Early September 1865
Zack Hank was bone-weary. He’d been traveling for six weeks. On horseback. From Virginia. Sometimes he’d slept on the ground, his gun in his hand, ready if he should be awakened by a wild animal intent on stealing his food or by a wild human intent on robbing his person.
Sometimes, he’d stayed for two or even three days in a cow town he happened to be passing through. On those occasions, he spent most of his time sleeping in a hotel room, his horse ensconced in a livery stable, both of them resting from the weariness of the road.
He’d been fortunate to find the mare somewhere in northern Kentucky and the treacherous journey they were making together, and his caring for the horse, had kept him somewhat safe from the insomnia of war.
He actually counted himself more than lucky to have found her. It was something akin to a miracle to him. He’d seen too many men start out on the long journey home after the war was officially over. And they’d all been on foot. In fact, having lost the horse he’d signed up to the cavalry with, Zack had started his own trek home on foot. Until the day he heard an uncommon thrashing sound in the woods and had left the road to investigate.
And there she’d been. A chestnut brown horse – skinny, with her ribs showing – caught in a forgotten booby-trap of criss-crossed ropes. A large hole nearby had the mare rolling her eyes, snorting, and foaming at the mouth.
She was a simple work animal, a quarter horse that had most likely wandered away from some abandoned farm somewhere. She’d been lucky that she didn’t go down into the hole when she’d stepped on the spring for the trap. It most likely would have broken her leg. As it was, she was terrified, flailing her head this way and that and trying to back as far away from the hole as the ropes securing her would allow.
Zack, using soothing words and moving slowly and softly, had been able to get the animal untangled. He’d thought she would bolt away immediately, but the mare seemed to understand that, if not for Zack, she would have expired in the woods, most likely the victim of wildcats. She had stood still, after her release, waiting for him to climb up and ride.
He’d fashioned a temporary bit and harness from some of the rope from the trap and in no time, they’d been on their way. And, while not the fastest animal, the mare was strong and patient, and willing to do whatever Zack asked her to do. So, Zack had named her Jenny, and had asked her to carry him on his journey back to Omaha in the Nebraska Territory. Back to his father’s ranch. Back to the place he’d lived from the age of 14 until he’d gone to fight in the war four years earlier.
Finally, the war was over, and slavery had been abolished. Now it was up to the newly mending nation to move on in search of a happier legacy. And to Zack, that meant getting home to his pa. Back to work on the ranch. Back to some sense of normalcy.
He looked out over the land. The gates of the Hank Ranch were just up ahead, about thirty yards. He felt himself sink down a little as exhaustion and relief nearly overtook him. He would sleep in his own bed that night after a good, filling meal, some whiskey, and some sparkling conversation with his father.
He couldn’t deny it; he’d missed the older man while he’d been away. Very much. They’d always had a close relationship, and over the last 10 years, it had been only the two of them.
After Zack’s mother had died, Bill had become so distraught he’d been unable to stay in his hometown of Lonewood, Missouri. He’d taken his then-14-year-old son up into the Nebraska territory and had claimed a large tract of land situated between the foothills and the river. A small tributary off the mighty Missouri ran right through Bill Hank’s land, making the acreage a smart and successful choice for a ranch. They’d worked hard, Zack and Bill, side by side, and together, they’d made the ranch something to be proud of.
But Zack had always thought he and his pa would go back to Missouri someday. Or maybe he’d wished it.
After all, most of Bill’s kin were there, sprinkled around the state. But maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe having lost his wife had caused Bill to close off from the rest of his family, as he had from his old friends like Malcolm Earhart. As the years had passed, Bill just seemed more and more content in Nebraska.
But four long years had gone by. The war and its horrors had affected just about every American citizen.
Zack couldn’t imagine that his father would be able to continue living as he’d been. Could the man really accept never seeing his brothers again? His own flesh and blood? Zack’s uncles were sure to want the two of them to come and help out on their own ranches. Surely now that the war was over and so much time had passed, Bill would be willing to go back to Lonewood.
It would be a good move to make. Zack still knew the area like the back of his hand. He knew the land and the people in Missouri, as did Bill. After years in Nebraska, Bill Hank had no good friends to speak of. He had no social life, just as he’d had none for the duration of Zack’s teenage years. But Missouri could pull Bill out of his melancholy. Zack was sure of it.
He knew that the other ranchers, here in the Nebraska territory, thought Bill to be an odd sort. As soon as Zack could save up a little money, the plan that made the most sense to him was to move on from this place. Back to Lonewood. And he wanted his father to go with him.
