by Grasshopper

Chapter 26

Wes could see the house looming up through the grayness of the dirty wind blowing strongly across the bluffs. Running hard, he crossed the back yard and saw the ditch he'd been digging just yesterday. Praying that Luc had heard him, he headed for the trench. Dropping into the hole, he saw a pile of brown fur about a yard down the ditch. "Luc, Luc, are you under there?"

Two wet brown noses poked up, their eyes wide in fear and, from under the mountain of fur, Luc's small face exploded. "Wes, Wes! I had to get Bob and Pat. We forgetted them."

"We sure did," Wes yelled over the storm, "Good job." He peered out over the edge of the ditch and saw the funnel cloud touch land about a half mile down the bluffs. It began to carve a path across the pastures and head inland sucking up anything in its way. Debris was flying at deadly speed and Wes watched as a fencepost crashed through the big bay window upstairs.

"Come cuddle down with me," he opened his arms as Luc crawled like a spider and flew at his chest. "We'll wait it out right here; just don't stick your head up." The dogs curled around Luc and Wes felt Luc heave a huge sigh of relief.

"I could see you, Wes. I could hear you in my head. You tolded me to come here so Pat and Bob and me comed and jumped in. I did good?"

"You did really good, little guy. I think we're safe for now if we stay right here. Quit licking me, Pat," Wes had to laugh pushing the dog away from his face. "Tell me what new alien stuff you've built?" They spent the next half hour talking in each other's ears about what color the mountains should be, how many heads the creatures should have and if there are dogs in other worlds.

The wind stopped as suddenly as it started; there was a roaring, then dead silence. Wes sat up, then stood carefully. Oh thank God, the house was standing. The window was busted, the porch covered with branches and debris, the roof was off the pole barn and the lilac tree he'd planted for Cole lay on its side in the driveway, but the beautiful house that Cole had built was standing. Wes felt the tears of relief gather and trickle down his cheeks.

"Wes, Wes," Luc said, pulling on his jeans, "Can we get up?"

"Oh," he laughed, "Come on up out of there. Our house is safe."

Luc ran toward the house, and Wes called, "Wait for me. Let me go first and see if its safe to go in." He climbed the steps and opened the front door. The windows on the bluffs side had busted in, dirt and bits of this and that lay scattered on the floor and the furniture, but the drawings, miraculously, had weathered the storm and still hung, lopsided on the walls.

"My room," Luc cried and ran across the living room to open his door. "Wes, look." Wes, expecting a mess, went quickly to Luc's doorway. Nothing was out of place. The alien landscape was just as they had left it. The window was unbroken and the maple outside was still standing. "Wheeeee!" Luc laughed.

'Miracles do happen,' Wes thought to himself.

"Wes!" Cole's voice yelled from the front yard. "Wes, where are you? Luc?"

"Here, we're in here," Wes answered, running to meet Cole as he came through the front door. Arms wrapping around each other, they just stood quietly for a few minutes.

"We didn't lose anything that can't be replaced," Wes said softly. "We're good."

"God, I was scared. You just took off into the storm. I can't lose you again.

Luc, what were you thinking?" Cole asked as he swept the boy up into his arms.

"Bob and Pat, Daddy. Bob and Pat; not gonna let them go to Oz."

The three broke out in slightly hysterical, but relieved laughter. "No, I guess not," Cole sighed.

"Wes made a pile of us in the big hole and we whispered til it was safe."

Cole looked over at Wes and the love was shining in his eyes.

"Hey, look at me, Luc. Look at me, Wes. You guys, your eyes are good again. Can you see colors? Wes? Luc?"

"Yes, everything looks normal again."

"I can see the blue sky and Bob's brown tail and the green bush and......."

Luc went on excitedly.

"What was that all about?" Cole questioned.

Wes just shook his head, but Luc blinked and answered, "I am thinkin' when somethin' bad is comin', my and Wes' eyes go bonky."

"Well said, punkin."

"Maybe that's the last time it will ever happen."

"Cell tower must be down. I can't get a signal. Let's do what we need to and get back over to mom and dad's. I know they're worried."

They boarded up the windows and cleared most of the debris from the house. It would take some work to get everything back to rights, but they were just so grateful that the house was okay and that no one had gotten hurt.

"You know, the headaches actually gave us time to get to a safe place," Cole said as they dragged limbs off the porch. "Maybe we should consider them a good thing."

"A good thing that hurts like hell," Wes shook his head ruefully. "Let's hope that's the last time we get them, right Luc?"

