Jack looked down at the floor a moment before looking back up into her confused face. "Looks like you could use a little more brandy in that cider," he said quickly. He moved to take the mug she still held from her hand. "I'll just...."
Angered, Lou slapped the mug from his hand. The pottery shattered against the wooden floorboards, splashing brandied cider everywhere. "I don't need more to drink! I don't want more to drink. Right now I want the truth--all of it!" she growled at him.
"And you'll get it as well as Kid, but not right now," Jack maintained, his jaw clenching stubbornly. "You're right, Kid is my son and he's entitled to hear the truth first." He sighed in weariness and rubbed the bridge of his nose where a headache had begun to form between his eyes. "Look, I did a lot of shady things in my past, Louise. A lot of them were for your father. He'd saved my life once and we were friends after that. I was the only one Richard Boggs was ever truly honest with, and that's including himself. He was a good friend to me for the most part and I thought that maybe I could help him, help him change and get out of the illegal stuff he was into. Turned out his desire for fast, easy money was stronger than our friendship."
The clock on the mantel began to chime out the hour, breaking the silent tension. Lou looked down at the mess on the floor, suddenly embarassed at her own actions. She bent down and started picking up shards of pottery. "I-I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I don't know what came over me yellin' at ya like some ol' shrew. Your past is your past and I ain't got a right to go nosin' around in it."
Jack knelt next to her and grabbed her active hands, stilling them. He raised her face to look at him and smiled. "It's been a hard night for everyone," he said, forgiveness in his eyes. "I promise you, Louise. That I will tell you and Kid everything very soon. For now, though, I want you to stay away from Towns any way you can. He's not particularly dangerous, but he can get pushy and he's got connections to people who are dangerous even way out here."
"I can take care of myself," Lou replied stubbornly.
"Just be careful. Looks can be decieving and in Towns' case they always are." He helped her to her feet easily, his strength belying his age. "Right now, I'd best get you home. My son's probably wakin' up half the town lookin' for you even as we speak."
Lou remembered the way he'd pulled away from her at dinner and shrugged. "I wouldn't count on it," she said morosely. "Seems like there's still things he'd rather keep to himself these days."
Jack chuckled as he crossed the room to get his jacket and a second
one for Louise. "Put this on," he comanded gently, helping her into
the jacket, "it's still a little brisk at night around here. I wouldn't
worry too much about Kid. He's got that stubborn Travis pride in
him. Thinks he oughta do everythin' on his own. If he's anything
like the rest of us Travis men, it only takes a good woman to bring it
outta him, to set him on his ear. I hear you're doin' a good job
of that. Now, let's get you home."
"You owe it to yourself to find out the truth, Kid," Lou'd insited that afternoon. "Things aren't always what they seem in this life. Maybe Jack had a reason for leaving. Like it or not, the man's the only father you'll ever have. For some reason, you've been given a chance to understand what happened all those years ago. You've been given a second chance! Maybe we owe it to our children for them to have at least one blood grandparent in their lives."
He didn't want Jack to have had a good reason. Kid wanted to be able to hate the man he'd tried so hard to forget. However, Lou's words haunted him. He couldn't help but think about how he'd shot and killed her own father. She was right--Jack was the only blood kin either of them had other than Lou's siblings. Kid wanted nothing more than to make Lou happy, but he couldn't forget the boy who'd prayed for so many nights that his father would return, who'd wondered why his father didn't love him enough to stay. Alone in his bed at night, he'd prayed to God that He'd reveal what it was that Kid had done to drive his father away. After a while, he'd stopped praying.
Events long forgotten cowded his thoughts and dreams ever since he'd realized Jack was in town. Not all of them were bad, however, and it was the good memories that haunted him. Kid remembered one particular Christmas better than the others. jack had been gone for several weeks working somewhere near D.C. on a wrangling job that was supposed to pay well. With the money, Kid's parents had planned on catching up on the mortgage payments on the farm. As Christmas Eve dawned, it hadn't looked like Jack was going to make it back for Christmas. Annie Travis had just shooed a four-year-old Kid and twelve-year-old Jed to bed when there was a knock on the door. There in the swirling snow stood Jack dressed from head to tow like Santa Claus. He told them later that he'd walked for almost three days from D.C. to make it home for Christmas. Instead of using the money on the mortgage, Jack Travis had extravagantly bought his family as many presents as he could. They'd all stayed up all night just talking, laughing, singing carols, and opening the gifts they'd received. There'd been no drinking that night, no yelling, no hitting.
