If You Believe
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He moved cautiously forward, eyeing the place. The tablecloths were clean and pressed, a bright red and white check that bespoke Sunday suppers and family gatherings. Dust-free globed lamps hung at regular intervals from the dark wooden beams, casting pockets of light along the oak floorboards.
Ma's place was neat, respectable, and profitable. In short, a disaster. Odds were equal or better that he'd be thrown out within moments. He had to get to the job board fast.
Mad Dog hurried toward the corner of the restaurant and squinted up at the weathered scraps of paper that were tacked to the wood-planked wall. The ads were just what he expected; the sort of ads he'd been reading and answering for fifteen years. Apple picker wanted, work hard but steady; Hay baler needs part-time help, no drinkers, no women; Sutton ranch needs general hand to dig irrigation ditches—top dollar paid.
He scanned the words without much interest. He. was, just about to close his eyes and pick one when a phrase caught his attention. His gaze ricocheted back to the ad at the far right. The paper was curled and yellowed by the sun, as if it had been there a long time. Cautiously, almost afraid that it would vanish at his touch, he smoothed the paper and began to read.
General handyman needed for small orchard. Room, board, and minimal wages provided in exchange for manual labor. Good food and clean sheets available.
Inquiries should be directed to Professor Erasmus Throckmorton, Epoch Farm, corner of Palouse and Mesozoic streets. P.S. Good conversation skills a plus.
He grinned just thinking about clean sheets. And if there was one thing he could do, it was talk.
Hell, it was a job made in heaven.
He plucked the scrap of paper off the job board and crammed it in his pocket, then headed out of the diner. It was a long, hot walk out of town, but Mad Dog hardly noticed.
All he could think about were those damn clean sheets.
Jacob Vanderstay saw Mad Dog coming and he panicked. He'd followed too closely this time, he knew it. Darn!
He slammed his rail-thin, adolescent body against the splintery side of Hamman's Mercantile and jerked the hat down over his eyes, trying desperately to be invisible.
Blood pounded in his ears like an oncoming train. He held his breath and prayed like crazy. Please don't let him catch me. Please ...
Mad Dog strode past him without so much as a glance.
Jake sagged against the wall, feeling equal measures of relief and disappointment.
Mad Dog hadn't seen him ... again.
With a sigh, he pushed away from the wall and shoved the hat back on his head. He scratched his sweaty forehead with dirt-caked fingernails and shoved a hank of coppery hair out of his eyes. Gosh, he was tired of this. Tired of skulking around in the shadows, eating disgusting food, sleeping on the cold, hard ground. He just wanted it to be over.
But it wouldn't be over until he confronted Mad Dog. And he was no closer to doing that than he had been four months ago when he'd first started trailing the man.
He waited awhile, let Mad Dog get a good distance ahead, then Jake flung his sack over his shoulder and followed him out of town.
Mariah Throckmorton stood back from her work, studying it critically. The shelves above her father's oak desk glistened with beeswax. Stark, white piles of paper created a perfectly ordered checkerboard atop the dark wood. In the exact center of the desk sat a crystal inkstand and pen rack and the Eureka Ink Eradicator. Fossils lined the shelves, their sharpest points peering over the edge like a hundred tiny noses. Everything was perfectly in order.
But somehow she was certain she could do it better, do something to make her father actually notice what she'd done. . ..
She sighed. It would never happen. Her father wouldn't care, of course, wouldn't even notice how hard she'd worked to keep his collection dusted, cleaned, and in perfect array. But it was something her mother had done for him, and now that she was gone, the task of keeping Rass organized fell to Mariah. And with her father's whimsical, impractical nature, it was a considerable task indeed.
She tried to tell herself it didn't matter that Rass wouldn't notice her efforts. It shouldn't. She was thirty-four years old. How could she still be trying to impress a father who clearly didn't care to be impressed?
She moved back to the desk and pulled out the long drawer. Dozens of ragged erasers lay in a clumped heap. She removed each one and carefully began restacking them in the front left corner.
As she was setting the final eraser in place, she heard a faint, faraway rasping sound, like the creaking of an old man's joints. It came from the open window.
The eraser slipped from her fingers and landed with a muffled thwop. She closed the drawer with her hip and walked over to the window, pushing the white eyelet curtains aside.
At first glance, everything looked exactly as it should. The vegetable garden was a patch of green-studded brown earth alongside the springhouse. Fruit trees marched across the pasture in a dozen perfect rows toward the barbed-wire fence line, their symmetry broken only by a weathered wooden barn and a few outbuildings. A neat, white picket fence outlined the well-tended perimeter of the grassy, flower-edged yard. Just inside the gate, her father was crouched in the dirt, digging for fossils.
Suddenly a man emerged from the leafy umbrella of an apple tree and moved toward her father.
Mariah gasped. Her hands came up and pressed against the glass. A strangled sound escaped her throat.
She spun away from the window and did what any self-respecting spinster would do when confronted with a strange man on her property. She went for her shotgun.
Mad Dog stood beneath the fragrant canopy of an apple tree, shrouded by low-hanging boughs. Every now and then a breeze came through, rustling the leaves and releasing the delicate scent of fruit. He pushed the battered Stetson higher on his forehead and peered through the leaves.
