“Guess it’s good we came, seeing as you’re smiling.” Katie nestled against him, and he wrapped his arm around her small frame. The moonshine had snuck up on them both.
He gestured toward the makeshift field where a few boys had begun to scrimmage. “Watching reminded me of the time I got a concussion in a company game. I played better, even scored. Who’d have figured?”
“Maybe you let go, trusted your instincts.”
“Don’t know about that. My instincts are pretty messed up.”
She sat up, looking him in the eye. “I don’t believe that. You’ve got more drive than any boy I know. You set your mind to something, and you do it. That’s a gift.”
He plucked a blade of grass. “I’m nothing special, Katie. You don’t know . . .” The words drifted away. Her faith in him could be suffocating.
“I know you,” she insisted, poking at his side. “That’s all I need to know.”
He sighed. She knew parts, but ultimately he stood alone. Still, she had a way of making him feel he was good, or good enough. “Thanks,” he said, watching the next play. The less said the better.
She rested against him until the game ended. By then Chuck’s crew had arrived. A couple of burly men lugged the fresh keg from the tree line while another man, scruffy and lean, lingered along the wooden fence, a shotgun by his side.
Katie spoke again. “I remember your concussion. It was before your last letter.”
There it was, tactful. It wasn’t even a question, though she deserved an answer. “Things got confusing,” he muttered.
She stared ahead. “I imagine. You were headed to the front.” She tensed. “But you’re back now.”
“Yeah.” He thought of the distractions rippling through his head. “Making my way back.”
“Good,” she breathed. “Just know that I’m here.” She rolled her head in a lazy arc. “And woozy at the moment. I’d better walk around.” She started to rise.
The cold ground had left his leg tingly. It’d start to ache if he wasn’t careful. “Maybe I should join you?” he suggested.
She offered her hand with a smile.
* * *
They walked to where the old lane petered out into mud at the base of the ridge. The breeze picked up, sending leaves raining down through the trees.
A herd of deer passed in silence above. “Carole’s expecting,” Katie whispered. “She couldn’t wait to tell the girls.”
She wouldn’t meet his gaze, but accepted his hand.
They retraced their steps in a stiffening wind. By the time they reached the field, the thickening clouds had thinned the gathering.
“We should head back too,” Katie suggested.
“Maybe Scott’ll join us if he hasn’t already left.”
“Over there,” she pointed.
Guitar in hand, Scott stood with Pete behind the wagons. They circled around to avoid the men, who were jostling as they took swigs from the keg perched on the edge.
Scott looked up as they neared. “I wondered if Katie would convince you to come.”
“I just didn’t tell him,” she grinned.
Joshua shrugged then shook hands with Pete.
“Hey Josh . . . Katie,” Pete drawled. The lanky teen had always been quiet. Today he seemed downright sheepish.
“I’m sorry about Nate,” Katie offered. “Your family’s been in our prayers.”
He shifted his weight. “Real sorry about your cousin too.” Joshua squeezed her hand.
She glanced down at Scott’s guitar. “I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever hear you. Wish we had heard more.”
Scott blushed. “I hadn’t planned to play in front of everyone, but figured I’d give it a shot.”
“After a shot of moonshine, you mean?” Katie teased.
Scott cracked a smile. “Something like that.”
Pete turned to Joshua. “Are you working in the quarry?”
“No. Been kicking around the house mostly. Though come Monday I start a job over in Head Waters, building a fireplace for an old farmer.”
Pete looked puzzled.
“The leg still gives me fits,” he explained. “Mom doesn’t want me hobbling around with explosives.”
“Well, I imagine your dad’s glad to have your help however you’re able.”
“Yeah,” he replied. It was easier.
“I’m over at the coal mine now.”
“The Tuckerman mine?”
“Yeah, started this past summer. Just pickin’ up shifts, but it’s work. The guys gave me shit at first. Now I’m getting the hang of things. Half of it’s just getting used to being underground.”
“I didn’t know they were hiring, struggling as they are.”
“Mister Tuckerman took a liking to me, said he admired my persistence. I bugged them every week for a month, even after they told me to get lost. Figured no one’s hiring anyhow so what’s the harm in asking.”
“That’s good news, Pete. I’m glad you got hired on.”
“Me too. It’s a trek, but I stay at my uncle’s place when I’m working. Mom worries, ’specially after Nate. But she’s doing better, I guess.”
Pete didn’t sound convinced. Joshua wondered about Pete as well. He’d always idolized his brother. “Maybe I’ll see you around town sometime, when you’re not over at the mine.”
“Hope so,” Pete replied.
A rifle blast rang out. Pete flinched.
Joshua nearly dove, but caught himself. He spun around.
“Hot damn!” a hulk of a man whooped. “You hammered it, you bastard.”
The shooter attempted a bow, but lost his balance and staggered forward. As the rifle swung free, Joshua felt the projection sweep across them.
The scruffy man snatched the barrel. “My turn,” he announced, stepping into position.
