here. But how do we know? Maybe somebody gave him a ride. I think we all know the kind of young person he is. We shouldn't put our trust in anything he tells us."
"Ethan was already dead when the boy was back at the store in Rosenville," Jim said quietly.
All the men turned to stare at him. He had already said more in this one conversation than he had at their weekly meetings during the whole of the past year, and it was all to insist on the innocence of this ragged outsider. It was just the sort of strangeness they had come to expect from him.
"That's what they'll say when they come," Jim explained.
He didn't have to specify who "they" were. Everyone knew who he meant, the authorities, the outsiders from town. They would have to be called in to investigate the death, even though there were none among them who looked forward to their questions or their interference.
Brother Anderson finally spoke, "I believe Brother Ellison is correct in his understanding of what has happened here. It does appear that the boy is telling the truth."
The young man turned to Jim. "Thanks, man. Thank you so much. I can't tell you how much I appreciate" his voice trailed off, and the boy began to sway on his feet.
When he collapsed, Jim caught him and swung him up into his arms. "I'll take him to my house," he said.
"We still don't know for certain that he isn't guilty," Stephen said. "He should be in jail."
"Or perhaps you mean he should be in the hospital, brother, since he is presently unconscious," Jim said, and Stephen had the good grace to blush. "I don't think he's much of a danger right now, and he's hardly in any shape to run off."
"Stephen is right that we should make sure he stays here until this all cleared up," Brother Anderson said. "We've already sent Brother Tomlinson into town to inform the Sheriff. I'm sure the police will want to speak with him."
Jim nodded. "I'll watch him and make sure he doesn't go anywhere until we find whoever did this."
He headed out of the barn, carrying the boy's limp body. He knew the young man wasn't guilty. He also somehow knew that he wouldn't try to run. Jim's reason for taking the boy home with him was actually to nurse him back to health. This was yet another subject on which he kept his own counsel. Somehow, he doubted the others would understand.
Jim would have preferred to put the young man in one of the spare bedrooms upstairs, near his own room. But he feared that the boy might wake up without his knowing and try to navigate the stairs in his disorientation. He didn't want him to fall, and finally, it would just be more convenient to have him in the big bedroom on the first floor, the one that Jim had shared with Caroline. That way, he could more easily go back and forth to the kitchen to fetch whatever he needed to care for him.
But it did give him pause as he carried the young man through that door that had remained closed, except for the weekly cleaning, for the last five years. Although the room was perfectly clean and tidy, it still had a stale feeling, a peculiar kind of silence that came with being shut up and unused so long. Jim had not slept in this bed since his wife had died there, along with the twin babies she had valiantly tried to bring into the world. As he lay the weakened, unconscious young man on top of the covers, it seemed wrong somehow, to leave someone who was already sick and vulnerable in a place where three people had lost their lives. It seemed a lot like bad luck.
Still, Jim believed that it was displeasing to the Lord to give into superstition, so he would not allow it of himself. He had already decided that settling the boy here was the most practical solution, the best way to care for him, so this was exactly what he would do. The boy's body was cold, and his forehead was warm with fever. Now, that he had held the young man in his arms Jim knew just how undernourished and weakened he was. He left him alone just long enough to heat some water and fill a basin with it. He hunted up a clean washcloth and some soap, then returned to bathe the boy. He cleaned him the best he could, and then changed him into one of his own nightshirts that he brought down from upstairs. He figured the boy would be more comfortable that way and could rest more easily. He lifted him and pulled back the covers, settling the prone body on the mattress, resting his head on the pillow, pulling the blankets up to his shoulders to keep him warm.
Over the next few days, he kept a careful eye on the young man. He stayed with him nearly constantly, only taking time away for the most urgent chores around the farm, the ones that could not be left until later. He fed him, tended to his bodily needs, cleaned him, treated his fever with the herbs Caroline had taught him to use. The first day, the boy had been very agitated, tossing and turning and murmuring incomprehensibly in his fitful sleep, his words indecipherable even to Jim's sensitive ears. By the second day, though, he had calmed down under Jim's constant and gentle ministrations. By the third, he seemed to have fallen into a deep sleep, the fever broken. Jim figured he was exhausted by all he had been through, exposure and illness, and whatever else had happened to him before he arrived in their community. While Jim was washing him, he had found disturbing signs of things that had befallen the boy. There were bruises on his arms, finger marks, and darker, larger bruises on his back and across his abdomen, as if he had been beaten. There was also a round, puckered mark on one forearm that looked distinctly like a burn mark from a cigarette. Someone had hurt this boy. This enraged Jim, and that surprised him. Due both to nature and schooling, anger was an emotion that was almost foreign to him, and yet, he felt it profoundly, even violently, on behalf of this stray young outsider whose name he did not even know.
On the fourth day, Brother Anderson came to call.
"Good day, Brother Ellison. I just came to check on how you're faring with your young charge," the grey-haired man said when Jim answered the door.
"As well as can be expected, Brother Anderson. Please do come in. There is coffee on in the kitchen, if you'd care for some."
"That would hit the spot, Brother. Perhaps we could sit together, and you could tell me the particulars of the young man's condition."
"Of course, Brother."
Jim led the man into the kitchen and fixed them both coffee. They settled onto the chairs pulled up to the table.
"Has he woken up yet?" Brother Anderson asked.
"I'm afraid not. But his fever has broken, and he seems simply to be asleep now. I expect that he'll waken shortly. There appears to be no reason he won't make a full recovery."
"Well, that is good news. I'm glad to hear it. And it has not been too much of a burden for you to care for him? I did not think of it at the time, but perhaps it would have been more sensible to send the boy home with one of the other men for their wives to look after him."
"It has been no trouble. I have more room here than most, and you remember how talented Caroline was at treating illness. I was lucky that she taught me much of what she knew."
"Then it does sound as if it has worked out for the best. And you can rest assured that you are doing God's work here, Brother, by showing this unfortunate young man such Christian charity. As the Bible says, In as much as you have done this unto these the least of my brethren, so you have done it unto me."
"Quite true, Brother. Quite true," Jim agreed. "The Lord would not have us do less."