It was a quiet, well-tended little farm. In the exact center, at the end of a flower-trimmed gravel path, sat a boxy, two-story white farmhouse with a curlicued overhang that shaded a homey porch. Evenly spaced pillars, twined with dead vines, connected the roof to the porch floor, and bunches of drying flowers hung from the white railing. A swing creaked slowly back and forth, touched by the invisible hand of a late afternoon breeze. Everything about the house declared itself a home.
He felt a stirring of discomfort. This wasn't his kind of place at all. Somewhere in this dusty little town was the sort of place Mad Dog belonged. A room filled with the same hard-drinking, hard-hitting, homeless men he met on the line. He could always find that room, no matter what town he crawled into. A broken-down farm on the edge of town, a crew of losers digging ditches, an itinerant group of shearers.
Somehow they all found one another in the dark underside of small-town life, all congregated in the dirty gutters.
That's the kind of place he felt comfortable, the kind of job he usually took. But they didn't have clean sheets. Just the thought made him smile again. "What did you say, Greta?"
Mad Dog peered through the leaves again. This time he noticed an old man, digging in the dirt not more than forty feet away. The man was hunched over, his clawlike, big-knuckled hands wrapped around a small spade. Thin strands of cottony hair curled along his liver-spotted scalp. A ratty muslin shirt hung from his small shoulders and hugged his sunken chest. Sweat glistened on the sparce white hairs that stuck up from his open collar.
"Rather birdlike," the old man muttered. "What do you think, Greta?"
Mad Dog glanced around. The meticulously tended yard was empty except for the old man. "Are you looking for someone?" he asked.
The old man's head came up with a snap. He saw Mad Dog and blinked in surprise.
"Who are you?"
He moved toward the old man, his hand outstretched in greeting. "Folks call me Mad Dog." The man squinted up at him. "Injun?" Mad Dog bit back a smile. Yeah, I'm a blond-haired, gray-eyed Indian. There's a million of us. "Fighter."
The man nodded as if he understood, which Mad Dog was certain he didn't. He set down his spade and got to his feet. His tired joints creaked in protest. "I'm Professor Erasmus Throckmorton." He shook Mad Dog's hand. "You can call me Rass. What can I do for you?"
"I'm here for the handyman position."
Rass frowned. Thick white eyebrows veed owl-like above startlingly blue eyes.
"Really? You want the job?"
Mad Dog shrugged. "I'd take it for a while."
Rass nodded slowly, eyeing Mad Dog with an unnerving intensity. "This is a surprise.... I'm not quite sure . .."
"You did place an ad, didn't you?"
"Uh-hummm," he answered, blinking up at Mad Dog.
Mad Dog didn't feel a stitch of discomfort. He was used to being sized up by employers. How he fared usually depended on how desperate they were. Only desperate men hired Mad Dog Stone.
"You got a wife?"
Mad Dog laughed. "Nope."
Rass was still frowning. "The job pays eight dollars a week plus room and board.
That's probably not enough...."
Mad Dog grinned. "That'll be just fine."
"Oh." Almost reluctantly, Rass turned toward the house. "Follow me."
They walked side by side down the manicured path. When they were almost at the house, Rass dropped his spade in the dirt.
Mad Dog reached down for it.
Rass stopped him. "Don't bother. I leave my stuff | laying around. It gives my daughter something to do."
Mad Dog paused. "Your daughter?"
From somewhere inside the house came a shrieking "Rass!" and then thundering footsteps.
Rass sighed. "That'll be her, coming to save me."
The front door swung open and slammed against the wall. Something tall and brown hurtled through the open door. There was a high-pitched scream, a glint of silver.
Mad Dog reached for Rass to protect him.
"Don't you touch him!" the brown thing screeched.
Before Mad Dog could answer, something cracked into the side of his head. It was the hardest damn punch he'd ever taken. Pain exploded behind his eyes. He weaved unsteadily for a moment, then pitched to the ground.
He lay sprawled in the damp grass. There was a moment of excruciating pain and then an envelope of soothing darkness.
When he came to, he was alone.
"Are you modi"
Rass held up his gnarled hands. "Now, Mariah—"
She whirled on him. "You walk in here, calm as can be, and tell me you hired that . .
." She glanced through the open door and saw the man, still sprawled in her prized purple dahlias. He was up on his elbows now, brushing a greasy lock of hair from his eyes. His gaze was glassy and unfocused, but soon that would change, and he would look this way. Mariah shuddered at the thought.
She fought to remain calm. "You hire that... person to help me out around the farm, and I'm supposed to be happy about it?"
Rass sighed tiredly. "It's been a long time since I expected you to be happy, Mariah."
Mariah felt a tiny catch in her heart, a snag of sadness. Why? she wondered for the millionth time. Why did everything her father say to her have to hurt so badly?
She'd worked hard to run this farm, damn it. Worked as hard as any man, and she'd done a good job. But even that wasn't good enough for Rass. He'd gone be-1 hind her back and hired someone to replace her.