After a while after Jack had left, the few happy memories Kid had of his father had become overshadowed by angry and bitter thoughts. Now, for some reason, though, he could remember those good times: fishing trips during their summers by the Chesapeake, Jack's calloused hands lifting Kid to his shoulders so the little boy could watch the Fourth of July horseraces, Jack's long lectures on how to tell good horseflesh. Closing his eyes tightly, Kid allowed himself to freely remember those good times for the first time in twelve years. His eyes were startled open by the sound of a familiar, low feminine laugh.
"...and that ol' donkey chased Kid down the aisle and out the side door of the church tryin' to get that carrot Jed stuck in his back pocket," Jack chuckled, finishing the story he'd been telling Louise. "Needless to say, Jed found himself cleaning that animal's stall for weeks." He looked up from Lou's face to see Kid standing slowly from his seat on the porch steps and heading over toward them, his hands in his pockets. Quickly, Jack disengaged her hand from the crook of his arm and nodded in his son's direction.
Lou looked over to see Kid approaching and stepped between the two men. "I don't want any trouble between you two tonight," she said firmly, her chin jutting stubbornly in the air. "Jack was just makin' sure I made it home alright. He didn't have to do it, ya know?"
Kid was so relieved to see her standing there safe and sound that even Jack's presence didn't bother him. He stepped closer and swept her into his tight embrace, holding her head to his shoulder. "Where've you been? I was so worried when you lit outta here like that," he murmured into her hair.
Between the start she'd had with Towns and finding out that Jack had known her father, Lou was more than happy to spend a few moments being cuddled and comforted. "I'm sorry," she whispered, pulling back a little as she remembered Jack still standing there watching them. "I had a slight run-in with a man named Towns who claims to be Boggs' lawyer. Jack helped me out."
Alarm went through Kid's mind and he cupped her face in his hands. "What?! What happened? Are you okay?" he asked sharply, his eyes raking over her for signs of injury.
"Apparently, he recognized Louise while she was out walking through town. When she refused to acknowledge she was Boggs' daughter, he got a little grabby. That's when I came by. He recognized me and decided not to brook anymore trouble." Jack avoided Lou's gaze as he slightly modified the tale. No sense getting Kid any more worried than he already was.
Kid looked down at Lou expectantly. "And?" he asked. "What did this lawyer fellow want with you? And where have you been in the meantime?"
"It shook me up a bit, so Jack took me to where he's stayin' so I could calm down," Lou volunteered. "He didn't exactly say what he wanted with me, but he did manage to tell me one thing." She stared hollowly out into the darkness a moment, her eyes focusing on nothing but the pitch-black night. "Seems Towns wanted to let me know that Boggs has left his blood money to me--all of it."
"Just happened to be in the neighborhood," the older man said shrugging.
Kid looked between the two of them for a few moments his anger at the man warring with the gratitude that he felt toward him for watching over the woman he loved. He knew by the way Lou refused to look him in the eye that she wasn't telling the whole truth--that the run-in had been more serious than she was letting on. Taking a deep breath and keeping his arm around Lou's slim shoulders, Kid cautiously stuck a hand out toward Jack. "Thanks...for watchin' out for her," he said softly. "Looks like I owe you one."
Jack looked at the unexpected gesture, surprised and moved beyond words. He took the hand and shook it firmly, gratified that Kid didn't pull away. "Don't worry about it Kid," he said huskily. "She's a beautiful girl and it was definitely my pleasure. You can do me a favor, though."
"What's that?" Kid asked unable to hide the suspicion in his voice.
"Keep your eyes open for Towns. He ain't particularly dangerous but trouble has a way of followin' him like ugly on an ape. I know that man and he can be pretty tricky when he wants to be, especially when he's working for a high payer. He's got some illegal connections even out here I'm sure and I'd hate for somethin' to happen to Louise."
"Trust me, no one'll get near this place she doesn't want around. In fact, a body's likely to get shot first especially with Jimmy around." The words were light, but the thoughts were heavy. When would trouble stop following them all? When would the two of them be able to live the simple life they craved? Looking at his father's serious face, something stirred in Kid's thoughts and his eyes narrowed slightly. "How exactly do you know Towns?" he asked Jack.
Jack smiled slightly and shook his head. "There's somethin' else you could do for me, Kid." He paused and waited for a protest. Receiving none, he decided to plunge on. "Humor a tired old man and let me take the two of you to dinner at the hotel tomorrow night."
Kid's eyes hardened a bit as he started closing himself off again. "I don't know if that's such a good idea...."
"After dinner, I'll tell you everything, everything that's happened over the last twelve years and more," Jack continued quickly. "You'll finally have all the answers to every question you've ever had and then some, Kid. As Louise reminded me tonight, I owe you at least that much."
