by Susan Roebuck
Feckless, exasperating Alex Finch is a rich, handsome and talented singer/songwriter who longs for two things: a career as a professional rock singer, and to have his love for Sam Barrowdale reciprocated. But drifter Sam's two aims are simply to earn enough money to pay his sister's medical bills and to hide from the world his reading/writing and speech disability. At this time the word "dyslexia" is generally unknown so to most people he's just a "retard". From the severe knocks life's dealt him, Sam's developed a tough outer coating and he has no time for a spoilt, selfish guitar player.
Despite his defects, Alex's love for Sam never wavers and when Sam unexpectedly disappears, Alex begins a somewhat bungling quest to find him, only to discover that Sam has a fearful enemy: Alex's powerful and influential yet sociopathic uncle.
As Alex spirals downwards towards alcoholism, many questions need answering. Just why did Alex's evil uncle adopt him at age eleven yet deny him any affection? And what's the mystery behind Alex's father's death?
Both seem to face unbeatable odds. Are they doomed to follow separate paths forever?
Sue Roebuck was born and educated in the UK but she now lives in Portugal with her Portuguese husband. She has taught at various colleges and institutions in Portugal and her interest in dyslexia started with a discussion over lunch with a colleague and friend. Nowadays Sue's mostly occupied by e-learning courses which, when no cameras are used, are also known as "teaching in your pajamas". But, given a choice, writing would be her full-time occupation.
Working from home presents no problem for her since her office window overlooks the glittering point where the Tagus River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The huge container ships, tankers and cruise liners which are constantly on their way in or out of Lisbon harbor are a great source of inspiration (or distraction).
She has traveled widely through The States and believes that "being born American is like winning the lottery of life". If she could live anywhere, she'd live in the Catskills in Upstate New York.
Chapter One: Sam
The wind blew straight off the frozen prairie and rattled the ill-fitting window panes in his hut. Sam opened one eye. Five am. Don't ask him how he knew. It wasn't the owl hoot, or the coyote yip, or the creek ice splitting, or even the cattle coughing that gave it away because these noises were constant throughout the night. He just knew it was time to get up.
He rolled out from under the warmth of an old moth-eaten wolf pelt and, without bothering to light his paraffin lamp, pulled on jeans and a stiff-with-wear plaid work-shirt. He laced up scruffy, ancient leather boots before finishing it all off with a green wool jacket.
I'll block those holes with creek mud, he thought as the wind whistled through the gaps in the raw-wood plank walls. He put his shoulder to the door. Oil for that too--maybe Josh Pike had some in the barn.
He'd hardly put his left foot outside when snow seeped through a hole in the boot sole. Standing on one leg, he broke the ice in his ceramic sink, splashed the small amount of water pooled there on his face and drank a handful.
Six hours of shoveling hay and muck, he thought as his boots rang on the iced-up alkali path leading to the main yard. A Canadian goose hooted a teasing honk. Laugh all you want, birdie, Sam stuffed his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders. At least I'm not up to my butt in freezing water. Just my left foot. His hair blown horizontal, he bent into the biting wind and squinted through stinging hail as three yellow cow dogs rushed up the path, their tails whirling, breath white and freezing on their whiskers.
"Can't find a darn cow dog when I want one," he'd heard Josh Pike complain the previous day.
"That's because they're always with the boy," Mrs. Pike responded. "Sam."
"But I feed 'em."
"Animals love Sam because he has such a kind face, and everyone knows amber eyes make the animals feel lucky."
"Never heard such a load of horse poop in all my life," Josh Pike muttered, his eyes skimming his land.
The Pike place had pretensions to be a ranch, but Sam didn't think it quite made it. Divided into three sections: a creek, steep terrain and some disordered pastures lying in a flood plain, the property bordered the much larger Raw Pines ranch next door. Josh Pike told Sam he'd worked the land for twenty years but, as far as Sam could see, with little to show for it except the old man's love for the place which was as rigid as the winter weather: driving stinging snowstorms that stank of rusty nails. And a wind that could blow a calf over.
