Chapter 17 The Road Home
Ah, poker! A drink for the thirsty, food for the hungry, a balm for the psyche. At least to one man in particular. Sitting in a saloon, up all night smoking cigars, winning more hands than you lost, no one to make sure you stayed healthy, wealthy or wise. Freedom from everyone and everything. Bart Maverick hadn't felt this alive in months. And when dawn came and everyone but him was finally tired enough to quit, he was over a thousand dollars ahead and had reclaimed his soul. This was what he'd needed all along! He went back to his hotel a happy man. If he hurried he had enough time to shave, change clothes and eat breakfast before he picked up Georgia Mayfield. He had no idea that trouble named Rusty Meyers would soon pay him an unexpected visit.
He ate like a man left starving in the desert for weeks. For once he understood where Bret managed to put all that food and he enjoyed every bit of it. He was so pleased with himself that he was even humming as he went to the livery stable and collected the buggy. When he pulled up in front of the house where he'd left Georgia there wasn't a happier, more content man on earth. Things were finally looking up. When Georgia opened the door and said good-bye to her friend Cindy she was surprised to find him in such high spirits. He opened the gate, took her small case and loaded it on the buggy, then helped her climb aboard with a smile and a flourish of his hand. He made her laugh.
"Really, Bart, are you that happy to see me or just that happy?" she asked as they started off towards Silver Creek.
"It's a beautiful day to be alive, Georgia Mayfield, and for once I'm glad I am!" The ringing in his ears had stopped and there were no headaches this morning. He was happier than she'd seen him in months and she wondered what had caused this great change. She was almost afraid to ask.
"Is there some reason for this change of heart that I should know about?"
"Nope." Was that the only answer that she was going to get out of him? He drove on, smiling and humming and it made her wonder just what the young, good looking man had been up to all night. But she decided that was his business and she had no right to intrude. They'd only gone a few miles when she had another question to ask him.
"Can I talk to you about your cousin?" There was a serious tone in her voice and she really needed a non-judgmental sounding board.
"Sure." His standard answer but it sounded sincere.
She wasn't sure how much he knew; Beau was close-mouthed when it came to revealing private matters. "You know that we've been spending time together?"
"That's pretty obvious, isn't it?"
"On a fairly regular basis?"
Bart let out a little chuckle. "That's pretty obvious, too."
Georgia was hesitant to go much further. "How do you feel about that?"
His answer was thoughtful. "I don't want either one of you to get hurt."
"Do you think we're going to?"
Bart hesitated before answering. "Yes."
Georgia was curious. "Why?"
She waited a long time for Bart to answer. "Because you're not the kind of woman he needs. You're sober, settled, established in life. Beau's still restless. He likes to travel too much. One morning he's gonna wake up and need to be gone. And you can't go with him."
Georgia was stunned by the depth of his insight. She hadn't thought about those things. She'd given her relationship with Beau a lot of thought but never in the terms that Bart had just outlined to her. He put everything in a new light and she wanted to look at it that way. Maybe it wasn't a good thing, after all.
She was quiet for a long time and finally Bart asked, "Was that too serious for you? I wanted to be honest."
"No," Georgia answered. "I asked because I wanted to know what you think."
The buggy pushed on in silence for a few minutes and finally Georgia asked, "Have you discussed this with Bret?"
"No, Beau's relationships really aren't any of our business. I just don't want to see him hurt."
"And you're sure I'll hurt him?" 'Cards all in now,' Georgia thought.
"Eventually, yes. The day he realizes he needs to leave."
Georgia had finally heard someone tell her the things she didn't want to hear. The things that made her unhappy. The things she knew were true. There wasn't any more to say.
Rusty, Pete and Jack had ridden as hard as they could back towards Silver Creek the night before. Dawn was just breaking as they reached the JP ranch. Pete and Jack hid out in the overgrown brush down by the real Silver Creek and Rusty went to the ranch house. Even though the sun had just risen, Edgar Pike was already sitting out on the porch listening to the roosters' crow.
He didn't move when Rusty rode up but the expression on his face changed to one of displeasure. He assumed he'd seen the last of Meyers when the job to permanently dispose of one of the Mavericks was botched. He'd had to live with the result of the mess that Meyers and the Sanborns made for months now, and his very existence had been threatened by that unresolved issue.
Rusty got down off his horse and walked up to the piece of porch that Pike was sitting on. "Mornin'" he offered to Edgar, who only grunted back.
"Saw something last night in Barkers Corners that was upsetting." Pike still didn't say anything. "That Maverick feller playin' poker, lookin' just as fit as a fiddle. Real disappointed to find him still alive. Came to see if you wanted me to rectify the situation."
Edgar snorted in derision. "Rectify the situation? You mean the situation you and your cronies botched? What makes you think I'd trust you to rectify the situation?"
"Look, Pike, it was a mistake. Any normal man would have been dead. Should have been dead. That's why we came back, to see if you still wanted the job finished."
"Do you have any idea what my life has been like since you failed to do the job I paid you for? I've been a prisoner here in my own home. I can't go anywhere in Silver Creek without having to listen to everybody talk about 'what a brave lad' Maverick was and how lucky he was to be alive. Lucky! Huh! Stupid, is what it was. And stupid is what you were. You shoulda' made sure he was dead. And now you wanna rectify the situation? For more money, no doubt."
The thought of asking for more money hadn't occurred to Rusty, but now that Pike brought it up he was certainly agreeable to it. "Well, yeah, if we have to take the risk all over again. Him or one a the other ones?"
Edgar had heard enough. "Get out of here, you imbecile! I'm not giving you another cent. You didn't finish the job the first time. Leave me alone before I turn you and those other idiots in to the sheriff!"
Never threaten a violent man, and that's just what Pike had done. All sort of things went through Rusty's head, but the most important was that Edgar Pike's continued existence was now a threat to his life and freedom. Without saying another word he mounted his horse and went back to the creek where the Sanborns waited for him. They had some planning to do.
The remainder of the trip back to Silver Creek was uneventful. Bart and Georgia talked about everything but Beau. Finally Bart opened up to someone about his late wife, Caroline, and told her the whole story, until the day he left the Double C ranch. He deliberately omitted the immediately following six month period and finally revealed his return to New Mexico and his encounter with Bret. When he was done they were just outside Silver Creek.
"That's quite some story, Bart," Georgia told him quietly. "Have you been back to the ranch since?"
"Nope," he answered just as quietly. "I've written to Samantha and gotten letters from her several times, but no visits." There was a long pause before he added "I'm afraid to go back, Georgia. I don't know what I'd do if I came face-to-face with Caroline's grave." He stopped the buggy in front of "The Three Mavericks" saloon and hung his head for a moment. "I saw her, you know. The night of the -"He struggled for just the right word "– incident. She was there, sometime during the night. I wanted to go with her, but she wouldn't let me. She told me to listen to Bret and follow him instead." Here there was a very long pause. "So I did what she told me to do. I stayed with Bret." He looked up at her and for a moment there were tears in his eyes and a pleading in his voice. "Did I do the right thing?"
Georgia reached over and took his right hand, the hand with the pinky ring on it. "Yes, you did," she told him gently. "Bret and Beau would be lost without you." He brightened back up at that and got down out of the buggy. He helped Georgia out and stood there with her. "Thanks." He looked her in the eyes and for a moment saw what Beau had seen the day they kissed. Warmth and understanding and sympathy. And Bart was grateful for her friendship and support.