Lou looked between the two men, her eyes wide as she realized how close they were to the truth. Her eyes met Kid's and she knew he could see the plea in her brown gaze. "Kid, please," she said softly. "It ain't just your past anymore. We're so close to the end, so close to the truth at last. It's time we cleared all this up."
The moment was now, Jack knew it as surely as the day he was born. Now was the moment he'd been waiting for. By helping Louise, Jack had earned his way past Kid's first line of defense. If he chose his words carefully, maybe he could paritally bridge the gap between himself and his only surviving son. "Kid, listen," he said softly, praying for the right words, "I know I can't undo what's been done. I can't change the past, I can't bring your Mama and Jed back even though I wish to God I could. I can't change your memories of me or your bitterness, only you can do that. All I know is that you are my son whether you acknowledge that or not and I will do anything in my power to be a part of your life in whatever way you'll let me."
For a moment, Kid saw himself as a scared little boy hiding under the covers at night, afraid to come out despite his parents' assurances that the monsters were all gone. He just couldn't quite make himself believe it was safe to let this man in. Kid sighed with a gesture of frustration. "Ya can't just show up outta the blue after twelve years and decide to play daddy, Jack. I'm not ten-years-old anymore! I'm twenty-two and I'm getting married in a couple weeks," he insisted.
"I know you're a grown man now, Kid. I ain't talkin' about bein' a daddy to ya, although if that's what ya wanted I'd be willin'. I'm talkin' about becoming friends, maybe. You're not the boy I left wavin' on the porch that mornin' so long ago and I'm not the man I was when I left." Jack paused for a moment and was met with silence. "I know we didn't get off to a good start, so let's start over. Let me clear the air between us. We can start off as strangers and take it from there. It's time...time that we brought the truth out to the light of day."
"Alright. Lou's got a run tomorrow but we'll meet you at the hotel, say seven?"
Jack and Lou looked at each other in shock, hardly able to believe Kid's soft reply. Jack grinned broadly and extended a hand to shake Kid's. "Seven is perfect. Gives me enough time to clean up so I don't look like such a mountain man," he said, winking at Louise. His soul sang praises at the sight of the ghost of a smile on Kid's face as Lou wrapped her arms around her fiance's waist in a hug. "Well, I'll let you two get settled in for the night." He tossed a jaunty salute to his son and cupped Lou's cheek affectionately before heading back toward town, his merry whistle left behind on the breeze.
As the young couple watched him leave, Lou quickly stretched up on her toes and placed a quick, impulsive kiss on his lips before nuzzling her cheek against his. "I'm so proud of you, Kid," she whispered huskily in his ear.
He smiled to himself and hugged her tighter, lowering his head to kiss her shoulder. Her words reinforced the small voice in his head that told him he'd done the right thing. And it hadn't been as scary as he'd thought it'd be. As Jack had spoken, Kid had seen how weary the years had made his father; the tenderness and guilt in the watery blue eyes, the gray strands flashing in the sandy hair and beard, and the rounded shoulders all bespoke of the changes in Jack Travis. His father was old, his mother had been dead for seven years almost and his older brother for one. Everything that had happened that day as well as the war threatening the horizon had had Kid thinking often about his priorities, about his family. What was family? And what happens when you realize that the parents you thought were divine are actually frail human beings with flaws and faults all their own?
Lou cupped his face in her hands, her fingers stroking through the soft sandy waves she loved. "Did you see how happy he was? How peaceful?" she asked him.
"So I did the right thing, huh?" he asked with a relieved smile. "I wasn't so sure I'd be able to do what was right this time."
"Oh, baby, what makes you think you've always gotta put what's right first all the time?" she soothed. "It's alright to be human sometimes. It's alright to be angry and bitter and doubtful. You don't always have to be so sure of yourself, you know? Not around me anyway." Lou nuzzled his nose tenderly. "So you had to go through a few layers to find out what was the right thing to do. Point is you found it and did it. Much as you drive me crazy with your black and white world, it's one of the things I love about you."
Kid blushed to the tips of his ears. She was right. His conscience told him plain and simple that he'd done the right thing in agreeing to give Jack a chance. There was a peace about his decision he'd been unprepared for and he smiled inwardly at the sense of rightness about the whole exchange. "Well, since you do have a run tomorrow, maybe we oughta head in for the night," he suggested. "We'll let the others know about this Towns fella and what he looks like so they can keep an eye out for 'im." He put his hands on her shoulders and gently steered her toward the bunkhouse where the other riders were readying themselves for bed.