Three hours later, the range in the distance just visible across the frozen prairie, Sam removed his jacket, hung it on a gate post and pondered his next task.
He took a closer look at the steer lying on its side, kicking its legs and bellowing as if Sam was about to knife it. Can't have been easy forcing your darned head through the rails in the fence, he thought. He rolled his sleeves up, picked up an axe and got to work on the fence rail with several powerful swings, taking care not to jolt the animal's head.
"Cain't you smell that good air?" Josh Pike had clambered onto a section of the fence, unaware or uncaring that he was tossed up a few inches every time the axe hit the rail. He raised his weathered face to the watery sun with all the pleasure and leisure of a sunbather on a distant beach. "Have to punch the bastard to get him in the chute." He nodded at the struggling steer, his words jarring with each blow of the axe. "Yet he done put his head through the fence happy as a flea. Takes some beatin' huh?"
Sam had no breath for words, but Pike continued undeterred. "Betcha we could show them folks you worked with in Silver Creek a thing or two, eh boy? On how to run a cattle ranch. Betcha learned more up here in this month than you did in the three years you were down there. Eh?" He leaned closer to Sam, his face alight as he waited for Sam's affirmative. "Eh?"
"Near...nearly," Sam gasped, referring to the fence.
With one final massive blow, the axe-head wobbled as it finally split the fence rail. Sam kicked at the steer's rump to encourage it up and watched it skitter back to the herd, still bellowing its woes.
"You reckon you could slaughter beef?"
"If...if I have to."
The old man nodded as if satisfied with the answer. "Make some people weep. So pretty."
Sam rubbed his hand over his face. Like so many conversations in his life, this one made no sense at all. Why was the old man leaping from subject to subject like a demented grasshopper? And what was pretty? The back end of the rapidly retreating steer or a slaughtered cow?
"The view," Josh Pike explained although Sam hadn't voiced his question. The old man nodded at the distant range where the peaks were shining pink like his bald pate. "And you know little guys like us can."
Sam raised his eyes to the gun-metal grey sky above them. Can what? Sam was the first to admit that even on a good day his own mind was at best in total disarray, but it wasn't in the chaos Josh Pike's evidently was.
"Cry. Cry at the view." Josh spoke as if explaining to a first grader. "Little guys get away with it. Betcha bawled when you left your family in Silver Creek. Eh?"
Bawled? Cry? Sam stared at the farm owner in disbelief. Sure he'd been sorry to leave-Silver Creek held all he loved. But cry? Sam couldn't remember the last time he'd cried. When did he last cry? He wracked his brains.
On his first night as a street kid, that's when he'd last cried. He'd found a warm-air grid to lie down on, certain with twelve-year-old optimism that the night would get going fast. He was out of luck. Less than ten minutes passed before nicotine-yellowed fingers that looked as if they'd been peeled by the switch-blade they held had hauled him by his neck off the ground. Too many hands to count pinned him against a damp brick wall and a knee or three kept him upright. First they stole his penknife, then his packet of gum. They took his soft-toy rabbit, his three dollars and finally divested him of his sneakers and pants. When there was nothing left, they continued to hold him while they punched, pinched, probed and bit until they were finally done. Then they dropped his limp body on freezing concrete where he curled into a wet ball.
"Giddyhup there laddie."
Sam stiffened and used his final store of resistance to kick out as more hands fell on him. Except these hands were gentle and warm.
"That's right," the gravelly voice continued as Sam wilted against the solid body. "No more fight left in there, is there? But, oh my Lord, you're swift for a little 'un. Gave them old boys a run for their money, sure you did. Couple of 'em will be limping for a day or two and good luck to 'em. Come on now." The hands lifted him under his arms and helped him to his feet. "We can't have that little white ass shining like a beckoning beacon, now can we? Need to get you decent, oh yes we do."