Presently, he came upon the house. It looked empty, but for a sole light in one of the downstairs rooms. He recalled that Bill needed lamplight to read even in the daytime. If he was outside, it was fine, but in the house, he’d always needed a lamp. The lamp looked to be in Bill’s study. Zack grinned. It would be good to see Pa again.
He passed the house and headed down toward the stables about 250 yards from the house. No one was about. He looked up at the sky and decided it was getting to be late in the afternoon. He supposed everyone must be out working the herds.
He started. He’d been so preoccupied with his thoughts that he hadn’t noticed the man standing on the long porch of the bunkhouse kitchen, which stood closer to the main house than the stables.
“Howdy.” Zack touched his McClellan army cap to greet the man and brought Jenny to a halt in front of him. He was a little taken aback. He didn’t know this man, or the one who stepped out of the shadows under the eaves of the porch. The men stood side by side, eyeing him.
Zack was confused. Who were they? And why did they look at him the way they did?
“Uh. I’m wondering if you can tell me where Luke, the cow boss, might be.”
The men glanced at each other. The one on the right spit.
“Uh, you mean Cody, isn’t that right? Cody Jackson?”
“No. I mean Luke. Luke Emerson.”
The men glanced at each other again and said nothing.
“I’m Zack Hank. Bill Hank’s son?” He was getting impatient.
“John Coleman,” the older man answered. “This here’s Jim.”
“Good to make y’all’s acquaintance.”
“Hold up. Did you say, Bill Hank?”
“Yes, I did. He’s my pa.” He leaned forward against the pommel of the saddle he’d purchased in the first cow town he’d stopped in after acquiring Jenny. “I was hoping to talk to Luke for a few minutes before I go up to the house.”
“There ain’t no Luke here, Mr. Hank. I told you, it’s Cody Jackson who’s the cow boss around here. Been that way since I got here about a year ago, now.”
“Y’all are pulling my leg, aren’t you? I get it now.” Zack laughed, throwing his head back and letting out a loud guffaw. He expected to see Luke Emerson walk out onto the porch when he heard the laughter. He glanced around, but no Luke appeared.
When he’d composed himself, Zack continued, “Y’all are funny.” He grew serious when no one came out from the kitchen, though. It seemed there might have been a lot of changes made around the ranch since he’d been away.
“So, you say that Bill is up at the house?” The two men looked at him in a way that made Zack believe they thought he was certifiable.
“I think you might want to go up to the house, Mr. Hank, and talk to Mr. Quincy. He’ll have all the information you need,” the first man, John, suggested.
“Yep.” The man spit again. “That’s right. Mr. Quincy Keeton.”
“Well, I’m much obliged. Thank y’all. I’ll just take my girl, here, down to the stables.”
Quincy Keeton. The name rang a bell but Zack couldn’t place it. He was tired. And hungry. He only wanted to see his father, take a bath, and have a good hot meal. He was so exhausted that he knew he wouldn’t be disturbed by the war dreams tonight. He looked forward to sinking his head down into a real feather pillow. Soon.
“Straight down this hill.”
“Thanks.” He touched his cap to the men.
“Don’t mention it.”
Zack continued down to the stables. What was going on? Zack could only figure that since so many of the men in the area had gone away to the war, his father must have hired transients and newcomers in their absence.
Still, it was odd that the men, Coleman and Jim at the bunkhouse kitchen, hadn’t shown any signs of recognition at the mention of Bill Hank’s name. Not really. Zack shrugged. Maybe they’d been hired by Luke. Or maybe not. According to the men, someone named Cody was the foreman at present.
Zack went to the stable first and found a boy of about 12 years old there, acting as a groom.
“Timmy’s the name, sir. I’ll have your girl here ready for anything in no time. I’ll rub her down and put her out to graze a little soon as I have the saddle off her.”
The boy had come outside the barn when Zack had ridden up to the building. He very nearly began leading the horse away before Zack was even dismounted. Zack chuckled. The boy couldn’t be accused of any sort of slacking around. He patted Jenny, told her he’d come and see her in the morning, and headed back toward the house. He looked up to where it sat on the top of the hill. He swallowed hard and walked up to the back door.
The place looked the same as it had the last time he’d seen it, but all kinds of thoughts swirled here and there in his brain that caused him to feel that everything was different. He couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong. When he looked up at the house again, the feeling increased.
He didn’t see Bill anywhere – and there on the back porch, whitehaired and clad in dungarees and a work shirt, stood someone else. Someone else entirely.