Luc scrunched up his face and thought carefully, "Maybe, maybe not."

Mercy had her two girls up on the front porch of the Hewett's house when Wes, Cole and Luc and the two frolicking dogs walked into the barnyard. "Oh Wesley, we were all so worried," she cried as she hugged him tightly.

"Everything's good, Mercy. The house is okay. Have you heard any news?"

"The radio said that the tornado ripped a path across the county and then dissipated as quickly as it formed. There have been reports of flying cows, a car is on the roof of Throckmorton's barn and a Canadian goose was found stuck through the wall of the general store. Sounds like everyone was pretty lucky. It mainly chewed up pastures and fields."

"Maybe you'll dig that storm cellar now like I told you," Albert fussed.

"How many tornadoes have been through McLaren county since you've lived here, Dad?"

"Well, none, but there's always a second time."

"Wes, take me to see if my house is alright," Mercy said softly. "I need to let Craig know we're safe too."

Wes helped her climb into the truck and when they got to Mercy's everything was fine. It was as if nothing unusual had happened today.

The horses grazed easily in the barnyard and Katy and Violet's playhouse was standing just where they'd left it. It was only when Violet looked up and pointed, "Mommie, Katy, look, a chair be's on the roof."

The next week was cleanup around McLaren county. Not too many homes were left untouched even if only for the flying debris. The path of the tornado's destruction had destroyed several buildings, but only two people had been injured.

"Did you hear? The Harrelson's barn was torn up pretty badly in the storm. I always loved that old place," Sarah told them at dinner one night.

Wes and Cole exchanged a look remembering all the times in their lives that they had sat up on that barn roof looking at the night sky. "We better go over there tomorrow and see if we can help," Cole said, as Wes nodded his head. "The Harelsons were always kind to us."

The next morning, the back of the truck loaded with building supplies and tools, Wes, Cole and Luc pulled up in the Harrelson's barnyard. Wes knocked on the door as Cole and Luc walked over to look at the damage. The barn roof was gone, two of the walls had collapsed, and the loft had fallen in. "Wow!" Luc said loudly, "It falled apart."

"Yep, think we can fix it?"

"Yep, me and you and Wes, yep."

The Harrelson' came over with Wes, smiles on their faces. "Thanks, boys, you don't know what this means to us. We couldn't have fixed it ourselves."

Over the next three days, Luc banged his thumb three times, spilled the staples for the staple gun into the pig trough, lost the hammer, got chased by the chickens, and got chiggers from rolling in the hay.

"I did good?" Luc asked, as they walked into the barn, its walls up again.

"Wes rolled his eyes at Cole and then laughed, "You did real good, little guy.

We couldn't have done it without your 'help'."

"Boys, before you go, I been meaning to show this to you, especially you, Wesley. It might be important." He went back in the house and brought out a smallish wooden box. It was longer than it was wide and had a padlock.

"It was lying in the yard after the storm. I figured it must have been in the barn."

Wes' heart skipped a beat. Could this be something that belonged to Billy?

"Mr. Harrelson, can we open it?"

"Sure, son. I thought it must have been the art teacher's, maybe some of his drawings or such. I saved it for you."

Wes took the box and set it on the tailgate of the truck. He ran his hands carefully over the wood thinking that his father might have held this very box. "Oh, please," he whispered. "Please hold some of the answers."

"Let me do it," Cole said gently. He slid a file into the lock's loop and hit the file with a hammer. The lock sprung open and Wes pulled it away from the box. Looking at Cole, Wes was sure everyone could hear his heart pounding.

"Go on, Baby. See what's in it," Cole urged.

Wes tipped the box top open and looked inside. There were rolled up pieces of art paper fastened with rubber bands, a piece of violet ribbon, a tiny black velvet box, and a small bundle of fading letters. Wes couldn't seem to move his hands. He was afraid to touch the things in the box. "Mercy, we need to take this to Mercy's. She's part of all this."

Thanking the Harrelson's for remembering, Wes let Luc hold the box as they drove to Mercy's. Luc sat silently staring down at the wooden box, his small hands gripping it tightly as if it might up and run away.

"Mercy," Wes said softly when she opened the door, "The Harrelson's found this box in their barn after the storm. It has to be Billy's. It has drawings and a piece of violet ribbon. And letters, Mercy, letters that may hold the answers."

They sat down at the kitchen table, all hesitant to be the one to open the box. "Okay, I'll do it," Cole said, as he opened the top. Reaching in, he brought out the bunch of letters, the violet ribbon, the rolled up drawings and last, the tiny black velvet box.