His name was Itinerant Dan. "But you can call me Itinerant for short." He swigged a long draft from a bottle of clear liquid, the fumes of which made Sam's head swim. Itinerant looked like so many on the street-dirty, smelly, hairy, ageless, in need of a dentist and with more than a whiff of insanity about him-but his eyes were bright with life that hadn't quite been snuffed out. "Here." He handed Sam a moth-eaten blanket which smelt of a thousand unwashed bodies. "Someone always dies at night-we'll get their shirt and pants."
He turned his back as Sam wrapped his head in the blanket and cried for the very last time in his life, longing for his mother who wasn't there and never would be. When he was all out of weeping, Sam scrubbed at his face and then emerged from the blanket. "No one," he told the hunched figure, "will ever pants...steal my pants again. Not unless they want...dead and gone."
"I believe you kidlet," Itinerant replied as he picked the burrs out of his sock. "Oh yes I do."
"I'd cry," Josh Pike's creaky old voice brought Sam back to the windy ranch. He generally avoided memories but this one had rolled in unbidden.
"I'd cry," Josh Pike said again. "If I had to leave this place."
"You won't," Sam assured him, picking up the axe and hitching his jeans over his hips. "We'll squee...squeeze a few more... you know....out of the place."
"Dollars?" Pike's hope glittered in his eyes.
It was nearly noon when they washed up in freezing water at the pump in the yard, even though Josh Pike had done nothing to dirty himself. He dried himself on the towel before handing it to Sam.
When he'd finished, Sam followed the old man into the farmhouse to bid farewell to Mrs. Pike, as he had done every day since he arrived there a month ago.
She was dishing up dinner which she flourished under his nose, "Pork and beans! Alex's favorite." The menu changed from day to day, but it was always Alex's favorite, whether it was smoked ham or sausage and gravy.
Curiosity finally getting the better of him, Sam asked who Alex was.
"Hmm?" Mrs. Pike's attention was on her perpetual I Love Lucy. "Who, honey? Alex? My son Alex?" She gave no further information, such as where he was or why he didn't help his parents out on the ranch. Instead, she asked Sam as she had done every day, "Are you off, honey? There now." She wiped her hands on her apron and addressed her husband who shook his week-old Daily Bugle, "It just goes to show that lightning can fork straight through a rainbow."
Josh Pike sank lower into his old overstuffed armchair until his knees were higher than his shoulders. "Can't think why," he said to Sam, "you want to work in that bar, boy, when you could stay here and eat your dinner with us."
As Sam got into his pickup and waited while the wipers failed to clear the windshield of dirty snow, he thought Josh Pike conveniently forgot that the Pike Ranch brought Sam no much-needed cash. The odd jobs-or rather, the heavy work that kept the ranch's head above water-were in exchange for his accommodation in the hut and an occasional supper. No, it was that bar that brought in the cash.
He'd walked through the swing doors of the Thud Bar a month ago and into a fight.
Two buckaroos wrestled like lumbering bears locked into a growling waltz that knocked over tables and sent glasses and bottles flying. Customers lined the perimeter howling incitement with raised beer bottles while the bar tender flicked a white towel as if shooing a skunk out. When one of the fighters leaned back intending to take a swipe at his opponent's jaw, he stepped backwards into Sam.
He grabbed the guy's outstretched arm and, in a flash, stepped between the two men and pushed them apart. Combined, the two men were probably about four times Sam's height and weight, yet both seemed frozen in surprise. "You done?" Sam asked as polite as if he was asking them to have a drink. One promptly nodded but the other hesitated and, in Sam's book, hesitation meant attack so he propelled the man backwards into the wall. "You done?" he asked again in the same tone as before. The cowboy, goggle-eyed, stared at Sam for just a second before he looked away.
"Done," the cowboy muttered.
Sam released him and turned to the guy with the white towel who took a nervous step backward.
"I'm looking," Sam said. He paused for several seconds while the bar held its breath. "For. Work."
Sam's hours at the Thud Bar were from midday to midnight six days a week. Besides sending shots down the bar, his other tasks included hauling kegs and bottles, swabbing down the wooden bar and giving a lick and a promise to the glasses.
