Authors: Texas Splendor
For my dear niece Terri
The roads we travel in our youth
are seldom smooth.
You traveled a difficult road.
When you could have turned back,
you forged ahead with courage.
May all your future journeys lead you
down roads paved with gold.
oments stolen … never to be regained. Memories not worth remembering lingering at the edge of his awareness, unwilling to be forgotten.
Five years of slowly dying.
Austin Leigh stared at the gates of Huntsville Prison, knowing that the remainder of his life waited on the other side, just as he’d left it five years earlier when twelve men he had trusted found him guilty of murder.
After surviving one thousand eight hundred and twenty-five days as a “slave of the state,” he once again wore his own clothes. The blue cambric shirt hung loosely from his wide shoulders, and his denim britches threatened to slip past his narrow hips. But they were his, clothes he’d worn at twenty-one when he’d been filled with the vibrancy of youth, when he had foolishly believed that a person had only to reach for a dream in order to obtain it.
In the passing years, no one had laundered the clothes, and when he closed his eyes, he imagined that he smelled a woman’s fading vanilla fragrance, felt her slender fingers clutch his shirt one last time, tasted her tears as his lips brushed over hers during an agonizing farewell.
Becky. Sweet Becky Oliver. Within his heart, the distant memories waltzed and he saw her clearly—smiling at him, laughing with him, loving him beneath the stars on a moon-shadowed night. A night when they had given so much to each other, not knowing that another’s actions would snatch everything away.
Clanging chains jarred him from his reverie. With loathing, he glared at the guard unlocking the iron cuffs that circled his wrists. The shackles fell away and Austin rubbed the pink scars that had formed over the years.
“Now, then, boy,” the guard began, “don’t do anything out there that will land you back in here. I might not be so understanding next time.”
“Just open the goddamn gate,” Austin snarled through clenched teeth.
The guard narrowed his eyes as though contemplating the consequences of striking a man on the verge of regaining his freedom. Then he shoved open the gate. Its creaking hinges echoed in the stillness of dawn.
Austin latched his gaze onto the brightening sky that lay beyond the walls. It appeared untouched by the filth and degradation that existed within the prison. With long strides, he walked into freedom, relishing his first breath of unfetid air. His heart tightened when he caught sight of his two brothers standing in front of three horses.
“You look like hell,” Dallas said, his voice strangled with emotions.
Austin wondered when the silver had streaked through Dallas’s black hair. The furrows in his brow had deepened and bits of white peppered his thick mustache. “I feel like hell,” he said, forcing his mouth to shape a grin.
Dallas jerked him against his chest. “Damn you, boy, what in the hell did you think you were doing?”
Austin worked his way out of his brother’s strong grip. The last time he had seen Dallas, his older brother had been fighting for his life. Austin had dreaded the moment when he’d have to face Dallas’s uncompromising brown gaze and explain his actions. “What I thought was best.”
Turning, he found it easier to meet Houston’s gaze. His middle brother had sat behind him during his trial. The war had ravaged Houston’s face, but the passing years had treated him more kindly. Or perhaps it was simply that the black leather eye patch remained unchanged so it seemed all else had stayed the same.
Austin had intended to give Houston nothing more than a handshake, but as soon as their roughened palms met, he found himself pulled into a fierce hug. Houston had always been a man of few words, and right now Austin was grateful for his brother’s silence. “See you brought Black Thunder.”
He freed himself from Houston’s hold and mounted the ebony stallion in one lithe, smooth movement, relishing the feel of a horse beneath him. Certain his brothers would follow, he set his heels to Black Thunder’s flanks, sending him into a hard gallop.
The road opened up before him, but he feared no matter how fast or far he rode, he’d never truly escape the walls that had surrounded him … not until he’d seen Becky. Touched her. Held her. Made her his wife.
Austin’s heart swelled as he caught sight of the massive adobe house. He carried the dust of several days’ travel, but at this moment, it seemed unimportant.
He was home.
As they neared Dallas’s house, Austin saw a girl jump up from the veranda steps and run inside. He drew his horse to a halt and dismounted, his brothers doing the same.
The girl bounded back outside, her blond curls bouncing around her tiny shoulders, her arms flung open wide. “Uncle Austin! You’re back!”
