The light of day was beginning to wane and, with it, the strength from Alexander Scott's arms and back. He had spent the entire afternoon re-digging Harry Miller's irrigation ditches and weariness lay heavy on him. The physical labor itself was only a minor portion of the weight pressing down on his shoulders. Much of it was due to the continual worries playing on and on in his mind. He and his partner, Kelly Robinson, were in trouble and it was trouble of the worst sort. And this was one time where Scotty didn't know if Kelly could back him.
Scotty finished the last of the main drainage ditches and came to a grateful stop, resting heavily on his shovel, sweat dripping off him. Worry gnawed at his innards, his thoughts cascading in ever widening patterns. First, there was the frightening realization that the saboteurs he and Kelly had so barely evaded were hot on their trail and would have no hesitation in killing them should they be found. Second, and more frighteningly personal a worry for Scotty than even the threat of the killers, was his ever-increasing concern for Kelly. His partner had suffered extensively at the hands of his captors and Scotty had very nearly failed in his rescue attempt. Kelly was hurting….badly….and there was so little Scotty could do to alleviate any of it.
During Scotty's rescue of his partner from their tormentors he'd had no time to really take note of all of Kelly's problems. His rescue, done in the deep darkness of night, had occurred mostly by feel as he found Kelly chained up in the basement of an old house. The tale of the rescue and their escape was a long one but, by pure chance or great good luck, they had accomplished it. They had to run before Scotty could even remove Kelly's last shackle, only managing to snap it from it's chain with his stolen bolt cutter.
That same bolt cutter had been left far behind in the course of the running battle that was their flight, as both Kelly and Scotty had used every tool at their disposal to effect escape, being weaponless. Scotty regretted that particular loss intensely because his partner was paying the price. But, it had enabled them to make it out, even if they were only a whisker's breath ahead of their pursuers.
Scotty had hurried Kelly to a waiting car, wondering at his stumbling attempts to keep up. Then there had been the frantic dash through the night in the car of questionable quality. Kelly had sat through the long hours, barely talking, his slumped body an aching concern for Scotty. Then the early light had revealed what the darkness hid and Scotty had watched it unfold with ill-concealed shock.
Kelly was a mess, and worse yet, a mess badly in need of medical care. A doctor and hospitalization were first on Scotty's list of priorities once their full escape was realized. The wounds he could see were bad enough, with wrists and ankles rubbed raw and angry by the shackles, and an infected wound directly under the breastbone which Kelly had confirmed was due to a knife. His captors had not been gentle with him. They had wanted his partner's location badly but Kelly had known all too well what the final consequence would have been if he had spilled, and had stayed silent. And to cap it all off, Scotty could feel the heat of infection radiating from his partner. Kelly's slow responses and hazy eyes bespoke of both that and the trauma which had caused it.
As the car had overheated and foundered on them Scotty had felt his building dread deepen. He was the optimist of the two but even he was quick to realize that they were low on options. He had to get his partner to some place, any place, where Kelly could at least rest and try to recuperate. A doctor would have to wait til they were out of this mess but rest was imperative. Only, he'd had no idea where such a place could be found.
So they'd run, desperation forcing additional distance between themselves and their followers. Scotty was running blind, his only objective being to widen their lead. But Kelly seemed to be on the lookout for something, and suddenly his stumbling run had become purposeful. His gasped out explanation that relatives lived nearby had put purpose to Scotty's running too, even as his concern for Kelly mounted. Kel was obviously weakening, falling continuously now, looking as if willpower alone was keeping him going.
In addition, Scotty had seen the back of his partner's jacket by now and had to wonder what all lay under that sliced jacket. Were there additional horrors Kelly might have hidden from view?
The run had become a lesson in endurance and one that Scotty hoped never ever to have to repeat. The barnyard and it's musty old hayloft had been a welcome sight indeed. It gave both of them their first chance to rest and it also enabled Scotty to really take a good look at Kelly, and see just how bad off he really was. And to know that there wasn't one damn thing he could do about it short of providing some food and rest.
Food had been handled with Scotty's introduction into the Miller household. Scotty refused to wonder how long it had been since Kel's last meal. He knew his had been few and far between. No matter. Kelly would do ok now in that regard. He'd see to it. So, food down. Water was now a top priority. Scotty had plenty, Kelly had none. Scott had been pondering that the entire time he'd been digging. That and where he might get a hacksaw . The sooner he could get that thing off Kelly's leg the better as the ankle looked like raw hamburger and was swelling badly.
With thoughts like these roiling in his mind, Scotty thankfully hefted his shovel and set off back to the farmhouse, intent on finding a means to get water to his friend. Maybe he could ask for a pot to wash up in and forget to return it. Or maybe…….pondering deeply, he went in to dinner.