"And making sure customers don't kick ass too often," Charlie the bar-owner told him on his first day while Jim Reeves crooned on the juke that he got the blues when it rained. "As you saw yesterday, fights just flare up, they come outta nowhere like the weather. We need to nip bar brawls in the bud. Get 'em out in the street."
Sam thought High Falls main drag indeed meandered as if laid out by the bar's Saturday night punch-drunks. "Okay," he said. "I'll nipple the..." He stopped and reconsidered. "I'll sure...make sure the bar doesn't get scathed."
Charlie chewed this over. "Don't you mean unscathed?"
"No." Sam looked around the brown bar, not brown from any paint but from eons of exhaled fumes that stuck. He wondered how a bar fight could make the place look any worse than it already did.
Sam spent his first day serving customers: hard, weather-beaten, rough-looking ranch folk who came in to break the bovine monotony.
By five o'clock it was pretty quiet and he was ready to take a break. As he leaned against the grime-encrusted sink, he contemplated the branding irons on the walls and the bar stools that weren't-they were just old tractor seats or parts of saddles, or anything Charlie had managed to filch. The juke was roaring an assortment of distorted Jim Reeves, culminating in the Everly Brothers' Cathy's Clown which Sam had heard six times already.
He was pondering how he could improve the grass growth in Josh Pike's pastures while a small portion of his mind registered the conversation between Charlie and a prematurely grizzled thin man who had told Sam earlier he was Doctor Thomas Trillium, the High Falls veterinary.
"He just walked in, did he?" The doctor's voice was thin and reedy.
"Yep. Yesterday. Said he was looking for work."
"And you think he can protect your precious bar from your testosterone-fueled, feisty clientele? He looks like a gust of wind will blow him over."
"I tell you this, not only did he break up a fight in here yesterday but after being on the Pike Ranch for two days old Josh Pike says Sam's already pulled a breech calf from a cow. Josh says the boy's powerful right enough. He might not look it, but I guess he's the sinewy type."
"I take your word for it. You say he pulled a breech by himself and it survived? Then he's an odd-jobber par excellence you ask me. Wonder what else Josh Pike reckons an odd-jobber's position description entails -- castrating, branding and dehorning the calves, perhaps?"
Yes, Sam thought as he pondered a long-horn skull with three eye-holes hanging on the wall.
"Getting the bull ready? Spot-checking the heifers for breeding, vaccinating against brucellosis?"
Yes, yes and yes to that too. And that's before breakfast. Sam let the conversation wash over him as he gazed at a couple clinched in a lively dance by the jukebox, the girl's tight mini-skirt being stretched to its full potential. He heard the click and bounce of balls on the pool table and a gob of brown tobacco juice hitting the sawdust, but he only winged back in when the veterinary said, "Did you say his name's Sam? He's very vague, you know. Look at him daydreaming. Are you sure he's all there?"
Sam frowned because he didn't like that kind of talk. He'd only been sorting stuff out in his mind, deciding how best to improve the working facilities at the Pike Ranch and how he could build a proper working chute which would help the veterinary when he treated the cattle. He was about to tell him when the girl dancing in the mini-skirt began licking her partner's hairy ears and Sam yelped out a laugh instead.
"Welcome back, Sam," said Charlie, joining in Sam's laughter, although he couldn't have known what was so amusing.
The veterinary didn't crack a smile. He knocked back his fifth whiskey shot, heaved himself off his tractor seat and said to Charlie. "Just make sure he knows what he's up against when he meets Mule Palmer."
Sam paused in tossing a bag of chips at a customer who'd asked for it. "Wh...who?"
"Mule Palmer. You'll know him when you meet him, he's not the most beautiful sight in the world. But sleep safely in your bed for a while longer, young man, he's not here just now. Where is he, Charlie?"
"How the hell should I know? Annual vacation? Gone to buy a crock-pot? Having the aggression sucked out of him?"
"On a social visit with Satan more like. Well just make sure he," the veterinary nodded at Sam, "is prepared for him when he gets back."
Sam threw the two men a look which he hoped conveyed that if this Mule Palmer guy needed to be rendered a stain on the fabric, then he-Sam--was the man to do it.