In their absence the men had placed rocks atop the wooden fence. Now the preening had begun. Joshua knew how bravado could explode into cockfights. After a night of drinking, men in the unit would come to blows over next to nothing. A gun in the mix could prove deadly. He should get Katie out of harm’s way.
“What’s got you all bug-eyed, bud?” the big man bellowed in his direction.
A second shot rang out. Twigs rained down from a hickory at the edge of the woods. Joshua felt his blood race. The scruffy man cursed, prompting guffaws from the other men. “I think it hit up over the ridge, Sammy!” one taunted.
His face burned. He thrust Katie’s hand aside and started around the wagon.
The big man barked again. “What are you looking at? We’re just having some fun. No need to get your knickers in a wad.”
Joshua charged forward, but stopped when he saw Chuck. “It’s fine, CJ!” he yelled, approaching from the lane with a girl in tow. “That’s my buddy Josh. He’s alright.”
The big man held Joshua’s gaze. “He don’t look alright. Looks bent outta shape over my men letting off steam.”
Chuck swung his arm around Joshua, gripping his shoulder. “Nah, he’s good. Josh here just got back from the war,” He cast a sideways glance. “This is CJ, Josh. One of Dad’s foremen.”
Joshua’s temple throbbed.
“He sure don’t talk much, does he?” The man tossed a smirk to his buddies. “You must have got lots of practice laying out the Huns. So what do you have against a little target shoot?”
He hawked a big wad of tobacco. “Then again, maybe you weren’t all that good. I noticed you gimping around with your girl.”
The contempt squelched the laughter.
Joshua pulled free of Chuck. The scruffy man dropped the rifle to his side, taunting him with a sneer. Scott placed his guitar in the wagon and edged over. Pete and Katie stood motionless, worry etched on their faces.
Nausea wafted over him like the stench from no man’s land. The fools thought this all meant something. A voice inside said to walk away, but he strangled it. Focused on the big man, he reached for the gun. “Well,” he snapped when the scruffy man failed to hand it over.
The big man nodded. The scruffy man released it and stepped back.
Joshua sized up the rifle. It was a Winchester like the one he grew up with. A stiff breeze pelted his face as he raised the barrel. His heart pounded.
Channeling his fury, he fired three rounds in quick succession.
His breath came in shallow gasps as the shots echoed in his head. He let the barrel fall. The demons were purged for the moment.
He didn’t bother looking up. Rocks were easier than men. There was no smoke or fog or screaming to confound a man’s perception. The only mistakes today would come from idiots with too much moonshine and too little sense.
He handed the rifle to Chuck. “I held my own,” he said. Then he glared at the men. “Don’t go shooting your heads off. It isn’t pretty.”
The rush faded, leaving him weak. He sensed Scott at his side. Katie moved toward him. Pete slumped against the wagon. Seeing him, Joshua felt the stab of his words.
“I’m sorry,” he breathed to Katie.
She tugged at him. “Let’s go.”
Joshua nodded then stepped to the side of the wagon. “Pete,” he whispered.
Pete lifted his head.
“Go back with us?”
Pete jolted as if he’d seen a ghost. Then he moved to join them.
* * *
Chuck caught up to them as they reached the woods.
“Chuck . . .” Joshua began then stopped. The damage was done.
“CJ’s an ass, that’s all. Now I know he’s a mean drunk to boot. Dad should never have promoted him. Even sober, he’s a son of a bitch.”
“Yeah, but . . .”
“Let it be. There ain’t nothing to gain mullin’ over a bully. Besides, I’m glad Katie brung ya. It’s good to have you back.”
“Thanks, Chuck,” Katie said.
“It was good seeing everyone,” Joshua added. “It’s just . . . oh, nothin’.” He couldn’t explain.
“That’s right, bud. It don’t mean a thing.” Chuck backed away. “I better get going. Gotta run Mia home.” He started to turn, then hesitated. “What am I thinking? Why don’t you take the second wagon, Pete? I was gonna leave it for the crew. But, hell, they can get drenched for all I care. It ain’t covered, but you’ll get back quicker.”
Pete stepped toward him. “Sure. I’ll hitch her up.”
“I’ll help,” Scott offered.
Joshua took a step, but Scott raised his arm. “Just wait. We’ll handle it.”
Katie pulled him back. “You two go ahead. We’ll be fine.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated after they’d gone.
“Stop with the apologies. They were being fools, swinging a shotgun around like a toy.”
“I should have gotten you out of there. Instead I made it worse.” He avoided her gaze. “You’re always defending me.”
She made him look. “Because I feel safe with you. I always have.”
He couldn’t help but laugh. Somehow she believed in him. He followed the impulse. “You want to do that forever?” he blurted.
She pulled back. “What do you mean?”
He had to be strong. “You know what I’m asking. Will you marry me?”
Her eyes widened. She said nothing at first, then her smile broke like a ray of sunshine. “Yes! Of course I’ll marry you.” She threw her arms around his neck.
He ignored the pain as they rocked gently. Squeezing his eyes shut, he heard the branches creak above them.
He’d left his final prayers in France, but sometimes he still hoped. There, beneath the swaying oaks, he hoped he could make her happy.