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Authors: Mary Alice Monroe

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BOOK: Skyward
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“Sorry about the fire,” he said quickly. “I don’t usually let it go out.”

“No matter. I’m accustomed to woodburning stoves. I’ll check it at night before bed from now on. And sweep the ashes in the morning.” She saw him about to object and added with finality, “It’s my job, Mr. Henderson.”

He studied her face for several moments and she felt he was taking her full measure. “You like to have things your way, don’t you, Miss Majors?”

“And you don’t?”

He set down his cup and looked at her with an expression of exasperation. He didn’t reply. Instead, he tucked in his legs and rose from the table. Ella remained sitting straight-shouldered in her chair, looking at him and wondering how the two of them were ever going to abide being in the same house for a year.

“Thanks for breakfast,” he said without a hint of sarcasm. “It’s been a real long time since I woke up to the smell of coffee I didn’t make myself.”

Her shoulders softened. “You’re welcome.”

He walked to the door, where he grabbed a thick navy-blue peacoat from the wall hook. “Marion likes to sleep late sometimes,” he said, pulling his arms through the sleeves. Then, pulling up his collar close to his ears, he added, “I’ll be back in a few hours to settle the budget with you.”

He spoke in declarative sentences and she worried that she’d annoyed him. She thought back to the morning long ago when she’d told the local pastor of her church—after his stirring sermon about original sin—that she couldn’t believe in a God that would send poor little unbaptized children to a horrid nowhere place called Limbo. So either the pastor was wrong or she was giving up coming to his church. She was nine at the time and distinctly remembered wagging her finger at the pastor as she spoke. Her aunt Eudora had studied her with pale gray eyes more sad than critical behind wire-rimmed glasses and said, “Child, when will you learn to curb your tongue?” Ella never had learned, and this facet of her personality was both her strength and a curse.

“I’ll be ready to discuss the budget whenever you are,” she replied. “Oh, and Mr. Henderson…” she said, catching him before he turned away.

He stood with one hand on the door and a look of uncertainty on his face.

She looked at the untouched plate of bacon. “I’ll try to do better with the cooking.”

His smile came reluctantly, but when it blossomed, it transformed his face, lighting up his pale blue eyes like a sunny blue sky against white clouds.

“Miss Majors,” he said, seemingly moved enough to venture a small confidence.

Ella waited expectantly. The words seemed pried from his mouth.

“I
care
about my volunteers. They’re good people, just private individuals going out of their way to help. All I can offer them in return for all the work they do here is to work as hard or harder than they do and to respect their reasons for being here. We come from different places but we’re all bound together by our common love of raptors. We count on one another.” He opened the door, paused, then added before leaving, “And right now, I’m off to find out what’s what with Elijah Cooper.”

Harris found Elijah in the weighing room, bent over the worktable. It hadn’t occurred to him until now how often he found the old man in this room, hard at work, so early in the morning. Now, stepping in the cozy warmth of the handsome one-room building, he understood. It was a fine little room. Neat rows of hanging leather bird-handling gloves and hoods hung on hooks beside organized charts on the walls, a weigh scale and spare perches. A long wooden table sat under a wide plate-glass window overlooking the resident bird mews, and in its deep drawers he knew he’d find the bells, swivels, leashes and other equipment of falconry. It made perfect sense that a man who loved raptors as he did would feel at home in this space.

The old man turned to look over his shoulder when Harris entered. “Morning, Harris. Sleep well?”

“Well enough,” he replied, closing the door behind him. “What’s that you’re busy with?”

Lijah returned to his work. “Oh, just cutting jesses. Thought I’d start off slow this morning, since I’m fixing to stretch AstroTurf on the perches later. That’s one mean job, but someone’s got to do it. And looks like that someone be me.” His chuckle seemed to rumble low in his chest.

“Much appreciated,” Harris said, drawing closer. He watched as Lijah cut a few strips of light, tough leather to make into jesses, the slender straps that were secured to the birds’ legs. These looked to be about the right size for a peregrine.

