Chapter 1

2605 Words
Chapter One As far as resting places went, this one didn’t suck. And when it stopped raining, the view from Johnny McCaslin’s final resting place overlooking the bay would be downright gorgeous. But that did nothing to alleviate the all-consuming ache in Sterling Walker’s chest. Or the guilt that he could have done something more. Anything, to save his friend. As if condemning him, a breeze kicked up, spraying an extra heavy gust of cold rain across his shoulders. In front of him, just under the shelter of the tent erected to cover the gravesite, little Sophie buried her head deeper into her mother’s embrace. How could Johnny do it? Leave the ladies he said he loved most behind? Sophie had been the apple of his eye. Or so he’d said. The spitting image of her mother’s red curls only with Johnny’s bright blue eyes. Eyes that when the last time Sterling saw them, had been cloudy and dull with pain. The Officer in Charge grunted a command and Sterling’s eyes snapped to the flag-draped coffin. It was time. Beside him, their other best friend, Jason Case rose to his feet, arm tight in a salute. As if pushing through mud, he stood too, bringing his hand to the edge of his cover. This wasn’t happening. Couldn’t be happening. The c***k of the rifles cutting through the rain told him otherwise. They’d survived Beast. c***k. They’d been part of the honor guard at Johnny and Macey’s wedding at the West Point chapel fresh out of school. c***k. Together, they’d survived countless missions, covered some of the worst territories in the world. Injuries. Fallen friends. The lonely muted trumpet sounding Taps pulled him out of the movie reel of memories. Johnny’d survived everything but being a civilian. Grief closed his throat. He couldn’t swallow. He couldn’t breathe. He wanted to scream. He wanted to pound the coffin. Tear it to pieces. Hell, he wanted to cry, but he wouldn’t dishonor Macey and Sophie with his tears. Not when they were standing so stoically in front of him. He swallowed the hot ache and breathed in slowly, dropping his hand as the last note faded into the wind. He slid a glance right to Jason. A muscle ticked above his jaw as the honor guard snapped the flag taut and began the intricate, slow process of folding it. They sat. In the distance a seagull cried, a mournful wail slicing through the steady rain. The OIC dropped to a knee in front of Macey. “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” Sophie leaned forward, placing a pudgy hand on the flag next to her mother’s. How could Johnny have left them? Left his little girl to grow up fatherless. Leaving Macey to go it alone? Anger stabbed through his grief. He and Jason had already made a pact. They were the girl’s godfathers, after all. They’d never abandon Sophie. And then it was over. The small gathering began to disburse. Jason nudged him before making his way down the chairs. Macey turned to them, eyes tired. “Are you sure you won’t come back to the house for dinner?” “Jason flies back tonight, and we need to catch the four p.m. ferry.” She nodded, clearly disappointed. “I understand.” “We’re only a phone call away if you need anything,” Jason said, wrapping an arm around her. “And we’ll always be here for Sophie. You know that, right?” Sterling crouched. “Uncle Sterling loves you, honey bear. I’ll skype you on Christmas, ’kay? You can show me what Santa brought.” She nodded solemnly and wrapped her arms around his neck. Grief washed over him. Johnny’d had everything and it hadn’t been enough. And his death hadn’t just ended one life, it had ended two others. “I love you, sweetie pie. I’m only ever a phone call away.” He kissed her soft cheek, damp from the rain. Standing, he pulled Macey into a hug. “That goes for you too. Whatever you need. Jason and I are here for you.” She nodded into his coat, covering a sniffle. Raising her head, she took a deep breath. “Thank you two for everything.” Her face crumpled, and inside, Sterling’s heart crumpled too. “I know it means a lot to Johnny that you came out. He loved the two of you.” “I know.” Sterling swallowed hard. He’d save his mourning for a bottle of scotch in his hotel room. Jason clapped him on the shoulder. “Ready?” He nodded. There was nothing left to say. The thirty-minute drive to the ferry terminal was silent but for the constant rhythm of the windshield wipers beating like a heart, a bitter reminder of their loss. As they pulled into line, Sterling turned to Jason. “I never thought Johnny’d become a statistic.” Jason let out a small laugh. “We’re all statistics.” “But he had the package. He had the girl and the kid. Everything we were fighting for. He had a nice life after he got out. And he destroyed them.” “Did you have any idea?” Jason pulled the car forward onto the ferry. “Me?” Sterling shook his head. “I knew he was tired. And he’d mentioned he and Macey were having a rough patch. That he felt like an a*s for dragging her