Harry Miller, a man of few words but warm interior, was busy cleaning off a hard day's worth of work from his face and hands. Spying this, Scotty attempted a quick fix for Kel's water problem.
"Got all the ditches re-dug on the far side," he matter-of -factly said. "That should hold them good for a while. Ah, you wouldn't have a spare pot I could borrow for a bit, would you? I need to get some of this grime off me too, only it goes pretty far up."
Harry took a long slow look.
"Yep, reckon so. Ask Alta for one of her tin pots and one of those thick wash rags she favors. You look as if you could stand a good scrub. But grab a chair first and tuck in to some of this grub. A little dirt never hurt no one any and Alta would be downright annoyed if you let her roast beef go cold. She's been cooking half the afternoon. Reckon she figures on fattening you up some."
"Don't have to ask me twice," replied Scotty, whose salivary juices were suddenly working overtime. "Thought I wouldn't be hungry for days after that breakfast of hers but there are some mighty good smells coming my way."
"Well, child, that may just get you seconds," said Alta Miller, a contented, solid, hard-working farmer's wife if ever there was one. She made sure Scotty plunked down, then served up enormously generous portions of dinner.
"Dig in now. We don't stand on ceremony round here. Too much to do on any given day. Them what's at the table eats, and everyone else piles in when they get to it. Harry, finish up in there and set yourself down 'fore it all goes cold."
Scotty used his dinner opportunities well, snagging a bit of this and that whenever he could to give Kelly more than just fruit. Dinner was delicious but quick, farm life providing ample quantities of food but little time to linger over it. Then Scotty collected his tin pot full of liquid gold, a washcloth, and more motherly advice from Alta on washing good.
Scotty very carefully carried his small pail of water into the barn, then set it down next to the loft ladder, so that he could search the barn for a hacksaw. He was expectantly waiting for Kelly to poke his head out of the loft so that he could whisper his intentions to him. No Kel .
Scotty went on searching the barn for the few minutes it took to affirm his apprehension, both that there was no hacksaw present and that Kelly wasn't moving around in the loft like he had been earlier in the day. That was definitely not like Kelly when danger was near.
Scotty carefully climbed the ladder, balancing his precious load of water, and then stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Kelly's motionless form laying splayed out on his back.
Scotty hurried over to Kelly, checking his pulse and breathing, heaving a big sigh of relief when he saw movement of the chest muscles. Kelly was simply sleeping.
The heat of fever was strong on his face and hot under Scotty's palm but exhaustion had won out over it all. Scotty was quite reluctant to raise his sleeping partner from his slumber but figured that keeping him hydrated and eating was more important right now. So Scotty carefully and gently shook the sleeping man, grimacing at his clear view of Kelly's filthy blood-tinged bandage and open sores.
"Hey Duke, rise and shine. I got some good stuff here and, if you're not fast enough, it won't be around for long."
Kelly was sluggish and fuzzy as he awoke but already trying to fulfill his duties to his partner.
"Hey man, we still ok? Everything quiet? We need to move?" mumbled Kelly, slurring his words slightly and looking more than a tad dazed.
"Nah," Scotty casually answered. "We're still good. I brought you some water and after you get some of that down, your fruit entree is next."
"That's good, thanks," Kelly rather hazily answered. "Was getting pretty thirsty. Did you get some of this too?" He reached out to accept the tin of water with shaking hands. "There's plenty here if you need some, man."
With that, he took a long swallow, obviously relishing his first taste of water in far too long. His eyes glittering with fever, he shoved the half-filled tin rather sloppily back over to Scotty.
"No, I'm good," Scotty replied, carefully handing the tin back to Kelly and casually helping him to hold it steady til he'd drunk it all down.
"Your Great Aunt sets a mean table. She must have stuffed me full of every item in their larder and then some. And then she goes and brings in milk and pie to top it all off."
"Pie?" Kelly mumbled. "Was it an apple pie?"
"Uh uh, peach pie," Scotty answered, observing Kelly's fever glazed eyes and the slow tremors which shook his lean frame now and then.
"Oh, that's alright too, man, but the apple is best. I can still remember the taste of that apple pie. Mom's was good too. Yeah, it was good, but Aunty Alta's was best. My mom never could figure what all she added to make it so tasty. Aunty said she'd give her the recipe soon as Mom guessed the secret ingredient. And she would have got it too. Mom was real good at figuring stuff out. Yeah, she would have gotten it."
Kelly trailed off, obviously lost somewhere in his childhood. Then he jerked a bit as if startled back to the present day.