“Here, let me show you how to slice those,” he said, moving to take hold of the sheath of leather. “You want to take care not to weaken the leather when cutting the slits,” he said, his hands moving expertly in demonstration. “Jesses are only good if they’re secure. What’s the point of a steel swivel that can hold an elephant if the jesses are so weak it couldn’t hold back a sparrow? There. How’s that?” he said, holding up a perfectly slitted pair.

“Looks good.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve been doing this for years. Now you try.” He watched as Lijah worked the leather. As with most things in bird care, attention had to be paid to the details. Once, he’d found a hawk hanging by one leg so high up in a tree Harris couldn’t get to him, all because of bad jesses. But the old man’s enormous hands worked as daintily as a seamstress’s making French knots, he thought, looking on with admiration.

“You’re good with your hands.”

“Yes, I am. They been good to me over the years. I can build just about anything with some wood and nails. Done some ironwork, too. And I’m handy with a net, if you ever need help there.” He held his hands up and looked at them with more respect than admiration. “Always wanted to try these fingers on a piano, but we never hooked up. I like to think we’d make pretty good music.”

Harris took a breath, rubbing his palms together, knowing that the next conversation would determine if this particular versatile man would stay on at the center.

“A bit cold today, don’t you think?”

“Cold? Nah, it’s not that cold. ’Posed to warm up to the forties by midday.”

“Really? That’s good. Good. We can put the birds out to weather.” He cleared his throat and tried again. “But the nights are cold, aren’t they?”

Lijah chuckled softly as he worked the leather, nodding his head. “Oh, yes. The nights sure are cold.”

Harris waited a moment or two before saying, “I imagine it’s cold, even in that cabin.”

Lijah’s hand stilled and he lowered the hand tools. He sat for a moment, not moving, then he sighed heavily and turned to face Harris with an open expression.

“I don’t mean no disrespect,” he said somberly. “I keep it clean and I’m careful not to disturb nothing.”

“I know,” Harris replied. He paused. “Lijah, do you not have any place to stay?”

“No, no. I’m staying with friends—just down the road a piece. But getting back and forth to see Santee every day got to be troublesome. See, I need to be close. I need to sit with my bird a while to see her through this. I reckon like you did for your child back when she was in the hospital.”

Harris felt a strong sympathy for the man’s situation. Lijah loved that bird as any father loved a child. “I understand,” he replied. “But damn, Lijah, there’s no heat in there.”

“I do all right.” A sly smile slipped across his face. “It’s a sight better than sleeping in the car.”

“Lijah, it’s not right, you sleeping out there in the cold. We’ll have to figure something else out.”

“You don’t have to worry none. I’ll just clear out of that cabin and find somewhere else. It ain’t no problem for you.”

“But where will you go?”

He shrugged. “Don’t matter. Like I said, I have friends. And it’s only temporary.” His expression altered to worry. “I hope this don’t change your thinking on letting me keep coming here. Leastways, till Santee be well. I like working near these birds. And I daresay I’m doing a good enough job here?”

“You know you are. In fact, too good. You’re coming near every day now and that’s more than just volunteering. I don’t want to take advantage of your generosity.”

“You can’t take advantage of what I’m giving freely,” he replied with his serene smile.

“Well, I certainly don’t want you to stop coming. There’s no fear of that. But the conditions of your working here have suddenly changed. You’re working as hard as any of the full-time staff, but the problem is, I can’t afford to pay you a full-time salary.”

He drew his shoulders back. “I never asked for money.”

“I know you didn’t. But you deserve it. So, I’ve been thinking. What would you say to a salary? We could negotiate a fee that you feel is fair.”

Rather than brighten with enthusiasm, Lijah seemed a bit wary. “I thank you for the offer,” he replied. “It’s kind, to be sure. But all that strikes me as too permanent. I ain’t looking for a job. I always pay my own way and earn my own keep. Done so all my life. And I don’t want to
charge
you for working here because I’m only here on account of my bird friend. Here’s the way it is. I like keeping to myself, like coming and going as I please. I just need to sit with Santee a while to see the bird through this. Then, when she well, we can make our way back home. Soon, hopefully.” He met Harris’s gaze. “You need to understand that when Santee leaves, I’ll leave with her.”