Handing Mercy the letters, he held the violet ribbon, gave Wes all the drawings and let Luc hold onto the small black box. "We know what the ribbon is. It's the ribbon from the painting of Kat that Billy painted, right?"

"I think so," Wes nodded. "What's in the box, Luc?"

Luc's hands were shaking as he opened the little box. There, lying in the velvet was a ring. A small diamond ring, nothing special, The kind of ring a young man buys for his girl. "A ring, Wes. A pretty ring."

"He must have bought that ring for Kat before the fire and carried it everywhere when he was searching for her. "

Mercy, Wes and Cole could feel the heartbreak in the ring. The years of loneliness and pain. "He never gave it to her. I wonder if she knew."

A ribbon, torn from the hair of a beautiful girl by the wind. A beautiful girl loved by a young man with a lop sided grin. A ring, small of stone, but full of love. Wesley, I can almost feel them in the room with us," Mercy sighed.

Wes unrolled the first of three drawings. He looked into his mother's face. She was laughing, dancing with a small child, a boy of about five as they hung the wash out on the line. The boy was happy, laughing too, his small chubby legs trying to keep up with his mother.

"Who is that boy?" Cole asked.

"Karl," Mercy answered, her voice a low murmur.

"Look how happy he was."

Wes opened the next picture. His mother again, but this time she was picking wildflowers with a tiny girl whose long brown hair was tied back with a piece of lavender ribbon. Kat had placed a yellow daisy in her hair and the love shone in her eyes for the child whose hand she held.

"That's......................," Wes started.

"Me," was all Mercy could say. Her tears began to fall.

First Karl, then Mercy, they all waited for the third picture knowing that Billy couldn't have drawn Kat or Wesley. He was already dead by then.

Wes' hands shook as he slid the rubber band off. It was a lovely drawing of a very pregnant Kat sitting on a hay bale in the very barn they had been working on today. She was glowing with an inner light, one hand on her belly and the other lifting her long hair off the back of her neck.

"Me," Wes choked.

"We were all happy somehow," Mercy said, her voice shocked. "Billy drew Karl and me laughing with Mother. There must have been some happiness before she died. I can't remember."

"The letters, Mercy. Read the letters." She opened them all and saw that they were in order by the date written in the top corner. They weren't lengthy letters, more like notes, all written in the same hand:

February 4, 1987

Darling Billy ~

How did you find me? I hoped with all my heart that you would and I hoped you never would. I know that makes no sense but my life makes no sense. I only know I love you, have always loved you and will til the day I die. I have to stay here with him. I have no choice. Please believe me when I say that I'd come to you today if I could. Yes, the boy is yours. We made him the night of the full moon. Remember that night? I've never loved you more. Remember me, Darling Billy and go now. You can't stay and I can't go.

Love Forever,

Your Kat

No one spoke after Mercy finished reading. Luc had crawled up in Cole's lap and pressed his face into his Daddy's shirt.

Finally, Wes said, "Karl was Billy's son." The shock in his voice sounded raspy.

Mercy repeated, "Billy found Mother the year I was born. Oh, Wesley, do you think..........?"

"Read the next one, Mercy."

April, 1987

Darling Darling Billy ~

I'm in Heaven. I am pregnant with our child. I should say that we should never have met that night in the barn, but the feel of your hands on me, your skin, your lips was more than I could ever have dreamed of having again. I will come tonight so you can feel the miracle growing inside me. Don't let anyone see you when you get these letters. It would mean destruction. Midnight, my love. Counting the minutes. Kat

Mercy choked on the last few words. She had always felt dirty, being the daughter of such an evil man. Now she was free. "Wesley, Oh Wesley, I truly am your sister. I'm free of the tainted blood of the Straihans."

Wes had walked around the table and was holding Mercy tightly as she cried with tears of release; release from the burdens she had carried all these years. "My father was a good man."

"Our father," Wes smiled.

Mercy picked up the next letter.

June, 1988

Billy ~

He is treating the children worse and worse every day. It's as if he knows, but he can't. I'm so very careful. We are respectful all the time. His threats are so real to me. After the fire, when he told me that my family and your family and YOU had died in the church, and my father had told him to take me to a good place, I believed him. I was so heartbroken and I think now, crazy for believing him but he had been standing up there in the pulpit preaching of love and kindness. How do you not trust a minister of God? Later, in a fit of rage, he screamed that HE had started the fire and it was damnation fire. He told me then that he would kill my babies if I ever tried to leave. My babies, Billy. Our babies. Yes, I know you want to come here and kill him, but we can't live like that. I'd rather stay here than see you go to prison. As long as I behave, he will not hurt our children. For now, this is the best way.