Zack continued on, wincing inwardly at the sound of his boots crunching on the dirt of the path. A hawk, far out over the prairie, swooped down to the earth then climbed back into the sky again, looping and gliding. He kept to the path, his eyes on the man who seemed to be waiting for him.
The man had stepped down off the back porch and stood at the end of the garden path. His hands rested in his pockets; his eyes squinted against the bright sun.
“Howdy,” Zack said as he approached the man. “Zack Hank. This is my pa’s place. Happen to know where he is?”
“Hello, Zack. My name is Quincy.” The man hesitated for a moment. “Quincy Keeton.” He extended his hand. “I was a friend of your father’s. He and I knew each other when we were boys in Missouri. We go way back.”
“Oh, yes. Mr. Keeton. They told me down at the bunkhouse you were here. Forgive me. I remember you now; Pa always spoke so highly of you. My mama did, too. Y’all kept up a correspondence as adults, isn’t that right?”
“Yes, it is. We did correspond for many years.” Keeton dropped his eyes from Zack’s and looked to the side. He spat.
“Thing is, Zack…” He narrowed his eyes. “Your pa, well, he was always the kind of friend a man is blessed to have. You don’t come across many like him in a lifetime, that’s for sure.”
Zack nodded. A strange sense of anxiety started within him. As he stood there, under the hot sun, he felt the sweat from his neck trickle down his back, between his shoulder blades. Something was wrong.
“The thing is, son, I was in a bad way a few years back. I lost my Emma after 30 blessed years together. It’s been almost two years now I’ve been on my lonesome.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Keeton. I hope you’re getting on all right. As well as can be expected, after a loss such as that.”
“Hmm. Yes, I am. Thank you. I’m doing okay, but that’s only thanks to your pa. I was in such a bad way, Bill invited me up here to stay for a spell. There was nothing left for me in Tennessee, you must understand. I’d written to Bill telling him what had happened with Emma’s final illness. Wouldn’t you know it, but he wrote to me and told me to hightail it up here.” He chuckled. “So, that’s what I did. As it turned out it was a good move… for both of us.”
“This must have all taken place right after my last visit. I was here was about two years ago.”
“Yep. It was right after the 1863 New Year’s holiday when I got here. January third. I believe you had a furlough that Christmas, isn’t that right? Your pa, he was still basking in the revelry of your visit. He said you’d had three days here. It was like a tonic to him, I’ll tell you that much.”
Zack smiled a soft smile. “Yes, that’s right. It was Christmas. It seems so long ago now, yet it’s been less than three years.” He looked beyond Keeton at the house. His eyes scanned the upstairs windows.
“Where does the time go?”
“That’s a question that has no answer, son.”
“Well, it’s been good getting caught up, Mr. Keeton. But I’d like to go inside and see my pa. I’m surprised he hasn’t come out already. He must hear our voices, or has his deafness increased?
“I haven’t had a word from him but for one letter about two months after I’d gone back to the army. The letter found me in late March ‘63. He’d written it before you’d come here, dated it New Year’s day. You say you arrived on the third? Is that right?”
“Yep. That’s right.”
“So that’s why I didn’t know about all the changes that were taking place here. It looks like things have changed a lot. I look forward to hearing about it all.
“Other than that last letter from Pa, I heard nothing more from him. My unit moved around so much, I daresay the mail couldn’t keep up with us. I know Pa must have written many that didn’t reach me.” He shook his head and grinned. “So much for the U.S. Post!”
“Uh, Zack, there’s something I have to tell you. Before we talk any further.”
The grin faded from Zack’s face. Quincy looked serious. Very serious. The
peculiar feeling in Zack’s gut started up again. This couldn’t be good. Whatever Quincy had to tell him, it seemed the old man didn’t want to share it.
“Sit down, Zack.” Quincy took a seat on the step.
Zack was mildly frustrated. Why was this taking so long? Why didn’t Quincy just tell him where Bill was at?
Maybe he should just go inside. He’d seen the light in the study. Surely, Bill was in there, going over accounts or reading his Bible. Zack sat down on the step next to Quincy, waiting for the man to speak again.
“Uh, it’s about your pa. I’m sorry, Zack. I’m so, so sorry to be the one to tell you this. To give you this information.”
Zack felt his stomach tighten. “What information is that, Quincy? What do you have to tell me about my pa before I see him? Is he ill?” Zack prayed it was true. If Bill was sick, he would get better.
Zack couldn’t allow himself to imagine any other scenario. Not with the way Quincy was acting. The man was nervous. And he was nervous about what he needed to tell Zack. Zack felt it.
