“Wake up.” Freezing water splashes in my face and then there’s a kick to the right side of my ribs. The pain ripping through my head is too much to take. I roll over and clench my eyes shut, gripping for my head.
“Maverik Maddox Slatter, get your ass up now.”
Granddad’s voice rings clear in my throbbing head, and I do everything I can to muster enough energy to sit up against a hay bale. I pull down my straw hat and grumble back at him.
“What in the hell are you doing, son?”
He waits for me to answer but only a few more painful moans escape.
“I’ve watched you destroy your life year by year since Ella left town, and I’m done. She’s back in town and needs support. You going to be a coward or step it up?”
“I love her. I’ve never stopped loving her. I want all of her and can’t control myself around her. It’s just like she walked out of my life yesterday.” I let my hat slide to the ground and grip my temples. “I don’t want her to leave but don’t know how to let myself love her again.”
“Maverik, look at me.”
The silence in the barn is deafening as I pick at the straw coating my jeans. It’s more painful than my throbbing headache and dry mouth.
“Look at me, dammit.”
When I look up, the grief and pain combination covering Granddad’s face is just another dagger to my already wounded heart.
“Then be man enough to give her a chance.” Granddad slowly takes a seat on a bale of hay across from me. “Have you ever flat out asked her why she left?”
“I’m not dumb. She left for the city.”
“There’s your problem, boy, you’re assuming you know all the answers.”
“She basically told me that when I ran into her for a few brief minutes at the rodeo with Challis and Merek.” I do my best to slide up onto the hay bale and sit down, but I don’t miss the shooting pains going off in my head. “She could do nothing but brag about the city life and told me she needed help dodging a date.”
“Dammit, Maverik, you’re not listening to me. You’re assuming everything when it comes to Ella. Now I don’t know why she left, but I do know she loved you just as much as you loved her, and it’s worth finding out.”
I bury my face in the palms of my hands and grunt. I can’t handle any more of Ella and the fucking emotions simmering within me. I want nothing more than to chalk it all up to a pot of bad decisions and move the hell on.
“Can you live the rest of your life without her, Maverik? Will you be okay knowing you let her walk right out of your life this time?”
“No, it killed me the first damn time.” Overwhelming emotions attack my core.
“Then go get her, find out answers, and make a decision from there instead of living in your own personal hell.”
“She left for the city life. I wasn’t enough.”
“Dammit, boy, it’s your choice.”
I watch as he takes his time to stand and hear several of his bones creak and crack as he moves about. I let his message replay over and over in my head as I process the words. When I look back up, Granddad is nearing his front porch and Marvel is by my side in the stable.
“I need help today.”
“We need to move some cattle around and help Merek and Challis work the colts. We need to be on them double time from here on out.”
“Okay.” I kick a cloud of dust up in the air, sliding my boot back and forth.
“Saint’s going to be done screwing with us.”
“Saint will never be gone until the day he dies, and then more than likely he’ll leave behind a mini-him. Fuckers like Saint will always be around fucking with the good people.”
“Go change and be ready in twenty minutes. I’ll get your horse ready.”
Marvel storms out the open doors into the sunlight and it’s in this moment I see the Marvel I used to know disappear in front of me. He’s hardened with hatred and stressed beyond belief. Life’s been a bitch to all of us, but I guess the difference between Marvel and myself is that I have the choice to try to fix this shit with Ella, or at least get some unanswered questions resolved.
My tiny bunkhouse is quiet and lonely with lingering memories of sweet Ella gracing it. Just the short time she was here made everything change. I want her here. I want her forever. My heart just has to figure out a way back to her.
I grab my phone and dial the local motel’s number and cringe when I realize I have the number memorized from several nights of inappropriate behavior with strange women. A vicious cycle I used to drown out memories and numb my pain that Ella left me in.
“Wagon Wheel front desk.”
“Um, yeah.” I pause, not really knowing what I want to ask or say.
“Hello? What can I help you with?”
“Ella James’ room please.”
The phone begins ringing, and I cringe with each ring, still not knowing what I’ll say to her. Ring after ring goes by until it’s cut off.
“Fuck.” I throw down my cell phone, start my coffee pot, and head for the shower.
The cold water stuns every single one of my senses as well as brings my sore muscles to life. Cuts and bruises begin to sting the longer I stand under the spray of water. My hand stops over my chest, right above my heart, and I hear my granddad’s words again, encouraging me to find out the reasons Ella left. I could argue back with well over a dozen reasons not to, but something clicks in my mind. I’m going for her and not giving up this time.
I race out of the shower, dry off, and throw on my riding clothes. Snagging the hot and very full coffee pot, I dash to Granddad’s porch where he’s sitting and begin speaking before he has a chance to. I feel Jake settle between my legs but don’t even take the time to pat his head.
“You’re right.” I fill his empty black coffee mug and then sit down next to him. “I have to end this hate relationship I have for Ella and accept why she moved.”
“You do.” He nods and takes a long sip from his mug.
“I’m going to need you by my side. I’m afraid she’s going to shatter me again. Fuck. I’ve been shattered for years now.”
“Maverik, I’d rather have a broken boy who can heal than a bitter bastard who’s going to waste away the rest of his life in hatred.”
“I hear you. I do.” My hand finds the top of Jake’s head. “I just don’t think I can let her go if I give in.”
“Then don’t let her go, dammit. We all make mistakes, son. Move on.”
“Let’s go.” I look up to see my brother with my horse saddled and him atop his.
“I’ll do it.” I brave a smile when I turn to Granddad and don’t miss his beaming face. “Thanks, old man. I’ll grab my coffee pot after dinner.”
My boots are deafening as they pound the sidewalk down to the gravel road where my horse stands. With each step, I feel like a coward with the thoughts of what I’m about to let my heart do, but I know it’s the right thing. I fucking love Ella and looks like I have one chance to get her back in my life.
“What was that all about?” Marvel tilts his head to one side.
“Oh, just Granddad making me do the right thing.” I throw a foot up into a stirrup, grip onto the horn of my saddle, and settle down on the back of Chili. I smile knowing Marvel saddled up my favorite horse. He’s been around since my high school days and I used to calf rope and team rope off of him before saddle bronc became too addicting. Ella loved Chili.
I kick him into a slow trot and realize every single thought that passes through my mind always goes back to Ella, even before she came home. Marvel keeps up by my side as we let our horses go at full gait to the back pasture. The crisp air, the sound of pounding hooves, and the smell of the ranch all calm each of my senses, causing me to breathe in deep and exhale.
Merek and Challis’s happy faces flash before my eyes. I see my granddad rocking happily on his porch and Marvel working his fingers to the bone on the ranch he loves. Then I see me on the tailgate of my truck holding a cold beer and petting Jake. The scene immediately makes my stomach turn because it’s not the right ending for me and never has been.
“There they are.” Marvel points over to a herd of black cattle.
I follow behind him as he rides up to them. We begin gathering them up one by one and I watch and listen to old Jake work his heart up gathering the cattle. Several minutes go by before they group together and we begin trailing them back toward the barn and corrals.
I’m going for her. I’m going for her. I chant over and over in my head as Chili trots behind the herd rhythmically, lulling me back into an Ella induced trance.