"That is certainly so. Although I believe it is equally true that the Lord would not have us do a great deal more. It is important to remember that he is still of the outside. He should stay until this matter with poor Brother Plummer is settled. But when it has been and he is well enough again, we should send him on his way. It is only for the best."
"Of course, Brother. I hardly expect that he would wish to stay."
The elder nodded. "Yes. You are must likely correct, Brother Ellison. Well, it is good to see that we are of a like mind. Thank you so much for the coffee, but I must be hurrying off. There's a matter I need to attend to down at the Lindstrom's, and of course, there are the authorities to deal with. They have already asked so many questions, and yet, they keep coming back with even more."
"I suppose they are only trying to do their jobs," Jim ventured.
"I'm sure they are. But it can be trying to have outsiders here so much of the time. I hope, for so many reasons, that we can find Brother Plummer's killer soon and put this whole tragedy behind us. Although I simply cannot imagine that one of our own could have committed such an evil act."
"We are all human."
"Too true, Brother. Too true. And still, we should all pray for the best possible resolution to this whole calamity."
"I will do that, Brother."
"Very good then. I'll be off. Do let me know when the boy has awoken. I'm sure the Sheriff will wish to question him."
"I'll send word as soon as he does. Let me see you out, Brother. It was most kind of you to pay this visit to make sure all was well here."
"It is only my duty," Brother Anderson said.
Jim walked with the older man back to the door. Brother Anderson put his hat on.
"You will remember what I said, Brother Ellison?" the man asked. "It is an honorable act of Christian charity to help this boy, but it would be unwise to allow him to stay in the community any longer than is necessary."
"I understand. Besides it will be good for me to resume my usual routine," Jim said.
"I'm sure you'll be eager to have your home to yourself again. Well, good day, Brother Ellison."
"Good day, Brother Anderson."
Jim held the door for the man and watched him leave. He was not at all surprised by the tenor of the visit. Outsiders were not welcomed into their community, and the others would be anxious to see the boy gone. Jim could not say the same for himself. Brother Anderson could not have been more wrong. Rather than being eager to be alone again, he dreaded it, for the first time in more years than he could count.
A crash came from the front bedroom. The boy. Jim ran to him. He found the young man on the floor, trying to pull himself up, the contents of the night table strewn about him.
The boy looked up at him with wide, guilty eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to."
Jim knelt down beside him. "Of course, you didn't. You're just a little too weak to be up and about yet. Would it be all right if I helped you back to bed?"
The boy nodded. Jim wrapped an arm around his shoulders and helped him stand, then maneuvered him over to the mattress. The boy swung his legs onto the bed, and Jim covered him up again.
"Thanks, man. I appreciate the help. I'm just sorry I'm causing you so much trouble."
"You're not. You should really lie back down and get some more rest."
"I heard what the other man said. I know it would be better for you if I go. I'm not trying to run out or anything. You could have the Sheriff come get me. I could stay in town somewhere until they're satisfied I didn't... I really didn't. I swear. I could never do something like that."
Jim nodded. "Yes, I believe you."
The boy smiled, and it lit his whole face. "Thank you. I can't tell you how much that means to me. And what you did at the barn, that was so cool, too. How did you know all that anyway?"
Jim shrugged. "Just observant, I guess."
The boy nodded thoughtfully, and then something struck him. He extended his hand. "I'm Blair Sandburg, by the way. I just realized we were never really introduced."
Jim shook his hand. "Jim Ellison."
"Thank you for all you've done for me, Jim. I really do appreciate it."
"You must be hungry, Blair. All I could give you while you were sick was some broth and apple sauce. But if you're feeling better, you're probably ready for an actual meal."
At the mention of food, Blair's stomach growled loudly, and they both laughed.
"I guess my stomach's speaking for me," Blair said.
"I was just about ready to start some supper. It shouldn't take that long to fix. I'll bring you in a tray."
"Actually, I'd like to try getting up again. I just rushed it a little before and got dizzy. I really think I'll feel better if I get up and start moving around. Just need to do it slowly."
"If you're sure."
"I might need some help."
"Of course. Let me get you some clothes to put on. I washed yours, but while you're here in our community, it would be better if you dressed plainly as we do."
Blair nodded. "I understand, and I want to fit in. Well, as best as I can," he said, with a shy smiled.
Jim returned the smile. "I'll be right back."
Jim went upstairs and searched through his closet. Everything of his would be far too large on Blair's smaller frame. Then he remembered that he still had a few things that had belonged to his father stored in one of the other bedrooms. Even at the end of his life, William Ellison had more meat on his bones than Blair did right now, but at least, they were about the same height. He fished out a pair of dark pants, a grey shirt, a pair of suspenders, socks and even an old pair of boots of his father's. He went back to his own room to get a set of underclothes, and then carried it all down to his guest.
Blair was sitting on the edge of the bed waiting for him. Jim laid the small bundle beside him.
"These are the best I can do. I hope they fit."
Blair picked up the shirt and pants. "I think they'll be fine."
"There's a razor, soap, water, towels, that kind of thing over here on the washstand if you'd like to shave and freshen up a little."
"Thanks, man. That would be great. Would you mind lending me hand? I just need to get steady on my feet, before I try walking on my own."
Jim held out his arm to the younger man, and Blair pulled himself up. He stumbled at first, and Jim grabbed him, to steady him. Blair held tightly to his arm. But then he began to regain his balance. Jim let go of him, and finally, Blair released his arm.
"I'm doing it," the young man said, very pleased.
Jim smiled at him. "Yes, you're doing very well."
Blair walked over to the washstand, still looking weak, but hardly on the verge of collapse. He picked up the razor, and then hesitated. It suddenly occurred to Jim that he should give the young man some privacy while he attended to these matters of hygiene, and anyway, he had supper to prepare.
"I'll be in the kitchen," he told Blair. "When you're finished here, you can join me, or you can sit in the parlor and rest."
Blair nodded, and Jim left him in peace. He didn't know quite what to make of his own strong inclination to stay.