Quincy sighed. “When I came here in early ‘63, the ranch was doing poorly. Very poorly. Your father had debts. He was tired. He wanted out of the cattle business. I was in the frame of mind to start in on a big project, to quell my grief over Emma. So, your pa and I struck a bargain.”
Zack’s mind went back in time. He couldn’t recall anything that had been wrong during his last visit. He didn’t know what Quincy could be talking about.
“I had no idea the ranch was in trouble, that there were outstanding debts. I thought everything was just fine. Everything looked in working order to me when I was here last time.”
“That’s because your pa wanted you to think everything was fine. He told me that he didn’t want you worrying about anything on the ranch while you were supposed to be staying alive wherever the army had you. When he got no letters back from you, I believe he started to worry that you’d been captured or worse. He didn’t talk about it, but the light in his eyes grew dimmer each day.”
“Please, Mr. Keeton… Quincy, you must excuse me. I’m feeling the need to see my pa more than ever. I’ve missed him. I want to make up for lost time. Surely, you can tell me all the facts about what happened here after I see him.
“I can gather from what you’ve said that he’s ill. Or worse, that he’s hurt himself out on the ranch. He, most likely, can’t work. Is that it? You and I can talk later, but right now, please tell me how bad it is so I can prepare myself before I see him.”
Zack held his breath, praying that he was wrong. Praying that Bill was fine and well, and that Quincy would call him a crepe-hanger and laugh and slap him on the back of the shoulders saying, “Come on in the house… your father is in his study.”
But instead, Quincy placed his hand on Zack’s arm. “Come with me, son.”
He led Zack from the back of the house and up a short bluff about a half-mile behind the building.
Zack knew where they were headed. On the bluff was the family graveyard, which held the remains of the original inhabitants of the house. The tiny cemetery housed the graves of the former inhabitants of the ranch, loved and trusted ranch hands, and two or three passersby whose journey had come to an end on the ranch. There were stones showing the names of two generations of Thompsons, a few that bore only given Christian names, and one new stone – a stone that bore the name William Hank, followed by the date of his death a little over a year before.
Quincy patted Zack on the back and turned toward the house.
“I’m sorry, son. Take as long as you need to. Come back down when you’re ready.”
Zack nodded once and said nothing. When he sensed that the older man was gone, he fell to his knees and stared at the simple rectangular stone. Quincy must have taken care of all the arrangements. Thank God. If Quincy hadn’t been on the ranch, there was no telling who would have taken care of things.
“Oh, Pa. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I missed seeing you again.” Tears came to Zack’s eyes and he wiped them away with his hands. It had been such a long four years. “I’m so sorry you’re not next to Mama in Missouri.”
He leaned his forehead against the stone. “What happened, Pa? What happened to the ranch? What happened to you? Did you finally give in to your broken heart? Is that what it was? Your unhappiness and missing Mama finally got the better of you, isn’t that right?” He wiped his eyes again.
“I wasn’t here for you. Oh, Pa. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was so far away and you had to handle everything here all by yourself. The only happy time I’ve had in the last three years was when I visited you that last time.
When I came home for Christmas, Pa. We had such a fine holiday.”
Of course, back then, they’d all thought the war would end soon. Zack and the other members of the First Nebraska Volunteers had no idea, none of them, that there would be more than another two years of the trauma they’d been living in on a daily basis.
His mind went back over it. The battles, the disease, the lice, the blood and bone and guts and brains that had littered the ground around him. The smoke and the fear, and the smell of death which hung in the air at all times. The sharp pops of gunfire and the rumble of the cannon. It had been a living nightmare. Zack shook his head to send the awful images on their way and placed his hands on the top of the gravestone to keep his balance.
There was nothing to do about Pa. He was gone, and Zack realized in that heart-wrenching moment that he was now all alone in the world. Completely and utterly alone. He had no job, no home. No family. It was too much to think about. He’d expected to be sitting in Pa’s study by now, enjoying a stiff whiskey and hearing his father’s voice. Not for a moment had he foreseen that his previous visit had been the last time he would lay eyes on Pa in this life. He would never have thought to find himself here, brought to his knees, in front of Bill Hank’s grave.
Slowly, he leaned onto the stone, using it for leverage, and pushed himself to his feet. He was exhausted in body and soul. He needed sleep. And food. Blindly, he made his way down the bluff and back to the house.
Quincy was in the vegetable garden, weeding. He raised his arm to Zack and waved.
“You must be hungry, son. Why don’t you come into the house? The housekeeper will make something for you to eat. You’ve had quite a shock.” He stood and clapped the dirt from his hands.