She leapt for him, and he swung her up into his arms.
“I’m so glad!” she cried. “I missed you so much!” Her soft rounded cheek brushed against his bristly one, her arms tightly wound around his neck.
He tipped back his head, taking joy in the green glint of her eyes. Houston’s oldest daughter had been three years old when he’d left. “Maggie May, when did you grow up?”
“A long time ago. Me and Rawley go to school now.”
“Is that so?” He looked past her to the tall boy leaning against the veranda beam, his black hair neatly trimmed, his clothes showing little wear.
“Uh-huh,” she assured him.
He set her down and slowly approached Rawley Cooper. It hadn’t surprised Austin when Dallas had written to inform him that he and Dee had adopted the boy. “Hear tell that I’m your uncle now.”
“You don’t gotta be, on account we ain’t got the same blood. Only if you wanna be.”
Austin pulled the boy close. “Oh, I wanna be.”
Why hadn’t he realized these children would continue to grow without him around, leaving him to miss out on so much?
He heard the rapid patter of tiny feet as four small girls stampeded through the doorway, their high-pitched voices reminding him of chirping birds. “Pa! Pa! Pa!”
Kneeling, Houston cradled three blond girls against his chest. Amelia had given birth to Laurel the Christmas before Austin went to prison. Amanda and A. J. had been little more than words scrawled in a letter until this moment. The same as Faith, the dark-haired beauty Dallas lifted into his arms.
“You’re home!” Dee cried.
Tall and slender, she was a sight for sore eyes as she gracefully glided across the veranda, her smile bright enough to blind a man.
“You’ve gotten skinny,” she said as she embraced Austin and thumped his back.
“They don’t cook like you do.”
She laughed. Lord, he’d forgotten how true uninhibited laughter washed over a man and filled him with unrestrained joy.
“I don’t cook,” she reminded him. “Amelia cooks.”
She stepped aside. Before he caught his breath, Amelia wrapped her arms around him, hugging him closely. The first woman to come into their lives. God, he loved her … almost as much as he loved Becky.
When Amelia moved away, Austin smiled. “I know one of those girls has to be Laurel Joy. She couldn’t even crawl when I left. The others weren’t even here.”
“You’ll have plenty of opportunity to get to know them and catch up,” Amelia assured him. “Right now, we’ve got supper waiting.”
“Sounds like heaven. I haven’t had a decent meal … in years.”
Amelia and Dee slipped their arms through his and led him into the house. Like a man lost in the wilderness, Austin searched for recognizable sights to guide him toward the welcome haven of familiarity, but he found none. A portrait of Dallas and his family hung on the wall. A new rug ran the length of the hallway.
The girls rushed past him as they entered the dining room. The old oak table was gone, replaced by a longer one that could accommodate the growing family. Dallas and Houston lowered the girls onto tall chairs before taking their places. Maggie patted the empty chair between her and Rawley. “Sit by us, Uncle Austin.”
Unexpectedly feeling awkward and out of place, he dropped into the chair. The bowl set before him brimmed with stew, steam spiraling upward. His mouth watered. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was. He picked up the spoon, bent forward, and placed his elbows on the table, allowing his arms to circle the bowl, forming a protective barrier around his dinner. He’d slurped two spoonfuls before the hairs on the back of his neck prickled and he realized everyone was staring at him.
He shifted his gaze to Maggie. With wide green eyes, she watched him as though he were a stranger.
“Don’t reckon you’ll steal my food, will you?” he asked, his voice low, afraid he’d failed miserably at making light of his strange behavior.
She pressed her lips together, her brow creasing as she slowly moved her head from side to side.
Austin straightened and glanced around the table, wondering why he felt so isolated when surrounded by family. “My apologies. I seem to have forgotten how to eat around decent folk.”
“No need to apologize,” Amelia said. “We’re family, for God’s sake. You should have eaten at this table for the past five years anyway.”
He shifted his gaze to Dallas. They had journeyed to the ranch much as they had traveled through life before Amelia—asking no questions, sharing no sorrows. “Reckon you’ll want to talk about that.”
Dallas shook his head. “It was your life, your decision. But you should know I hired a detective to find Boyd’s killer. Unfortunately he hasn’t had any luck.”