When Blair finished dressing, he joined Jim in the kitchen and sat at the table to watch while he cooked dinner. Clad in such simple attire, with his hair pulled back neatly, the boy could almost have passed for one of their own. He also noticed that Blair had taken out the earrings, and he felt touched by this gesture of respect. He could the boy's stomach grumbling, although Blair said nothing about how hungry he was. Fortunately, Jim was such an old hand at preparing meals that he soon had a hearty dinner of pork chops, mashed potatoes, pinto beans, collard greens and cornbread served up.
"That smells great," Blair said, when Jim brought the last of the serving dishes to the table.
"Help yourself," Jim told him.
Blair served himself a healthy plate of food, and Jim did the same. They both dug in.
"Wow, man, this is really good," Blair said, eating hungrily, with relish.
"Just don't go too fast. It's been a couple of days since you've had solid food. You don't want to make yourself sick."
"I know. But I'm just suddenly so starving, and everything tastes so good. I can't believe a talented guy like you is still single."
"Actually, I'm a widower."
Blair stopped eating. "Oh, I'm so sorry, man. I didn't... I really am sorry."
"She's been gone five years now. It was God's will."
Jim could tell from Blair's expression that he found that notion more disconcerting than comforting, but he didn't say anything, honoring Jim's beliefs.
"Would you mind if I asked you some questions, Blair?"
"Nah, man. Shoot."
"How old are you?"
"And where are you from?"
"Cascade, Washington. It's a medium sized city a little north of Seattle. I just finished up school there. Undergrad at Ranier University. I decided to take a year off before starting grad school, see the country, you know. Actually, it was mostly Terry's idea, my...uh, friend. I guess it didn't work out too well."
Jim could sense Blair's distress, and the younger man lowered his eyes, staring down at his plate.
"Is that how you got those bruises and that burn mark?" Jim asked him.
Blair flushed and looked ashamed. "He...uh, he got kind of pissed at me there at the end."
"He wanted to steal some stuff from a store, and I wouldn't. He felt like I wasn't doing my part to keep things going, to get the money we needed."
"Because you were too honest to take what didn't belong to you?"
"Is that how you got stuck here without any money?"
"Terry took what there was when he left. I thought I'd get a job, make enough cash to get home. Just turned out to be harder than I expected."
"Jobs in these parts aren't usually that easy to come by."
"Yeah, unfortunately, I figured that out. Look, man, I just want you to know that I don't expect a hand out. I'm willing to work for my keep, whatever you need done around the farm. I don't know much about this kind of thing. But I'm willing to learn."
Jim shook his head. "Let's not worry about that just yet. This is your first time out of bed in days. Right now, your only job is to get your strength back."
"I really appreciate everything you've done for me."
"It's nothing. Don't think anything about it."
Blair laid a hand on his arm, and Jim's skin tingled beneath the fabric of his shirt. He'd never felt anything even remotely like it in his life.
"It's not nothing to me. I really can't thank you enough."
Blair looked at him with those large eyes, so dark blue, so open. Jim held his gaze. "You're welcome," he said, softly.
Early the next morning, Sheriff Baldwin came to take Blair's statement. Jim showed him into the parlor and brought Blair into him. The police officer questioned him for maybe ten or fifteen minutes. When Jim heard them finishing up, he went back into the room.
"May I ask how the investigation is proceeding, Sheriff?" he asked the man.
"We're making some progress, Mr. Ellison. I know your people don't approve of autopsies, but the coroner's report did confirm the time of death from six to ten hours before the body was found. That was enough to eliminate Mr. Sandburg from suspicion. The store clerk over in Rosenville remembered him coming in, and we found a couple of residents along the way who recall seeing him walk by. Unfortunately, we really haven't been able to find any more to go on. There were so many fingerprints over at the barn that it would be impossible to tell which set might belong to the killer. None of them have come back belonging to anyone with a record."
"They probably all belong to people who live around here. We often help each other with the farm work."
"That's what I figured," he said and turned back to Blair. "Mr. Sandburg, I don't have any cause to hold you or any authority to ask you to stay put, since you're not a suspect in the case. But if we do get some leads, it might be helpful to have you around as the person who discovered the body. If it's an imposition I understand, but if I could, I'd like to ask you to stick around another week to see where we go with the investigation. If we still haven't found anything at the end of that time, it's not likely we ever will, and you'd be free to go."
"I, well...Jim?" Blair asked, turning to him.
"Of course. You're welcome to stay as long as you need to," Jim told him.
"I have a little more time before I need to get back to Cascade to start school. A week shouldn't be any problem," Blair told the Sheriff.
"I thank you. We really appreciate your cooperation on this matter, Mr. Sandburg. Yours too, Mr. Ellison. Good day, gentlemen."
Jim saw the police officer out and rejoined Blair in the parlor.
"I hope this isn't going to cause you any trouble," Blair said.
Jim shook his head. "The others knew you would stay as long as the police needed you to."
"Well, that's good at least. They won't be giving you a hard time. So what's up for today?"
"I have some chores that need tending to, and you should get some more rest."
"No, Jim, really. I'm back on my feet now. I want to do something to help pay you back, and I'm not really one for sitting around the house all day."
Jim smiled. In just the short time he'd known Blair, despite the young man's weakened condition, he had witnessed his amazing capacity for restless energy.
"All right, then. You can come out to the fields and help me. But under no circumstances are you to overdo it. Do not try to keep up with me. If you begin to feel tired, take a break. Come back to the house and lie down if you need to. Understood?"
Blair grinned at him, obviously amused by his commanding tone. "Understood."
Jim led Blair through his daily chores. Blair was a quick study, and Jim never had to tell him anything twice. They fell into an easy companionship, working alongside one another. Blair chattered on about all kinds of things. He had been a lot of places for somebody so young. Jim was ten years older than he was, and he'd never even been out of the county. His people did not take unnecessary trips. They were taught as children that the important things were their homes and families, the land, their faith. It was a community tragedy when someone left for good, and it hardly ever happened.
But, still, Jim found something soothing about listening to Blair talk about all the interesting places he'd been, the colorful things he'd seen. Perhaps, it was the enthusiasm with which the young man recounted his adventures. Or perhaps it was simply the sound of his voice, the way it got inside Jim and unspooled itself like a ribbon, giving him the same serene feeling as solitude, only without the emptiness.