“I can wait till supper. I don’t want anybody fussing on my account.” Zack looked out over the horizon. He reckoned it should be getting about suppertime, but the big appetite he’d had when he’d gotten to the ranch had waned significantly. He could wait.
“Well, at least have some sweet tea, then. We generally eat in about an hour. Six o’clock. Go on up and have a seat on the back porch.” Quincy gestured toward a couple of chairs that rested there. “I’ll be up in a minute.”
Zack nodded and headed for the porch steps. He sat in the chair that looked the least used. That way, he could be sure he wasn’t taking Quincy’s seat. Leaning back, he closed his eyes. It felt good to sit in a real chair. He’d been on horseback for more than a week, for over 10 hours each day. The last time he’d stayed in a hotel had been when he’d been down in Kansas City before the last leg of his trip home.
He sighed and looked around. The place looked good, at least. Quincy had certainly made some changes, but all good ones. The house had been painted recently. It was still white clapboard, but it looked sharp and clean, not peeling and shoddy the way it had been when Zack had last visited. The vegetable garden was thriving, and he could see the orchard beyond that. The trees were heavy with apples that promised wassail and hard cider for the winter holidays.
The stomping of Quincy’s boots on the ground before he mounted the steps brought Zack out of his thoughts. The man walked up onto the porch and took a seat in his chair.
“Tell me if you would, Quincy, how did my father die?”
Quincy sighed. “It was sudden. He hadn’t been feeling all that well for a few days. But you know your father. He insisted on working and not resting. Sometime during the third night, he passed. The doctor said it could have been a stroke. Your father was always very strong, physically, but when your mother passed… well, I think you know that story.”
“Yep. He just never got over it. He went so far inside of himself for a while that I thought I might lose him. But the ten years he lived and worked here – six in which I was with him – did him good, I thought. This ranch, I believe, gave him a new lease on life.
“As for me, I didn’t want to leave Missouri, you know. I was just a kid. I missed my friends but, sometime around the time I turned 16, I realized that I would never miss my friends as much as Pa missed Mama.
After that, it was easier for me to be here, because I saw my father come out of himself a little. I don’t know if he was ever actually happy again, but at least he regained a pretty good interest in life.”
“You know, Zack, as proud as he was of you for joining the volunteers, he missed you something awful. He worried about you. Many nights, I would hear him conversing with God in the privacy of his study. He would have found today to be one of the best in his life. He would have been so grateful to have you back.
Safe and sound.
“And another thing. I’ve often thought it to be a blessing in disguise that your pa didn’t wither away to a slow, mortal illness. If he’d known he was going to die, he’d have worried so much about how to take care of you. He would have wanted to be sure you would be provided for when you came home.”
“Hmph.” Zack folded his hands in his lap. “You knew him well, Quincy.”
The screen door opened and a pleasant looking middle-aged woman came out of the kitchen. She carried two glasses of tea and handed one to each man.
“Oonagh, I’d like you to meet Zack Hank. He’s Bill’s son.”
“I’m terribly sorry for the loss of your dear father.” The woman looked at him with soft eyes that held empathy but no pity. Zack liked her honesty.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Zack took a sip of tea and the woman returned inside.
“Oonagh was your pa’s housekeeper. She came on just after I moved in here. Clara, you remember her?
Well, she got married. Her husband moved her out to San Francisco. Oonagh trained with her for three days and keeps the house spotless, just as Clara did. She does all our baking and cooking here, in the house.
We have Jim Baker and Johnny Coleman down at the bunkhouse doing the cooking, baking, and laundry for the hands. Since your pa was the one who set up the way things are done around here, the switch from Clara to Oonagh went very smoothly – I kept everything just the same as he’d always kept it. Why mess with it if it doesn’t need messing with, see? Your pa was happy about that. And other than the glaring void left by his not being with us, things have been pretty good around here. Many of the faces have changed, but I think you’ll see it’s not all that different from what it was. And we’re making a profit.”
“That’s all good to know. But I want to be clear, Mr. Keeton…”
“Please. Call me Quincy.” The older gentleman smiled once again.
“Excuse me, Quincy, is everyone on the place new?”
“No. Some of the old boys stayed, but to be honest, your pa was losing hands for over a year before I got here. And not all to the war effort. Some went off looking for better work. Others headed out to California.
After I bought the place, Bill was able to see things start to turn around. New men came our way. Bill began making plans for when you came back.”
“Hmph.” Zack shrugged again. He wondered what his Pa had been planning. He had to make do with the knowledge that he’d never know.