"Real good pie though. You should ask her to make you some if you get the chance. We could always get her to make one of those pies….before. Sometimes she'd even have it waiting for us for our first night back home."
Kelly's remembrances drifted into silence.
"Yeah, alright Kel, I'll do that," Scotty gently answered. "Why don't you lay into some of this other stuff while I go scrounge some more water from the tap outside."
Kelly blearily glanced over Scotty's liberated stash of food items.
"Uh, maybe later, ok? But some more water sounds real good. Everything still quiet? No sign of 'em?"
Scotty realized that Kelly's fever was still climbing, driving out his appetite and making him a bit disoriented. Definitely not a good sign.
"Everything's cool, man. Hey, your Aunt gave me a washcloth to go along with this tin pot. Think she may have been telling me something? Guess we can put it to use though. I'll just grab some more water and you can get your fill, then we'll see what we can do about cleaning you up some. You don't make the most pleasant of loft mates at the moment, ya know," Scott said, trying hard to maintain his usual aplomb. "Oh, and she gave me some ointment too for my blisters. Maybe we can get those wrists and ankles in a little better shape."
"Yeah, that'll be good," mumbled Kelly. "Did Uncle Harry show you much of the farm? It's pretty big, takes a while to cover it all. He used to let me go bareback riding on one of the horses he used to keep. Ummm, Biddie.Yeah, that was her name, Biddie. She was a good ole horse. Learned how to ride on her. Uncle Harry and Mom and I would go along to some of the back pasture area and bring a picnic along. Aunty used to tease us about wasting the day away but she was always the one packed the lunch. We'd all lounge around, letting the horses graze while we lay around in the tall grass…..Wonder what happened to Biddie? Guess she's gone now too."
Kelly was caught in the past now and even though Scotty knew it was the fever talking, he was glad to hear the pleasure in his partner's voice but pained to hear the strain of loss too. And longing. Such longing. His partner was hurting in more than one way and this hurt sounded as if it was an old and deep one.
"Well, Harry wasn't too into tour guiding with the help today but, yeah, the farm looks good. Let me get that water now, Sport, and we'll see if we can do anything to improve your looks. Don't think we'll be getting any invites to the Ritz looking like this, fella, you or me. You rest up some. I'll do a recce while I'm out there," said Scotty, wondering where he might scrounge up a hacksaw.
His partner was definitely in trouble and he had to get him some better before they had a hope in hell of running again. Unfortunately, Harry Miller was out doing some last minute evening chores before heading in for the night. Harry gave him a wave goodnight as Scotty re-filled the tin bucket, then watched as Scotty ambled back to the barn.
"No go, man. I'll have to figure out a way to get a hacksaw tomorrow," he managed in as casual a manner as he could effect while knowing this loss would mean continuing discomfort for his partner. Kelly seemed barely aware of his statement though, taking the water down very quickly, gulping it down voraciously, even as his hands shook with the effort.
"Hey, hey, hey, Fred C. Let's save some of that for clean up, 'kay? I can always get more later. Let's see if we can tackle those wrists and ankles now. Can't do much with the shackled one but maybe we can clean up the rest."
With that, Scotty began carefully trying to clean up some of the mess that was Kelly's right wrist, only to jerk back when Kelly moaned in agony and yanked his arm out of reach. He watched in hopeless remorse while his partner curled his entire body protectively over the cradled arm.
" Ah man," Scotty whispered. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
"No kidding," gritted out Kelly from between clenched teeth. "Let it go for now. We'll find a doc as soon as we get out from under all this."
Kelly's face had turned a clammy white and the sheen of sweat stood out on his face as he tried to uncoil from his protective huddle. Scott watched as Kelly's color slowly returned. His partner was hurting big time and there wasn't a thing he could do about it other than to offer him the relief of sleep. Such a minimal fix for such a big problem but it was all Scotty had.
"Listen, you go ahead and get some sack time. I'll keep one eye open in case of trouble. We'll get the manacle off tomorrow and then, when you're up to it, we'll get going again."
Kelly just nodded his head, too lost in discomfort for words to hold much meaning. He lay back down, then seemed to come to himself for a minute.
" I'll take second watch in….what….four hours be ok?" Kelly sluggishly questioned.
"Yeah sure, I'll wake you," said Scotty, knowing full well that he wasn't going to do any such thing if his partner was lucky enough to drift off.