It was an unusual, though not displeasing, experience to enjoy someone's company so much. It occurred to Jim that maybe this was how it was supposed to have felt when he had worked alongside his brother and father. Only it never had. There was nothing but prickly emotions between Jim and his family. There had certainly never been the kind of bond, the sense of connection that he felt with Blair. He was even unusually aware of the other man's physical presence. Somehow, his senses took refuge in Blair, lingering on him of their own volition. He was extraordinarily aware of the sweat trickling down Blair's back. He could anticipate his every breath. He could sense the flex and stretch of his muscles as he worked. It soothed his senses, but it left a restless feeling in the pit of his stomach, some emotion that he had no hope of identifying. He only knew that Blair was the cause of it.
"So, Jim, this farm of yours is pretty amazing. You've got cows, grow corn, hay. That's a lot of work for one person."
"This farm is smaller than most of the rest. That helps some."
"This is small. I'd hate to see big."
Jim smiled. "This land has been in the family a long time. My mother's family. She brought it to my father when they wed. When I married, my father passed it along to me and Caroline to farm. When my brother Stephen got married just before my father passed away, he did the same for him, with another tract of land."
Jim didn't tell Blair that the land his father had given his brother was the prime real estate, the truly productive farmland, the parcel of property that should have gone to him as the elder son, that would have been his if his father hadn't despised him so completely.
"That's really the way it ought to be, family's looking out for each other, taking care of their own," Blair said.
His noncommittal response made Blair stop and stare at him. But the young man didn't pry.
"I know you said your father passed away. Is your mom still alive?"
"I don't know. I hope so."
Blair blinked at him. "What?"
"She left when we were still children."
"Where did she go?"
"I never knew. Just away, I guess. After she was gone, no one ever spoke of her again."
"Not even your father?"
"Especially not him."
After that, Blair grew quiet and stayed that way the rest of the morning, looking thoughtful and distracted. Jim missed the sound of his voice, but he respected the privacy of his thoughts. And the shared solitude was heartening in its own way.
At midday, they stopped for lunch, and Jim insisted that they spend some time after the meal resting. He knew that Blair would not stay in the house if he went directly back to the fields. So he took a seat on the sofa and brought out his Bible to read. Blair settled onto the other end of the sofa and opened one of his own books. They read in amicable silence for well over an hour.
In the afternoon, they worked on patching another stretch of fence, passing the time companionably as they worked, just as they had that morning. By the time the sun started sliding down toward the horizon, Jim could tell that Blair was in need of rest. He called it a day, and they headed back to the house.
"Why don't you go get cleaned up and rest a little before dinner?" he suggested.
Blair nodded. "I am a little tired."
"I'll call you when it's ready."
Jim headed into the kitchen and began taking food out of the larder. He could fry up some ham and make some maccaroni and cheese. He still had green beans, and there were biscuits left over from breakfast. Or he could always make some more cornbread, whichever Blair preferred. He put on the water to boil for the maccaroni, opened the beans he'd canned last summer and set them on the stove to simmer. He cut up the cheese in preparation for the maccaroni. He set the heavy iron skillet on the fire and got the ham going. When everything was underway, he went to ask Blair if he wanted biscuits or cornbread.
The door to Blair's room was ajar, and Jim was about to call to him when he caught sight of the young man, nude, standing in front of the wash basin, cleaning himself. Blair ran the washcloth along his arms, over his chest, down his belly. The soft, slick whoosh of the cotton sliding along bare flesh was the most mesmerizing sound Jim had ever heard. He knew he should not spy on Blair like this, but he couldn't help it somehow. He couldn't make himself turn away. The boy carefully washed his genitals and pulled the cloth between his legs to reach the tender, private place there. Jim felt the same emotion he'd experience out in the field fluttering in his belly, and now he understood what it was.
Blair's eyes flickered in the looking glass, and Jim realized he was caught. He wanted to speak, to apologize, but somehow, the words wouldn't cooperate with him. But Blair didn't appear to be angry. He didn't turn around or look away or stop what he was doing. He simply returned the washcloth to the basin and began to use his own hands to clean himself, cradling his genitals, stroking himself. Jim stared, transfixed, his breath coming harder and faster. He saw the expression on Blair's face, and he understood the message as well as if it had been spoken. These could be your hands. This is how men love each other. Blair began to harden under his own ministrations, and Jim could feel an answering heat stirring in his own body.
It had been such a long, long time since he'd felt such unbridled desire. In fact, he didn't think he'd experienced such intense need since he was a boy, and the feelings were so powerful because they were all so new. Back then, when he'd felt the stirrings of his body, he would hide in the barn and stroke himself to satisfaction, amazed by how good a simple touch could feel. It had been a delicious secret, a special treat, until the day his father had come along at the worst possible moment and caught him. His father had slapped him hard across the face and told him how ashamed he was to have such a son. He had yanked his pants and underwear all the way down to his ankles and made him hold up his shirt, so that he was completely exposed.
"Stay here, exactly like this, until I come back," his father had ordered, and he had been too petrified to disobey.
It was not long before his father returned, accompanied by Stephen and holding a switch, a long, thin green twig from one of the old bushes near the house. Jim had felt its strokes often enough, and he eyed it with dread. It never broke the skin, but still, it inflicted pain, especially with Jim's sensitive skin.
"Your brother has been caught sullying the holy temple of his body, indulging his base instincts when he should have been putting his energy into honest labor that would please God. I want you to take a lesson from his error, Stephen, so that you can conduct yourself in a more fitting way."
Tears trembled in Jim's eyes. "Father, I'm sorry"
"Hush, boy. Your words won't save you from the punishment you have coming to you. Now keep a hold of that shirt, lift it up higher."
"Do as I say, boy, before I need to correct you for disobedience too."
Jim complied, and his father drew back his arm. The switch made a sharp singing sound as it traveled through the air, as his father brought it down hard on his tender, exposed genitals. It was the worst pain he had ever felt, then or now.
"Ah!" he had gasped aloud, unable to contain the noise. Still, he hadn't cried out or allowed the tears to flow, although he had wanted to do both. He knew his father would only beat him harder if he wept or screamed or begged.
His father lashed him mercilessly across his thighs and private area for what felt like forever.
"All right," he finally said. "Turn around and bend over."