down. Said he felt like he was at loose ends. But I didn’t think he was suicidal.” “Me either. I just talked to him right after Thanksgiving.” They made their way topside and found two seats by the windows. “Me too. He told me I should get out if I wasn’t happy. That it wasn’t worth being sad every day. Find what gives me peace.” “Damn. He told me the same thing. That I should quit the family business if I hated it so much.” Sterling’s stomach pitched. “Do you think we missed something? Like he was trying to tell us he had no peace?” “f**k, I don’t know. But I can say when I was at my lowest point at Walter Reed, I kept a lid on that shit.” “Why? I could tell you were low when I came to visit you.” Jason narrowed his eyes. “The last thing I wanted was a military shrink pumping me full of pills. I was already on enough meds from the surgery.” “But what kept you from doing it?” “Honestly? The fact that they didn’t allow sidearms in the hospital. You’d want to die too, if you lost everything I did.” “But your family…” “My family likes dressing me up in suits and parading me around to their friends. The injured warrior, home for good. The rest of the time, they want to pretend nothing ever happened.” Jason reached into his coat and pulled out a flask. Sterling accepted the offering and let the scotch burn down his throat. “You know what pisses me off the most? Why the hell didn’t Johnny tell us? At least let us try and help him? I mean, Jesus. Who kills themselves two weeks before Christmas?” “Would you?” “Ask for help?” Sterling shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t wanna find out. But I can tell you this much. Johnny is the reason why I’m never getting married. Look at Macey. She gave up everything for him, and he broke her. I’ve never seen her so devastated.” The mournful blast of the ferry interrupted them as the boat glided away from shore, slicing through the dark cold waters with purpose. “She grew up in an Army family. She knew what she was getting into when she married him.” “Sure, at first. But he was out. He was supposed to be normal. She wanted more kids, man. She’d waited all those tours. Endured all that worry. And he comes home, and two years later – blammo.” Sterling shook his head vehemently. “Hell, no. I’m not doing that to a woman.” Jason shrugged “But what if you fall in love?” “Love is for the weak.” “Don’t let Johnny hear you saying that.” Sterling looked skyward, raising the flask. “Hear that? I’m not following in your footsteps man.” His throat grew tight again, and he swallowed it down with another hit of the scotch. “You shouldn’t have left us. I’m never gonna do to a woman what you did to Macey.” His side pocket began to vibrate. Phone calls could wait until later. Until tomorrow. Or next week. Or whenever the hell he felt like talking again. “What’s next for you?” Jason asked after a moment. “f**k if I know. I just signed my separation papers first of the month. Figured I’d pop in on my folks at Christmas. Last Christmas I was overseas, and then all hell broke loose.” “At least they didn’t medically retire you.” “Bad enough. Transferring me to sit behind a desk all day, pushing paper. I’ll never go on another mission again.” He’d never forget the day his superiors came and told him he could no longer be a Ranger. Part of him died that day. “I get it. Mom and Dad won’t even let me get out in the vineyards anymore. They’re so afraid. Or embarrassed. Mom refuses to look at my leg.” Jason took the flask. “Come to California for a few days. It will do you some good. You can charm the pants off some local ladies. Go dancing. You’ve been cleared for dancing, right?” Sterling scraped a hand over his face. Jason was only trying to be funny, but it still cut. “Yeah. Just not jumping out of planes.” “That makes two of us. Think about it? There’s a bar 15 minutes down the road where they do line dancing on Thursday nights.” “In Napa?” “I swear. My family can fawn all over you for a change. Give me some peace.” “I wouldn’t want to be a burden.” Jason rolled his eyes and snorted. “You do remember I live on an estate? You can probably catch a seat on my flight. Or come for New Year’s. Make a fresh start.” A fresh start would be nice. Maybe the change of scenery would do him some good. “I’ll think about it.” Something buzzed against his cheek. He slapped it away. Damn mozzies. It buzzed again. How in the hell did a mosquito get into a plane twenty thousand feet in the air? He was next out, so it didn’t matter. But that couldn’t be a mosquito. There was a rhythm to the buzzing. And he wasn’t in a plane. He was spread eagle across his hotel room bed with his phone buzzing into his face. It was dark now. The clock showed nine-thirty. And the inside of his mouth felt like a stable floor. Fuck. The phone buzzed again. Goddammit. Why couldn’t everyone leave him alone? He punched the side button. “What?” he growled. But even to his own ears, he sounded more