So they lay there as the evening hours dwindled down to darkness and the chill of night began to set in. It was definitely colder now but Scott knew full well that this alone wasn't sufficient to explain the shivers he began to see and hear wracking Kelly's body. Kelly was trying to be silent, perhaps making a pretence of sleep so as not to worry his partner, but the ploy wasn't working. Scotty could hear the small intake of breath his partner would take every time a particularly violent shudder had him in its grasp. The fever's hold was getting stronger.
Scotty quietly removed his own dirty white jacket and placed it over Kelly.
"Funny……fever just won't go away," Kelly apologetically said, in the darkness.
"I've hidden and dodged and scratched in a lot of places and never gave it a thought. And here I feel like a criminal."
Scotty listened to his partner's shivering voice, wishing he could ease the man's turmoil but doubtful where to begin.
"Well, just hang in there, Sportin' Life. We're in good shape," mumbled Scotty, knowing full well that if Kelly bought that he was really out of it.
"My Uncle Harry taught me to shoot a gun and handle a saw and a hammer…….and I can't even remember his voice. What do they talk about? How do they……how do they sound?"
The longing and sense of loss was open now, exposed and raw. And Scotty had no idea how to dampen it down.
"Well, they don't talk too much. Certainly not to me. I'm just a stranger," Scotty mumbled, hoping to end the conversation.
"Yeah, me too."
There was a world of hurt in that voice. Scotty knew his partner better than anyone else but he also knew that he was being given the chance at a rare glimpse into the soul of this man. Kelly, for all his party ways, was an intensely private man and definitely not given to divulging his personal demons. Scotty was well aware that Kel's fever was responsible for lowering the guard his partner kept on his emotional walls. He was also determined to respect and hold quiet anything that came forth this night but he had to ask this man something that had been bugging him for some time now.
"Why'd you let so much time go by, Kel?"
It was inconceivable to Scott that family would not stay in touch. His family was a part of him, laying and solidifying his foundations. He'd known that Kelly had few relatives but he'd never before realized just how alone this man was. More intriguing still, he knew there was also something odd buried deep about his partner's father. There was a sense of contradiction in some of the rare family stories he'd heard come from Kelly, something that left Scotty's natural nosiness on high alert. But that was a question for another time and place and maybe one that he'd never resolve. For now, it was enough to ask this question.
Silence greeted him initially. Scotty figured maybe he'd stepped a little too far over Kelly's invisible line and those walls had gone back up full force. But perhaps it was because of the fever or maybe even the blackness of the night, which helped to create a concealing shroud over their features. Or maybe it was just because, in this time and place, Kelly needed to talk. Because, out of the chill darkness, there suddenly came a thin, wavering voice, stumbling over the words and pausing often to let the unanswerable achieve an answer of a sort.
"My mom died that winter. She died. And I was alone. And….and….well, I guess they just didn't want me. I don't know why. Never knew that. And then later, I mean later when I was all grown up……I wanted to come see them but I didn't know if they……what I mean was….well, I guess I just never did."
Now the hurt was wide open and exposed to the one man that Kelly trusted enough to release it to. And Scotty didn't have a clue what to say or do that would minimize this pain. He was just as useless with this hurt as he had been with the more obvious wounds, and it tore at him to realize that just being there was all he could offer.
"What do you mean, Kel?" he said softly .
"Umm, well, my mom….umm, she…..uh, she…. she died. And some people took me to this place. Uh, it was….you know…. Where they keep kids til they can figure out what to do with them. And that's where I stayed for a while but…uh…."
Shivers were wracking both his partner and his answers but Scotty knew it was more than that now. Kelly was fighting to stay on top of his emotions and Scotty figured it might be one battle that Kelly couldn't win.
"They….uh…. they said I'd stay there for a while…. And then maybe I'd be placed with foster parents…. if someone picked me. And…. and….then I told them that I still had family no matter what their stupid records showed. And maybe they just hadn't heard about my mom and if someone would call them, they'd come and get me and take me out of that place. And I knew their number and I gave it and I told the people there all about them and asked them to call. They said they sounded too old to take on a kid but I told them that they'd take me cause I was family and to please call cause……well, I really, really wanted to go home."
Kelly was talking way too fast now, the words tumbling out even faster than he could manage. It was like, once started, he had to get it all out.
"But I never heard anything more and I kept asking. All they'd say was that they were working on what was best for me and to be patient. So, one day, I asked one of the ladies who seemed nicest if I could have some real good stationery. I figured if it looked as if it wasn't just some stupid kid asking on a whim….. well, I wrote them. And…uh…I asked them if I could come stay with them and…uh….said I'd help them with chores and all so they'd know I could be useful. Uh, stuff like that, you know. But….umm…..I guess they just didn't want me," said Kelly, helplessly.