“He still looking?”
“He’s not devoting himself to it any longer, but he keeps an ear to the ground. Whoever killed Boyd knew what he was doing. He didn’t leave any evidence.”
“Why don’t we discuss this after dinner?” Dee suggested.
Reaching out, Dallas covered Dee’s hand. “Sorry. Sometimes, it’s difficult to remember that Boyd was your brother.”
Dallas could not have spoken truer words. Boyd McQueen had possessed a temperament that hinted the devil had spawned him, while Dee had the disposition of an angel.
“I have marble cake waiting in the kitchen,” Amelia announced. “We need to eat up so we can enjoy it while it’s still warm.”
Warm cake and stew, the constant smiles and innocent ways of children. Austin had taken them for granted in his youth, but he was determined to appreciate them from this moment on.
Night had fallen by the time Austin stood on the veranda and watched the wagon filled with Houston’s family lumber north. A crescent moon smiled in the black sky, stars winking on either side of it. “I can’t believe Houston has a whole passel of girls,” Austin said.
Turning his gaze in the direction of the retreating wagon, Dallas leaned against the beam. “I think another one might be on the way. Amelia didn’t eat much tonight.”
“What about you and Dee? You gonna have any more?”
Dallas slowly shook his head. “Nope. Faith was a miracle we weren’t expecting. Reckon a man should consider himself the luckiest of men if he has one miracle in his life.”
Austin understood miracles. He had one of his own waiting for him. “Think I’m gonna ride into town.”
A silence permeated the air, thick, hovering, as though something needed to be said. Permission, Austin decided. He was waiting for Dallas to give him permission to leave only he didn’t require his brother’s consent any longer. He was a grown man, free to come and go as he chose. He stepped off the veranda.
“Becky’s married,” Dallas said quietly.
Austin felt as though someone had plowed a tightly balled fist into his gut. Unable to draw air into his lungs, he feared his knees might buckle. He wrapped his arm around the beam to keep from stumbling down the remaining steps. Swallowing hard, he forced the words past the painful knot that had formed in his throat. “Becky Oliver?”
Dallas faced him squarely. “Yeah.”
“Who’d she marry?”
Cameron McQueen? Dee’s brother? Austin swallowed the burning bile that had risen in his throat. “When?”
“About two years ago.”
Austin glared at his brother. “Why in the hell didn’t you mention that little bit of news in your letters?”
“I didn’t figure prison was the best place for you to learn about it.”
“You could have told me at any time during the past few days.”
“Didn’t see any reason to ruin your homecoming.”
His homecoming? Without Becky he had no homecoming. He leapt off the porch and hit the ground with a purpose to his stride.
“Where are you going?” Dallas called after him.
“Wherever I damn well want to go,” Austin threw over his shoulder as he stalked toward the barn.
He’d never saddled a horse more quickly nor ridden as hard as he rode now. Black Thunder’s pounding hooves ate up the distance between Austin … and Becky.
As the dim lantern lights of Leighton came into view, burning into the night, Austin jerked back on the reins. The stallion protested the rough treatment and reared up, his neigh echoing over the vast plains. Austin regained control and patted the horse’s sweating neck. “Sorry, old man.”
He shifted his gaze toward the town. He could make out the silhouette of Dee’s Grand Hotel. And the train depot. The railroad tracks had reached the town while he’d been in prison. He saw the outline of buildings he didn’t recognize, streets, houses, a town … a town he’d once known … a town that was now achingly unfamiliar.
And somewhere within that town, beneath the shadows of the night, Becky was lying within the arms of another man.
The pain slashed through him, intense, overpowering.
And the tears he’d held at bay for five long, torturous years finally broke free. Bowing his head, he dug his fingers into his thighs as the sobs wrenched his body.
Becky had deserted him when he had needed her the most … and he hadn’t even known it.
Memories drew Austin to the general store. Businesses had sprung up on either side of the false-fronted building where Becky Oliver had worked with her father. He resented every structure that smelled of new wood, resented that little had remained the same.
He halted his horse and glared at the sign that still read
OLIVER’S GENERAL STORE
. Becky had lived in the rooms above. Pale light spilled through the upstairs windows so Austin figured she still lived there—with Cameron.