“I know this is all a shock, Zack. I don’t know how I’d handle a situation like you’re in. To be away at war and finally come home, able-bodied and sane, only to find your home sold and your father dead. I’m so sorry. I wish things were different.”
Zack smiled sadly. “There’s no need for you to be sorry. I’m glad Pa saw the ranch turn around and begin profiting. I’m glad you gave him that opportunity.”
Quincy dropped his chin. His eyes were unwavering. “I want you to know you can stay here as long as you need or want to, Zack. One of the conditions of the sale of the ranch was that your room would be kept ready for you when you came back. It’s something I would have done anyway, but I want you to know that your pa took every precaution to be sure that you would have work and a place to stay when you were home. Most of the money from the sale of the place was used to pay off Bill’s substantial debts, but I have $100 for you, in gold, from the sale. And, of course, anything belonging to your father is yours. I’ve already boxed up some of it. Once you’re settled down here, you’ll want to go through everything.”
“Uh, it’s probably better to leave whatever’s boxed up that way.”
“Well, I can send them to you at your new place of employment. Or you can leave Bill’s things here. I’ll hold everything for you for as long as you need. Whatever works best for you is what I’m aiming for.
“I might own Hank Ranch now, but it will always be your home, Zack. You’re welcome here anytime. I want you to know that. You can come visit or stay and work.”
“I’m much obliged to you, Quincy. It’s good of you to honor Pa’s wishes the way you have. It’s generous, as well, but to be honest, Nebraska is not and never was my home. I was here because I didn’t want to leave Pa alone, though when the war started and they asked for volunteers, I couldn’t say no. I had to go away to fight; I felt it was my duty.”
“As I said before, your pa was about as proud of you as I’ve ever seen a man be proud of his son. All he really wanted was for you to come home safe and sound.”
“Well, here I am.” He grinned. “To begin with, I won’t be needing my old room. I appreciate you keeping it ready for me, though. And I’d like to take you up on your offer of work. But I’ll stay in the bunkhouse with the other boys, if you don’t mind. I’m just staying for the work, after all. This was never really my home, Quincy. The Hank Ranch belongs to you.”
“You’re the son of my good friend. I can’t let you be treated like the other ranch hands.”
“I’ll be all right in the bunkhouse. No one else needs to know anything more about me.”
Quincy chuckled. “The gossip has spread like wildfire, I’m sure. You know how it is.”
I do. But, honestly, in spite of my history here on the ranch, I’m a newcomer as far as most of the men will be concerned. If I’m going to work the herds alongside them, then I should be living, eating, and sleeping in the same places as they do.”
“I see. Well, all right, then. You have a point. I want you to do whatever keeps your mind at ease, Zack. Whatever keeps your mind at ease. So, I take it you’re planning on eating supper with the men, then?”
“Yes. I might as well start things off on the right foot. I don’t want to make any waves or cause any friction.”
“Okay, then. Let me take you down to the bunkhouse to meet everyone.”
“Uh, no. Thank you, but that’s not necessary. I’ve eaten in the bunkhouse kitchen so many times, I know how it all works. I’ll head down there just the same as any new hand would do but, thanks to you, I have more information to start out with.”
“Okay. You’ll find they’re a good bunch. You won’t have any problems.”
Zack finished his sweet tea and stood. Quincy joined him and the two shook hands.
“Thanks for everything, Quincy. You don’t know how much I appreciate you taking me on like this. I realize I barged in on you.”
“Hogwash. You didn’t barge in on anybody. I’ve actually been on the lookout for you since we heard the news about the surrender. Besides, I would never let my dear friend’s son have any less than his choice around here, Zack. I want you to know you’re very welcome. Whatever you decide to do – be it stay or go, or go and come back, or whatever you decide – I want you to know I’m with you. You will always be welcome here as a ranch hand or as a guest. Please hold that thought with you wherever you are. Wherever life might take you.”
“That’s a kind offer, Quincy. I won’t forget it, and I thank you for it. Now, I’ll be on my way down to the bunk kitchen. Tomorrow will most likely be a long day of seeing where I fit in around here.” He grinned to hide his anxiety about it all. He knew cowhands were generally welcoming. When they were out watching the herds, they relied on each other. Trust was vital. But, after four years away, Zack knew he’d be rusty.
While he’d been an excellent cowboy, time off whittled away at skills like roping and herding.