“I understand that.” He sighed, reaching a decision. “I suppose we could open up the cabin early this year. Put a kerosene heater in, open the plumbing, fix up a bed, and you could join us for meals in the house. Though after you’ve tasted Miss Major’s cooking, you might forgo that pleasure,” he added with a smile. “What do you say? You can stay for as long or as short as you wish.”

“In that case, I thank you for your offer and accept.”

They shook hands and smiled in that companionable way that men often did when they were relieved and comfortable with the way a situation was resolved.

“I confess,” Lijah said, that wry smile playing at his lips again. “A couple of those nights near froze my vitals off. But we’re heading toward spring, so I’m hopeful.”

“You won’t freeze another night, not if Miss Majors has anything to say about it. She’s the one saw you creeping out of the cabin at dawn and has been worrying about you ever since. Knowing her, she’ll have that place in right order before nightfall.”

Lijah’s brows rose. “Miss Majors? That your new lady friend?”

“Good God, no! She’s the nanny. She only just arrived yesterday and will be staying in the house with us, looking out for Marion, cleaning, and—heaven help us—cooking our meals. Speaking of which, what have you been eating these past few weeks?”

“I’m an old man and the appetite ain’t what it used to be.” Amusement sparkled in his dark eyes. “I been making good use of the microwave in the clinic to heat up a can of soup or stew. And from time to time I stay with a relative or a friend I know lives nearby. They can’t stop feeding me. ’Course, there’s biscuits, jerky, the kind of things I can pack up. Oh, and I come to like that Slim Fast in a can. Tastes pretty good. Only thing I miss, though, is a good hot cup of coffee in the morning.”

Harris released a smile, amazed—as he often was in life—at how things sometimes came around full circle. He put his hand on Lijah’s shoulder.

“Today’s your lucky day. I happen to know just where you can find one.”

Brady Simmons traveled to the Coastal Carolina Center for Birds of Prey vowing to make everyone at that rehab joint as miserable as he was.

He sat in the passenger seat of the family’s Ford pickup that belched smoke and whined like a tortured animal every time it shifted into high gear. If being seen in that sorry-ass piece of tin wasn’t embarrassing enough, his mother was driving him.

Not being allowed to drive was all part of this mother lode of punishments that had been dumped on him since the police pinned the shooting of that eagle on him. That bird wasn’t even dead and his own life had been wiped out, as far as he could tell. It was bad enough that he had to spend every Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning for six long months doing so-called community service hours. He’d a done that without complaint. He deserved it. He shouldn’t have pulled the trigger.

But why did they have to go and punish his whole family? Just on account of him doing something so stupid? The authorities told them they was lucky to only have to pay eighteen hundred in fines.
Lucky?
They weren’t no wealthy family that could just write a check for that amount. That was about every cent the family had put away, and then some. Mama had cried for days about that and wouldn’t talk to his father, blaming him for being so pigheaded as to trespass on government property and to drag his son right along with him. And if trespassing weren’t bad enough, she’d hollered, he had to go tell him to shoot the goddamn national emblem!

All of that was true. Brady wouldn’t have fired if his father hadn’t pushed him to do it. But he’d do it again if he could stop the nights of fighting between his parents.

Always the next morning, his mother would tell Brady that his father was a good man and only drank when he was worried. Problem was, he was worried all the damn time since the authorities banned both of them from hunting and fishing anywhere in the United States. Brady couldn’t care less about himself. But
that
was a lethal blow for Roy Simmons. Let them do what they will to his son.

Though Brady doubted his father would obey it, anyway. And he had the nerve to tell Brady to act like a man? God, he hated him and all he stood for. There was a time Brady had looked up to his father. Roy Simmons always told his sons that a man had to live and die by his honor.

What a crock, Brady thought as he swallowed down the ball of hurt that bobbed in his throat. He turned and looked sullenly out the window at the blur of green pine along Highway 17. Good ol’ Roy Simmons had caved at the first threat of trouble. And look what honor got me, he thought.

As far as Brady could tell, all that honor had brought him was having to stand in shame before a judge while he called him every kind of vile snake that crawled upon the earth before laying down a sentence that sounded like a living hell to Brady, but that everyone claimed was lenient on account of him being a minor. He’d been branded a delinquent and forced to serve time at some godforsaken outpost for birds.

BOOK: Skyward
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