Jim had obeyed, grabbing his ankles, assuming the usual position for a whipping. His father had switched his behind soundly and finally let him pull up his pants. His lip trembled as he buttoned his trousers, tears welling up in his eyes. The coarse fabric of his clothing tortured his wounds. He had been forced to sleep on his side for weeks, his abused flesh protesting its ill treatment. Stephen had taunted him for months, which had been the point, after all, of having him watch. The humiliations his father inflicted were always purposeful, the worst part of the punishment. This one had certainly done its job. He had never touched himself again.
As the remembered pain and shame washed over him, it quickly cooled his heat. He turned away from the room, leaving Blair in peace to finish his washing, alone, staring into an empty mirror.
They didn't speak about what happened, and it faded to the background. It was certainly not erased from either of their memories, but it was far enough out of mind to allow them to resume the usual untroubled pattern of their days together. They continued to work in the fields side by side, to take their meals together, to spend their evenings in each other's company, sitting on the sofa next to one another, reading companionably, sometimes breaking into conversation, other times content to allow the quiet sense of connection to speak for them.
It amazed Jim how quickly the days went by, fluttering past like eager birds, each one bringing him closer and closer to the time when Blair would be gone, when the house would return to its previous silence, when there would be only the blank comfort of his solitude once more. Jim wished, more fervently than he'd ever wished for anything, that the days would slow down, clog up like a flow of molasses, return to the sluggishness they'd always had before Blair came into his life. But it wasn't to be, and before he was ready for it, Sheriff Baldwin's police cruiser was carefully picking its way down the lane that led to his house, signifying that it was the end of the week Blair had promised to stay.
"The Sheriff is coming," he told the young man, who was pouring feed for the cows into the trough.
Blair looked up. "I don't see anything. Or hear anything either."
"He's coming. He'll be here soon enough."
A few minutes later, the bumpy rattle of tires over gravel could be heard clearly, and the white and blue car crested a slight rise in the road and came into view.
Blair stared at him. "How did you do that?"
Jim shrugged. He had been schooled never to discuss his unusual sensory abilities, not even to spend too much time considering them in his own mind, since they were so inexplicable and unnatural, perhaps even the devil's work.
Sheriff Baldwin pulled up to the house and parked the car. The man scanned the fields, spotted them and approached.
"Good afternoon," he called.
"Afternoon," Jim said.
"Sheriff," Blair said.
"I just wanted to update you, Mr. Ellison, and you too, Mr. Sandburg. I'm afraid we haven't been able to find any further leads. Nobody saw anything, at least not as they're willing to come forward and say. We didn't turn up any physical evidence at the barn that would help us, and we went over that place with a fine toothed comb. I'm afraid we're going to have to take this investigation off our active case roster. That's not to say that we're closing it. It will stay open as long as it remains unsolved. But to be honest, if we haven't found the guilty party by now or at least some pretty strong clues, it's doubtful that we ever will. At least, that's my experience when it comes to these things. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. Ellison. I understand the deceased was your brother-in-law."
"Yes, he was."
"Like I said, I'm really very sorry," he told Jim and then turned to Blair. "Mr. Sandburg, I appreciate your willingness to cooperate. I have your statement and your contact information. If anything changes with regard to the case, we'll be in touch. But we won't ask you to stick around any longer. We've already inconvenienced you enough."
"It was no problem. I was happy to do it."
"Well, I won't take up any more of your time. I'll let you get back to your work. I just wanted to personally let you know where we stand. And again, I am very sorry that we weren't able to do more. Of course, if anything develops, I'll be in touch."
"Thank you," Jim said.
The officer nodded, turned and headed back to his police car. He got in and started back down the lane.
Blair watched Jim. "Are you all right?"
"I can't let Ethan's killer go free, Blair. I have to find out who did this thing and see that justice is done. I've known Ethan Plummer all my life. I played with him when we were children. I owe it to Caroline."
Blair nodded. "I understand."
"I'm going over to the barn to look around for anything the police might have missed."
"I'll come with you. Maybe I can help."
Jim nodded, and they set off for Ethan's farm. Jim walked briskly, as he always did, and Blair hurried to keep up with him. When they got there, Jim eased the barn door open, and they both went inside. Blair looked around, visibly unsettled.
"Are you all right?" Jim asked him.
"It just feels weird to be back here. Not exactly happy memories, you know?"
Jim put a hand on his shoulder. "That's all in the past now."
Blair nodded. "So what are we looking for?"
Jim shook his head. "I suppose we'll only know when we find it. Why don't you start at that end? And I'll start at this one."
Blair headed to the other side of the barn and began scouring it, looking for anything that even remotely resembled a clue. Jim did the same at the opposite end of the large space. He searched carefully, using the advantage of his exceptionally keen eyesight. They took their time and proceeded meticulously, checking and rechecking every square inch of the building for nearly an hour. But they found nothing.
"Maybe Sheriff Baldwin was right. Maybe there just isn't anything to find," Blair said at the end of their long search, his face smudged from digging around in the dusty corners of the old structure. He also had straw clinging to the knees of his trousers from crawling around on all fours, inspecting the floor with painstaking scrutiny.
Jim sighed. "I'm afraid you're right, Blair," he conceded. "Thank you for helping me look. I could never feel at peace if I hadn't done everything possible to find Ethan's killer."
Blair touched his arm and held his gaze. "You're welcome, Jim. And you did do your best. I just want to make sure you know that."
Jim nodded. "Yes, I do. I just wish it had turned out differently."
"So do I."
"Let's head home, Blair. It's getting close to supper time. You can help me, and we'll have a good meal to mark your last night here. I assume you'll be wanting to move on in the morning, now that the Sheriff said it's all right for you to leave."
Something flickered across Blair's face, but Jim couldn't tell what it was. "I suppose I should be going," Blair said, keeping his voice neutral.
Jim followed him to the door, and just as they were about to leave, he saw it, a slight glimmer in the late afternoon sun. It was wedged into a chink of the barn's wall, nearly impossible to spot. But something prompted him to look in just the right place.
"You go on ahead, Blair. It just occurred to me that I should make sure the side door is pulled shut all the way. I'll catch up to you."