Now, here he was in the place he’d spent six years of his life. Where he had lived before he’d gone away to four years of fighting for his country. Four long years in which the only thing he had to do with cattle was to eat the salted beef rations the army had given him. Except for the brief visit he’d enjoyed during the Christmas of ‘62, he’d been away from home for the duration of the war. He stopped and turned back to look at the house again. Quincy waved from the porch and Zack waved back. He felt no closer to home than when he’d been in Tennessee. He hurried the rest of the way down to the bunkhouse.
The men and boys were coming in from working out on the grasslands. They were laughing and Zack had no doubt they’d be positively boisterous, but for the fact that they’d all been in the saddle since dawn. It had been a good day of work and the men were ready to eat, maybe play a few games of cards, have a nip of whiskey, and get to bed. They would all be up before the sun the next day.
Zack stepped up on the porch and shuffled through the door of the kitchen along with the rest. The man he’d spoken to earlier, John Coleman, had turned out to be the cook. The other man was his helper, Jim. Johnny stood at the front of the room as the men took their seats at the long table in the middle.
“Ahem. Boys, we have a new hand. What did you say your name was, son?”
“Zack.” He looked around the room, nodding to each man who spoke his own name in response. He didn’t mention his last name, or that his father used to own the ranch. He could see it wouldn’t matter, anyhow, and might even make some of the men feel he was putting himself above them. Otherwise, he knew, Johnny would have mentioned the facts when he’d introduced him. The fact that he hadn’t spoke volumes to Zack: one aspect of which was that the men already knew who he was. They already knew he was the son of Bill Hank’s, the ranch’s former owner.
He found himself faced directly with the need to get acquainted with all the men on an equal footing. There was no one at the table that he knew. So, as far as anyone could be concerned, he was just another wandering cowpoke looking for work. But he knew that wasn’t the case at all.
The men said grace and then big platters and bowls of food were handed around. There was a giant dish stacked with biscuits and two huge pots of beef stew, chunky with potatoes, carrots, celery, onions and big tender pieces of meat that had been cooked all day.
Zack’s mouth watered and his stomach rumbled. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday. It seemed he’d been hungry every day of the last four years, except when he’d eaten in the hotel restaurants he’d visited on his journey to Nebraska. He wolfed the food down and reached for seconds, certain it was the best meal he’d ever had.
“I was with the 162nd Ohio. I arrived here on my way to California and decided to stay a spell,” said an amiable looking man about Zack’s own age of 24, sitting down on the bench next to him.
“That so?” Zack continued munching his food. He had no desire to reminisce about the war.
“Name’s Patterson. Hiram Patterson.” The man, seeming to realize that Zack didn’t want to talk about the fighting, stopped talking and extended his hand, instead.
Zack took it. “Good to meet you, Hiram.”
“That McClellan cap ain’t going to do you no good out on the grasslands tomorrow.”
“Yeah, well, it’s all I got.”
“I have an extra hat. My sweetheart in Kansas City gave me this here one.” He pointed to the peg on the wall. “She bought it with money she made as a dancer. She’s a hurdy-gurdy girl in a saloon down there. I was going to send for her when I got to California, but now I’ll just go back and get her when I leave here.
Or I’ll bring her up to Omaha.” He grinned. “Either way, she’s going to be Mrs. Patterson.” The grin vanished from his face. “I mean, the second Mrs. Patterson. I mean no disrespect to my poor first wife. I loved her very much. She died in the child bed, along with our baby. That was two years ago. Then, six months ago, I met my new love, Aidy. She sure has healed my broken heart, I’ll tell you that much. I’d envisioned a lonely life and old age, but God saw fit to bless a poor sinner like me!”
Zack, though he was very tired, could tell that Hiram, in his way, was trying to befriend him. He kept his face pleasant but was unsure of how to respond to Hiram’s story. Maybe the man just needed to talk.
Maybe it was an anniversary of an unhappy event that had gotten him talking. Maybe he was lonely, in spite of his sweet Aidy in Kansas City.
“Anyway, Zack, what I’m saying is you’re welcome to my extra hat. It’s pretty beat up, but it’ll keep the sun out of your eyes and off most of your face. You can pull a neckerchief up to cover the lower half.”
“Thank you, Hiram. I’m much obliged.” Zack didn’t have the heart to tell the man that he knew all about neckerchiefs – he was a seasoned ranch hand, albeit one without a proper hat.
“Make no mention of it. When you get into the bunkhouse, you’ll see my bunk. It has a patchwork quilt that my Aidy sewed herself. Twelve stitches to the inch. Can you imagine? My girl should be a seamstress, if I do say so myself. Anyway, the hat is on the hook above my bunk.” He tilted his head side to side, as if to examine the size of Zack’s head. “Yep. It should just about fit you.”