"What do you mean, you guess they didn't? Either they did, or they didn't. No guesses about that, Kel," said Scotty, madder then mad some 27 years after the fact and wishing he could have had some of those faceless " people " in front of him right now.
His partner was teetering on the edge and Scotty figured it was going to be nobody else's business if he went over this night. It sounded as if Kelly had needed to offload some of this garbage for a long time now and they had the whole night to do it, if necessary.
"Well, they….ahhh…. they never wrote back."
There it was, out in the open and stark. Scotty wondered how many damned times during Kelly's childhood had he asked himself "why?" No wonder he'd never come home. But then, it was inconceivable that the strangers that he'd just met could have done that to a grieving little boy. They just weren't the type. If the answer had been no, they would have handled it with delicacy. The more he thought of it, the harder it was for him to accept. These were people who had allowed a total stranger to come into their midst, with no questions asked. They had treated a homeless unknown as if he was a valued member of society. It just didn't fit with the opinion Scotty had already formed of the Miller's consideration. And why on earth would they have done something like that to their own kin, no matter how remote the connection? If Kelly had not been so deeply devastated as a kid by this so called betrayal, he would have been able to see how unlikely all this would have been.
"Kel, are you sure they got your letter? They don't seem like the type to brush away a little kid like he was nothing."
"They had to, man. I was so careful with it, checking it over and over to make sure it was okay. I remember I tried to be real adult sounding so they wouldn't think it was just some little kid begging for something he'd forget all about two days later. And I really thought they would 'cause this place was so much more like home than boarding school had ever been. I thought they liked me. I mean, I never got in too much trouble when we came visiting for the summer. They always seemed happy to see us, so I thought….. But, you know, maybe they just didn't think they could raise a kid again and didn't know how to tell me. Their daughter had been as old as my mom so it'd been a while since they did that kind of thing. She died early too, like my mom. Maybe they just didn't want to go through the effort again. Or maybe…..maybe they didn't have enough money to do it. Kids are expensive and I know they never had much. Money was always real tight with my mom and me too, especially with us having to do the boarding school. So I knew all about not having much and I could tell they didn't have a lot to spare. That was probably it. They just couldn't afford me."
Scotty heard the desperation in his partner's voice. Even after so many years he was still trying to find excuses for the family he'd so very obviously loved. And he was still trying to give them the benefit of the doubt even though his main unanswered question had so very patently always been "why not me?"
Scotty saw a flash of Kelly's eyes reflected from the moonlight shining through the darkness of the barn. They were bright and shimmering and he didn't think it was all due to fever.
"Hey Duke, they never got the letter and that's all there is to that story," Scotty confidently said, hoping he had it right. "They would have written back or called or something."
"Yeah, well, they didn't," Kelly said, his voice flat and dead now, in the way that always let Scotty know the walls were going up.
"I told you, I was real careful with it. I even put extra postage on, to make sure . And I checked two times that I had all of the address on it, so it would go right. I still remember the address even……4758 Stone Creek Drive…..it's still stuck in my mind, man."
"Oh God, Kel, it stuck wrong," moaned Scotty. "4758 wouldn't have cut it then or now. This is 7458."
"What?" whispered Kelly, even his tremors in momentary abeyance. "No, that's not right. My mom made me memorize it in case I ever got lost and I'm telling you, it's 4758."
"Not unless someone has been playing with the numbers on the front gate post, Duke. I was out there all day shoveling dirt and I may not lay claim to a lot of things but the ability to read is one of them. This is 7458, Jack. Don't you see? They never got it."
Dead silence greeted Scotty's pronouncement. Then Kelly, hanging by a thread and with all his walls in momentary ruin, said very faintly "You think so?"
"I know so, Duke. They never got it."
"You think maybe they would've…..?" Kelly trailed off, leaving the thought unspoken, though clearly heard and understood by both men. It didn't need to be followed through anymore. Kelly suddenly looked as if an enormous weight had been lifted from him. He was still sick and hurting but the despair was gone.
"Uh, Scotty, guess I'll get some of that sleep now. Wake me in four, man."
And Kelly turned away, curling up a bit in the straw, relief palpable in the night. Ever so slowly his tremors subsided as he drifted off into the healing comforts of sleep.
And Scotty kept his watch…. In all terms of that word. Maybe when Kelly was feeling better he might question why a rural postman would not simply deliver the incorrectly addressed letter anyway. He hoped he'd never wonder. Or maybe the foster care people had elected not to forward the letter, for reasons best known to them. Scotty did not know or care. It was enough for him to know that his partner was going to have one night free from all his doubts and demons. Tomorrow would be sufficient for addressing all the rest of their problems. Tonight was Kelly's night.