Blair nodded and continued on out the door. Jim knelt down and used his pocket knife to pry the object loose. He picked it up with his handkerchief and saw that it was a button, one that he recognized with a sharp stab of pain in his chest. It was black, simple, but not ordinary, one of a kind, in fact, impossible not to recognize. He knew precisely what garment it had been torn from. He squinted and focused his vision narrowly on the button. He could see tiny reddish-brown flecks, which he knew in his heart, without a doubt, was Ethan's blood.
It felt as if his own blood were freezing in his veins. It was the kind of feeling that only came from having someone close and trusted turn out to be nothing that you thought they were.
Jim poured himself into making dinner as a way of distracting himself, and also because he wanted Blair's last evening with him to be special. He went all out, the way Caroline always did for Sabbath dinner. He had killed and plucked a chicken, and it was now roasting in the oven. He had already baked the pie, apple with the crisscross pastry on top, and it was cooling on the counter. Blair had peeled and cut the potatoes which were boiling on the stove. Jim would mash them with lots of cream and butter. A fresh loaf of bread lay wrapped in a towel. The green beans and carrots were also cooking.
When it was all ready, Blair helped him get it on the table, and they sat down to their last meal together, their last supper.
"Jim, could I ask you a question?"
"Of course, Blair."
"Is there a reason why Stephen is on the counsel when you're the elder son?"
Jim felt startled, even though this was something he himself had told the young man. Still, it was the last question he was anticipating, but then, Blair did have a way of surprising him. "Stephen was just better suited to it. People look up to him in our community."
"And they don't look up to you?"
Jim lowered his eyes. "I've pretty much kept to myself since my wife died. I was more a part of things when Caroline was alive, since that was important to her. It's just never really mattered that much to me. And the people around here don't have the same feeling about me that they have for Stephen."
"Is it because of your senses?"
Jim almost choked on his chicken.
"I'm sorry," Blair hurried to say. "I don't mean to pry. Really, I don't. But I couldn't help noticing, that first day I met you and out in the field today when you knew the Sheriff's car was coming and the way you were searching the barn. You sense things that other people can't, see and hear beyond the range of ordinary human ability, don't you?"
Jim nodded mutely.
"Do you know what you are?"
"No. Do you know what I am, Blair?" he asked, hopefully.
"Yeah, man, I do. You're a Sentinel, a living, breathing Sentinel. You're a miracle, Jim."
"More like an abomination."
"Is that what these people have made you believe? Is that what your father told you? Because it's just not true."
Jim said nothing. He couldn't meet his eyes.
"I know you believe in God, Jim. So don't you think you're just the way God made you, the way he intended you to be? You are. I promise. And that's a beautiful thing. Sentinels are the protectors of their tribes. They watch over people who can't look out for themselves. They help those in need. That's you, man. You've got that goodness in you. Look how you've taken care of me."
"You're easy to take care of." It just slipped out before he could analyze it, edit it, squelch it, but then once he'd said it, he really wasn't sorry.
Blair's eyes widened, their dark centers growing impossibly large. "It sounds like it's been too long since you've had someone to take care of. Not to mention someone to care of you."
"I don't think I could possibly be one of these Sentinels, Blair. As you yourself noticed, I'm not exactly on a good footing with my tribe."
"Maybe you haven't found your place yet. Maybe this was just where you were born, Jim. Maybe your tribe is still out there, waiting for you to find them."
"This is the only life I know, Blair. I can't leave it."
"Your mother did," Blair reminded him.
"And my whole life, people have accused me of being just like her, sometimes behind my back, often enough to my face. I don't want to prove them right."
"Do you really want to give them that much power?"
"It's not as simple as that. I don't know if you can understand or if I can explain it. My people have been on this land since they came to this country. I'm a part of these fields. It makes me who I am. Away from it, I don't know who or what I'd become."
"I could help you find out."
Jim opened his mouth to protest, but Blair wouldn't let him.
"No, listen, Jim. Think about it. What are the odds that I'd find you? A true Sentinel. I read about Sentinels when I was just a little kid, and it's been my dream ever since. I've been searching for you all this time. From what I've read, ancient Sentinels always had a partner, a guide, someone to watch their back. Don't you think maybe I'm that person for you? You can't deny that there's something between us. We've know each other what? A week? And have you ever been more comfortable with anybody, more connected in your life? I know I haven't. We're meant to be together. We need to find our tribe and start doing what Sentinels and Guides are supposed to. Neither of us will ever be happy until we do. I'm sure of that."
Jim shook his head. "It's just not that simple for me, Blair. I wish it were. But it isn't."
"You know I can't stay here."
"I know," Jim said, his voice growing hoarse and pained.
"And if you don't come with me, that means after tomorrow we'll never see each other again."
Tears gathered in Jim's eyes. "I know."
Blair looked more sad than he had ever seen anyone. "I do understand, Jim. I want you to know that. But I'm going to miss you more than I could ever tell you."
The rest of the evening passed just as all their other evenings had, except that the burden of Blair's leaving hung over them, muting their usual joy in spending time together. Finally, Blair put down his book, bid Jim goodnight and went to bed. Jim closed up everything and blew out the kerosene lamps before heading up to his own room. The most complete sorrow he had ever felt swallowed him up. Upstairs, he stripped off his clothes and put them neatly away. He washed at the basin and pulled on a clean nightshirt. Then he knelt at the foot of his bed, shut his eyes tightly and prayed, just as he had every night of his life since he was a very small child.
He confessed his sin, that he had kept what he found in the barn a secret, that he still did not know what he would do about what he had learned. He begged God for guidance, to help him through his desolation over the impending loss of Blair, the one person who had ever reached through the fortress of his solitude, this outsider, this man who had touched his heart. He asked for comfort in his sorrow. He asked God to look over Blair and keep him safe. He asked for a sign that would point the way to what was the right thing to do.
When he was finished, he said "amen" out loud. He was about to stand up when he felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. He turned and found Blair beside him. He had been so absorbed in his thoughts that he had not heard him come in. He gasped when he saw the young man, standing there utterly nude, free and natural, just the way he'd come into the world.