“I appreciate it, Hiram. Very much.”
“Aww, don’t mention it. Somebody would’ve given you a hat, as a welcome if nothing else. I was just the first to talk to you.” Hiram grinned.
Zack grinned back. He liked Hiram.
The other men talked amongst themselves in small groups. Zack conversed sparsely. When he was finished eating, he said goodnight to Hiram, nodded to everyone else, and stepped out the back door of the kitchen. Johnny had told him he was excused. Tomorrow, he would be on the kitchen schedule and know what his chore would be for after supper. For now, he was headed over to the bunkhouse to snag Hiram’s extra hat and to find an unused bunk.
He smirked when he entered the huge room. He’d been there many times, but he’d never slept there. He walked down the middle of the room, looking right and left for a free bed and for the colorful quilt that would single out Hiram’s bunk. Once he found it, he saw the hat. He stepped around the side of the bed and lifted the hat from the peg it rested on. He replaced it with his cap and set the new-old Stetson on his head. It fit perfectly.
He continued on to the back of the building. At the end of the two rows of bunks were two set against the back wall of the room, divided by the wide aisle in the middle.
Each bunk had a small trunk at the foot of it for clothes and possessions. And there were pegs on the walls for jackets and hats.
He chose the one on his left, taking out his knife and cutting the heavy twine that held the thin mattress together. The thing flopped open across the ropes stretched over the narrow bed frame. This was quite a bit different than how he’d envisioned spending his slumber tonight. The big four-poster up in his old room with the feather tick was not to be. He sighed and looked around for the closet that held sheets and towels.
He’d spent much time in the bunkhouse kitchen in the past. In fact, he’d often eaten with the hands when they’d all come in from work for the day. But things had been very different back then. He had been the ranch boss’ son and, as such, was a boss himself. Bosses, like Cody the new foreman, kept to themselves more often than not. He noticed Cody didn’t eat with the men. It was a delicate balance, working alongside the men who worked for you. You just couldn’t get too close.
Now, Zack was not the ranch owner’s son. He was nothing more than a ranch hand like everybody else. Although he was a ranch hand taking whatever charity Quincy Keeton would extend to him.
But he’d made the choice to put physical distance between himself and his pa’s old friend by staying in the bunkhouse. He had to fit in with the other men. He had to be one of them – no better, no worse. He reckoned that would make things easier when the time came for him to move on. He wouldn’t act better than the others, but he would keep as much distance as he logically could.
He opened the narrow doors along the walls until he came to a closet that held sheets. He took one and continued to the next. A blanket was retrieved from another closet, and a pillow from yet another.
He threw the sheet over the bed without bothering to tuck it under, then sat on the edge of the mattress and kicked off his boots. His new hat was hung on one of the wall pegs. The footlocker held some personal items he’d been traveling with, which he’d thrown inside the trunk. He didn’t have much.
Without undressing, he fell back against the bare pillow and studied the way the moonlight from the window above his bunk washed across the wall. Unbidden thoughts of Coralie Earhart came to his mind. He knew there’d been fighting in Missouri, though he’d seen none of it. He wondered how everybody in Lonewood was getting on. Suddenly, he bolted up to a sitting position. That was it! The answer to his unspoken question. Missouri! He’d write to his old friend Cullen Earhart, Coralie’s brother.
He got up and knelt down, rummaging through the small trunk at the foot of the bed. He knew he had a sheet of clean paper in with his things.
“Captivated by Her Loving Gaze” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
While Coralie Earhart is getting ready for her wedding, second thoughts keep troubling her. In the midst of the never-ending quest to please her mother-in-law, Coralie will come to the conclusion that she’s not in love with her fiance. At least, not in the way that a wife should love her husband. Will she manage to set her feelings in order? When she’s feeling truly lost, how could an old friend help her see clearly what she actually needs?
Zack Hank has been in love with Coralie since he’s been a young boy, and he hopes to rekindle their close friendship when he returns to the Earhart ranch after a 10-year absence. Finding Coralie engaged to another man, he has no choice but to emotionally pull away from her. Will he express his feelings before it is too late? When a dark secret is revealed, threatening Coralie’s life, will he be there for her?
When Coralie and Zack see each other, time stops and they feel like everything else fades away. Nevertheless, life gives them a hard time, as their relationship has come to an end before it could even start. Is Coralie brave enough to stand up to her family’s will and choose her own path? Is their relationship stronger than fate?
“Captivated by Her Loving Gaze” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.