Love Forever

Your Kat

"What a horrible trap Mother was in."

"He killed all those people. All our relatives. For what? To have Mather?

She was only fifteen. I knew he was horrible, but this is ludicrous. I want to kill him myself," Wes muttered.

"How did you and Mercy turn out so well and Karl went bad?" Cole said aloud.

"One more, keep reading, Mercy."

March 31, 1989

My Sweet Darling Billy ~

This has to end. We have to do as you want and do it soon. He took Karl away and I didn't see our son for three days. I don't know where he was and he won't tell me. He was dirty and so hungry when he came home.

Make a plan, any plan. I will be ready as soon as our baby is born. We will run as far as we can away from this insanity. I pray for our children every day and every night. I know what I've said in the past and he may kill me for trying, but we have to leave and do it soon. We'll come to you as soon as I can travel. We'll make it this time, my only love.

Love you Love you K

"He found out. Damn his eyes. He found out and killed Billy." Cole shifted Luc, asleep in his lap.

"He waited until I was born and then he..... he killed Mother too," Wes sobbed.

"Why didn't he do what he swore? Why did he keep us around?" Mercy asked, her voice thin and anguished.

"Who knows what went on in that mind? I don't guess we'll ever know."

"I can live with that," Wes sighed. "I don't want to know anymore about him. I never want to think about him again in my lifetime. I'm just glad that his blood is not running in my veins, or yours Mercy. I'm sorry that Karl wasn't strong enough to live through it."

"So, that's how you and Luc are connected," Cole smiled. "He's truly your blood kin. The weirdness with your eyes is passed down from Billy to you and through Karl to Luc."

"Why didn't Karl have it?"

"We'll never know."

"Wait til we tell Wyatt. I can't wait to show him the letters."

"I can't wait to tell him he has a real niece," Mercy smiled for the first time.

"Let's put all this back and think it all through. Maybe there are more answers in the letters than we saw tonight." Wes looked at the clock. "Dang, it's late. When does Craig get home?"

"Tomorrow night late. He had to drive all the way to Billings."

"We'll talk more tomorrow. You gonna be okay?"

"Yes," she said, her eyes sparkling. "I'm just glad I'm a Crandall and not a Straihan."

"I know the feeling," Wes smiled.

So many questions, a few of the answers. Many of the answers didn't matter really in the scheme of things. How did Billy find Kat? How did the good Reverend find out about Billy and Kat? Those things and more. The answers lie in the cold cold ground of the grave of a man who was abused and who abused. The vicious circle unbroken..... until now.

The hot summer wind dried their throats and matted their bodies with a film of sweat and dirt. Too hot to work outdoors at midday and too many chores to stay inside. The cattle searched for any sprouts and the water level dropped in the ponds. The cheatgrass grasped what moisture was left in the dried cracking ground and sat brittle waiting for the time when the sun's rays would ignite. Fire was the enemy of the land.

Wes had been having sharp pains behind his eyes for days, but chalked it up to the glare of the sun. Luc wasn't having any headaches, so at least they knew there was nothing bad coming, as Luc had put it.

"Hey, Cole, let's call it a day," Wes groaned. "We'll start on the pond in the lower pasture tomorrow early before it gets too hot." He shielded his aching eyes from the sun as a shadow cruised slowly across the ground near Cole. Looking up, Wes saw a red tailed hawk swooping with the currents, lazily circling above their heads. "Hey old fella," he called out, "Good to see ya."

Riding home side by side, Cole glanced over at Wes. "I hate to say this, but you're filthy."

"You're no prize," Wes laughed.

"But you know what? I am so turned on by the way the grime makes you look tough and sexy."

"Oh yeah?" Wes grinned, "Is it the chaps? You wanna play cowboys tonight?

With the lassos and spurs?"

Cole answered by yelling, "Yehahhh. Race you home, Cowboy."

Tumbling off their horses, lifting off saddles, checking the water and feed,

knowing that Luc was staying over at Grandma's tonight, They tussled and groped all the way to the house.

Falling in the doorway, giggling like kids, they didn't hear the sound of a car pulling up out front. Just as Cole got Wes' shirt unsnapped and his tongue licking a trail Wes' sweaty chest, a voice stabbed through their excitement:

"Well, well. Here you are rolling around on the floor just like before. This must be some kind of queer déjà vu. Get up, Coley...... Sissy's home."

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