"I accept that you can't come with me," Blair said. "And we both know that I can't stay here. So I will leave in the morning just as we agreed. I'll go back to Cascade, start grad school, try not to be heartsick that you're not with me. But we still have this one night. Be with me. Please."
Jim hesitated. He couldn't help it. He had been taught all his life that what Blair wanted was wrong, for so many reasons.
"I know you want to, just as much I do. You're just fighting it. But there's nothing sinful about your body, Jim. I promise you. There's nothing wrong with your desire. No matter what they told you. I want you to love me, and I want to love you back. What could possibly be wrong with that?"
And then Jim knew that this was his sign, this beautiful, naked, beloved man trembling before him, eager to give himself in love. He was overwhelmed by his sense of how right this was, of how this was meant to be, as much a part of God's great design as the sky or the wind or the earth itself. He stood up and let Blair undress him. The young man pulled the nightshirt over his head and let it float to the floor. Jim was surprisingly unselfconscious, even though he had never been completely naked with another person, not even with Caroline, not during all their years of marriage. Their coupling had always been a little furtive, clothing discreetly pushed out of the way just long enough to go about their business, their unions always in the dark, under the covers. It had never been more than perfunctory, a duty they performed, in the hopes of having children someday, something they had both believed was pleasing in God's eyes, until even that wasn't enough to bring them together. After that, they had continued to sleep in the same bed, but they were careful never to touch, not even casually, not even in passing.
He pulled Blair against him, and every sense blossomed, grew luxurious and abundant, filled with the man in his arms. Blair leaned in and kissed him. It was lush and unruly and scorching, unlike any kiss he had ever experienced before. The only kisses he shared with his wife had been quick pecks, little brushes to her cheek. Blair opened his mouth, and Jim did the same. Their tongues touched, and the wet spark of excitement went straight to Jim's sex, hardening him. He could feel Blair's sex, also stiff, pressed into his hip. He ran his hands over the young man's back and cataloged all the sensations of their bodies moving against each other. There was nothing that felt sinful or unwholesome or wrong. It was all quite beautiful, in fact.
They touched and kissed until Blair finally pulled away. He reached out for Jim's hand and led him to the bed. They turned back the covers and lay down together. Blair kissed him again and then turned onto his side and pulled one leg up, to give Jim access to his tender parts. Jim felt both humbled and moved to receive this gift. It was so much more like a wedding night than the one he had shared with Caroline. He had felt so blank then, unprepared for the physical act, awkward and a little terrified. It had been nothing like this sweet urgency, this heated desire tempered with affection. He gently trailed his hand down Blair's back to the curve of his bottom. Blair was breathing hard and fast, and Jim could smell the deep, rich scent of his want. Jim reached between his cheeks and touched him gently in the private place there, the place where Jim would love him. He was surprised to find slickness.
"I got myself ready for you," Blair explained. "I have to be wet inside like a woman or it hurts."
Jim nodded. He reached around with his other hand to touch Blair's sex, which was hot and throbbing, already slick with its own juice.
"Can I, Blair?"
"Yes, Jim. Please. Take me."
He gently entered the young man, holding him, stroking his hair. Words welled up in him, the words he had never been able to speak to Caroline or anyone else. "I love you," he whispered.
Blair closed his eyes and whimpered. Jim began to move inside him, his strokes long and deep and slow, showing Blair with his body what he'd just told him. He moved his hand on Blair's sex, making the young man call out more urgently. They moved together in their pleasures, and Blair found the height of his joy first, his seed spurting over Jim's hand. That brought Jim to his completion, and he left his seed deep inside his beloved's body.
Afterwards, he pulled Blair into his arms and held him until he fell soundly asleep. When Jim was certain he wouldn't disturb him, he got up and pulled on a shirt and pants. He slipped silently down the stairs and out the door. The night was chill, but he hadn't bothered with his boots. He needed to feel the earth beneath his feet, the texture of this land that had been his compass, keeping his life on track, showing him who he was, for all of his adult life.
He walked the entire perimeter of his property and thought about everything. He remembered the first time he had ever seen this land. He was perhaps seven years old. His mother had walked him over here. They had stood in the south pasture, and she had spread her arms wide and told him that all this was his legacy, the fruit of his ancestor's labor, that someday it would be his to work, to care for. It would be his sacred responsibility.
As he walked the land, felt the cold, fertile ground beneath his feet, it was almost as if he could sense the spirit of those forebears lingering on in the soil. He could feel an answering part of him that was nourished, sustained by this place. He knew this land was so much more than property. He knew it was part of who the Ellisons and the MacDonalds were, and it could never belong to anyone else, at least not while he had any say in it.
And then he knew what he needed to do. With the decision made, he headed back to the house, to bed, to Blair.
The next morning, the house felt silent and ghostly without Blair. Jim wandered the rooms, trying to remember how he had lived before the young man came into his life. But when he looked around, he could find nothing of himself within the walls, everything strangely foreign, without meaning.
He had sent word to Stephen and asked him to come. When he heard the knock on the door, he found his brother waiting there.
"Good morning," Jim said.
"Good morning, brother," Stephen said.
"Please come in."
Jim moved to the side to allow Stephen to pass. His brother took off his hat and looked around curiously.
"I see your guest is gone," Stephen said.
"Yes. This morning. The police didn't need him to stay any longer."
"That's probably for the best."
Jim made no comment, but he did ask, "Why don't you come into the kitchen and have some coffee?"
Stephen looked surprised by the invitation. Their long-standing agreement, unspoken but perfectly clear, had been to give each other as wide a berth as possible. But Stephen would never give the impression of rudeness. He smiled and said, "Of course, brother. That would be nice."
Jim led him into the other room and motioned him to sit. He poured two cups of coffee and brought them over to the table, along with the milk pitcher, spoons, and the sugar bowl. Stephen prepared his coffee, light and sweet, the way he'd always liked it. Jim drank his black.
"It must be a relief to have that outsider gone. I'm sure you're relieved to have your home to yourself again."
"Things are back to the way they were before."
Stephen nodded, thinking this was agreement. "I've heard from Brother Anderson that the police have been unable to find any hint of who killed poor Ethan. I suppose we'll never know."
Jim nodded. "Yes, brother. It seems that your secret is safe."
Stephen flushed deeply. "What could you possibly mean by that?"