pathetic than fierce. “Sterling?” the voice said, surprised. “If your name’s not Johnny or Jason I don’t want to talk to you.” He might have slurred some of his words. “You okay, Sterling?” the voice asked sharply. In the foggy recesses of his brain, a lone synapse fired. “Travis?” “What the f**k, Sterling. Are you drunk?” It was definitely Travis Kincaid. “If you’re calling to rub my nose in the Army-Navy game, I really don’t want to talk to you.” “You don’t sound so good.” Grief swamped him again, and he rolled to his side, seeing the flag-covered casket float in front of him. “We buried Johnny this afternoon.” “Oh man.” Sterling was grateful for his silence. Because really, what could you say when one of the men you loved like your own flesh and blood was now six feet under in the cold hard ground? There were no words. Only hurt. After a minute, Travis spoke again. “You wanna talk about it?” “No. I need to get a f*****g life.” “The timing may suck, but maybe I can help. I’m looking for a foreman.” “Not interested.” “Will you hear me out?” Sterling sighed heavily, rubbing his head and trying to focus. It wasn’t Travis’s fault he was well on his way to oblivion. “You do realize I’m not a rancher?” “You worked on enough ranches as a teenager, you could figure this out. And you’re military. I want someone with a military background.” “What the hell for?” “I don’t know if you heard, but I’ve retired from law enforcement. Starting up the ranch again, renaming it Resolution Ranch. I want to help other vets.” That cut through his fog. “Hang on.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached for the water glass, downing the contents in one gulp. Giving himself a shake, he forced his eyes to focus. “Say more.” “We all go through the same things when we come home. We’re still focused on the mission. We make everything a mission. We forget that we have a say in how we live our lives. Over the last six months I’ve been working with Hope Sinclaire gentling mustangs.” “Wait. Hope Sinclaire?” he was pretty sure the only female Sinclaire he knew was an elusive blonde named Emma. “Used to be Hansen. Married Ben Sinclaire about a year ago. At any rate, working with the horses has helped me. Totally changed everything. I just got married too. Thanksgiving.” “No kidding.” Jesus. Was the whole world suddenly pairing off? Didn’t these fools know what they were getting into? “It’s amazing how things can fall into place when your focus changes. When you find your purpose.” He could hear the conviction in Travis’s voice. He hadn’t felt conviction toward anything since he’d been removed from the Rangers. He’d been floating like a leaf and every time he thought he’d land, a gust came a long and blew him some more. “Why me?” “You’re smart. You’re local – you know Prairie. You know the Flint Hills.” “Used to.” “They’re still the same.” Travis cleared his throat. “Your pictures still hang in the Trading Post, and people know and trust you here. And you’re Army. I want the ranch to serve all branches of service. Cassidy Grace recommended you.” “No kidding.” Cassie had gone straight into the service when he’d gone to West Point, but they’d all been in high school together. Sterling scrubbed a hand over his face, giving himself a little shake. “I don’t know, man. I always figured I’d left Prairie for good.” “I thought you Rangers were up for any kind of a challenge.” “Rangers lead the way.” Sterling raised the glass he still held. “So join me.” “No offense, but I want more in my life than mending fences and vaccinating cattle.” “You think ranching isn’t going to be exciting enough?” “It’s better than pushing paper. But, yeah. I want something I can sink my teeth into.” “How ’bout gentling wild mustangs?” Sterling sat up a little straighter. “What else?” “Building something from the ground up? Having a say in creating something that helps people just like us?” He liked that. If only he could have helped Johnny. Was this Johnny talking to him? Reaching across the grave and giving him a kick in the a*s? He might as well say yes. What else was he going to do? Line dance with pretty girls in Napa? He could do that just as easily at the Trading Post. “Are you sure you want me?” “Absolutely. I’m not considering anyone else.” Travis was one of those leaders you’d follow into the fray in a heartbeat, and it warmed Sterling that Travis wanted him. They’d only met a handful of times over the years, but he liked Travis. Respected him. In spite of their age difference, they’d forged a bond over their similar histories in the service. “If I said yes, what would that entail?” “First off, a 650-mile pack trip to Santa Fe with me and a few others on newly gentled mustangs.” “New Mexico?” Excitement sparked to life inside him. “But it’s the dead of winter.” “Sure as hell is.” “Why?” “Test ourselves. And the horses. You in?” “When do we leave?” “January 1st.”
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