"I mean that no one else knows you murdered Ethan. Except for me, of course."
"How dare you!"
Jim reached into his pocket for the button and laid it on the table. "You were not as careful as you should have been, brother. I found this in the barn. I'm not the only one who will recognize the button from Father's coat. It's quite distinctive. It has blood on it. I'm sure there's far more blood on the jacket itself, if you haven't already burned it."
Stephen's reddened cheeks suddenly turned pale, and he went uncharacteristically silent.
"How much did he want?" Jim asked.
"I don't know what you mean," Stephen stubbornly denied.
"Caroline would have told Ethan. He was her only family, and they were always very close. He's the only one she could have confided in, the only one she could trust to keep her secret."
"You must stop talking in riddles, brother," Stephen said, his voice filled with bravado. But his eyes shifted nervously, and Jim could hear his thundering pulse, smell his cowardly fear.
"She told me on her death bed. I already knew I had not made her with child. I hadn't touched her for nearly a year when she told me there was to be a baby. It was only when she knew she was going to die that she told me who it was. I think she needed to clear her conscience."
Stephen stared at him, mouth open. "Jim, I"
Jim shook his head. "Don't. That's in the past now. I'd prefer to leave it there. But I suspect Ethan wasn't so willing to do that. His farm has been failing over the past few years, while you've steadily been growing more and more rich. How much did he want?"
"A lot. More than I was prepared to part with."
"So you killed him."
"It was an accident. We fought. I shoved him. He fell and hit his head on the metal plough. It killed him instantly."
"But you couldn't risk exposing your sin, so you fled and were willing to let Blair take the blame for your actions."
"There was no evidence. I never thought he would be convicted."
"And if he had been, I'm sure it would have kept you up at night," Jim said, sarcastically.
"Let's not get caught up in moralizing, shall we? Tell me what you want."
"I want you to buy this place from me for a fair price. The same amount the Wilkinsons were willing to pay for it. And I want you to keep it in the family, pass it along to your children."
Stephen's expression darkened. "You're going with him, aren't you? You have an unnatural attachment to that little drifter. I suspected as much all along, from your eagerness to have him here when you could barely be bothered to visit your own nieces and nephews. I know the imperfections of your nature too well, brother."
"I'll expect ten percent of the price in cash. A certified check will be fine. When I get settled, I'll contact you with the address you should send it to. I'll expect the balance within three months. I'll provide you with the bank's address where it should be transferred."
"I can't possibly"
"Of course, you can, and without much difficulty. We both know that. Let's not try bluffing one another, Stephen. We know too much about each other for any of the usual tricks to work. This arrangement is as beneficial to you, as it is to me. With this land added to what you already have, you'll be the most powerful man in the county, just as you've always wanted."
Stephen grew angry, and his voice rose. "At least, I care about my people. At least, I would never abandon them."
"I would have served this community with everything I have and everything I am if I had ever, once been given the chance. That's what I'm going to look for. A place where I can be of use."
"You realize that the life you're planning is perverted and sinful."
"No more so than adultery and murder, I imagine."
Stephen had the good grace at least to flinch, but the chink in his armor lasted only a moment. He got to his feet, put his hat on and straightened it carefully. "Send me the details, and I'll arrange for the money. But I'll take this." He reached for the button and pocketed it.
"That's fine, brother. But in case you get the idea that you can back out on our deal after I leave, that you can forgo the sale, withhold payment or sell the land off, I should tell you that Caroline kept a journal. In the end, she was a good woman, and her conscience plagued her terribly. She wrote down all the details of her guilt. I realize it's not the same as facing life in prison for murder, but somehow, I suspect you wouldn't adjust to a lifetime of shunning much better."
"I suppose you kept it purely to blackmail me."
"I kept it because it was my wife's journal, and even though our marriage was never exactly as it should have been, I did care about her and I missed her when she was gone."
"It's too bad you didn't express more of that caring before she went to her grave. Perhaps she would still be alive."
"Perhaps. But if you had been able to control your lust, she would definitely still be alive."
"Are you suggesting that I'm responsible for Caroline's death?"
"I'm not suggesting anything. You killed her. Not the way you killed her brother, but still, your misdeeds were responsible for her death."
"My conscience is clear where Caroline is concerned. I comforted her when she needed it. I gave her pleasure when she wanted a man's touch. Our time together was the only happiness she ever had."
"It's amazing how much you sound like Father sometimes, pompous and self-righteous, completely unable to examine your own actions for any wrong doing, but always willing to condemn others for even the slightest misstep."
"And what about you, brother? Getting ready to run away with your male harlot. They were always right about you, it seems. You are just like our mother."
"If that's so, then I thank God for his very great generosity."
Stephen set his jaw and headed stiffly for the door. He put his hand on the knob and turned around to say, "Good-bye, brother. I hope you won't think that you can come crawling back when things don't work out with your boy whore. After today, there will be nothing left for you here."
"I promise you, Stephen. My returning is the one thing you will never have to worry about."
Stephen pushed through the door, letting it bang shut after him. After he was gone, Jim circled through the house and gathered the few things he wanted to take with him. In addition to his clothes, there was also a framed photograph of his mother, his Bible, of course, and Caroline's journal, which he would destroy as soon as he was assured that Stephen would follow through on their bargain. All the anger and disappointment he had felt towards her had evaporated. He had decided to remember only the good times and her fine qualities, her strength, her quick smile, her determination. He wanted nothing to exist that could ever impugn her memory.
He packed all the items carefully into a sack and slung it over his shoulder. He walked out of the house and down the lane that led to the main road. He had given Blair money and sent him ahead to wait in town, just in case things didn't go as expected with Stephen. If there was trouble, he needed to know that Blair would be clear of it.
The thought of his young love put a bounce in his step, and he whistled cheerfully as he walked. He felt a sense of completeness that he could never before have imagined. Finally, all the empty years, all the aloneness, it all made sense. He had never been a part of any of this, not this community, not his marriage or his own family, because somehow he had always known that his other half was still out there in the world, waiting for him, coming to find him, someday. His solitude had, in fact, been part of God's larger design, to give him the patience he needed until Blair found him.
He praised God for his infinite wisdom.