Two and A Half Years Later…
Ellie clutched the wrinkled sheet of paper in her shaking hands, reading it over for the thousandth time since it had arrived in the mail four weeks earlier.
The envelope had immediately caught her attention—the return address was a P.O. Box in Milwaukee. She didn't know anyone in Wisconsin. Her breath caught as it had each time she had received a piece of unknown mail. It had to be from Chuck.
The first letter arrived two months after Chuck and Sarah left. It had a postmark from Atlanta, and was from someone named "Ben Sawyer." The short note indicated that he was old friend from college, but Ellie recognized Chuck's handwriting. "Ben" reminisced about old times and the stories from their youth, including their tradition of Sunday morning pancake breakfasts, made her weep for her lost brother. Two months later, it was a generic postcard from "Aunt Mary" who raved about the beautiful B&B she was staying at in San Francisco and the delicious breakfast she had eaten that morning. The mail arrived every seven or eight weeks and was always postmarked from a different region of the country. The knowledge that he was happy and safe was enough to get her through, even though she her heart ached with sadness.
The wedding had been tough. She had never been so torn in her life. She was ecstatic when she saw Devon waiting for her at the altar, but the fact that she walked down the aisle alone instead of with her brother prevented her from truly enjoying the moment. Originally, she had held out hope that he would sneak into the ceremony, but the sight of four government agents circling the reception hall made her thankful that he hadn't tried anything stupid.
Three months ago she had received a note from her "godmother" in Maine who included a recipe for her famous blueberry pancakes, but the mail had been filled with bills and junk ever since. They had agreed to only send each other two online messages a month in order to avoid suspicion, as Ellie's computer was surely being monitored. He hadn't responded to her message in two weeks, however, so the mystery envelope was a welcome sight. She tried to ignore thoughts of a time when the messages ceased all together, but sometimes her fears took over.
She gratefully ripped the envelope open, and was surprised to find a typewritten letter on official letterhead. The logo was the silhouette of a cowboy, complete with chaps and spurs, sitting on a fence, accompanied by the words "Lazy H Ranch, Come Ride With the Best!"
As she read the letter, her heart began to sink. She chastised herself for jumping to the conclusion that it was from Chuck, but her confusion grew.
Dear Dr. Bartowski,
Thank you for contacting us about our wonderful guest ranch in the heart of Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest! We write this letter to confirm the reservations for you and your husband from September 17th through the 20th. We have a lovely cabin set aside just for you!
Had Devon made vacation plans without telling her? Was this a surprise? But why was it addressed to her if Devon made the reservations? Something didn't add up . . . what if . . . ? Suddenly her head started to swim. The ranch was in Wyoming, but it had been postmarked in Wisconsin. Devon hadn't done this. It was a message from her brother.
We know you will enjoy your fall getaway! Our ranch offers many activities, including horseback riding, fly fishing, evenings at the rodeo, and nightly bonfires featuring the musical stylings of our talented staff. We even offer an overnight trail ride! After a day-long ride up Ptarmigan Mountain, enjoy eating a dinner of cowboy chili and biscuits from a real chuckwagon. Get ready to spend a night under the stars, and then our wranglers will fix you a gourmet breakfast, including steak, eggs, biscuits and pancakes. For our younger guests, we offer . . .
The letter went on with more details, but Ellie couldn't read any more. She was shaking. She desperately wanted to call Devon, but the phone had been tapped long ago. She knew what this meant. She would see Chuck in less than a month.
The excitement she had felt at that moment didn't compare to the butterflies she felt now that they were just miles away. Anticipation was mixing with exhaustion, and she found she could barely sit still in the passenger seat. They had been driving their friend's car for the last two days. Over the last two and a half years, they had become very knowledgeable in the ways of the CIA and NSA. Plane tickets would reveal their location in a heartbeat, especially since they were now on a terror alert watch list. The CIA would know where they were going before the plane left the ground. Devon had found tracking devices on both of their cars last year. Rather than trying to disable it, they had borrowed a very understanding friend's car.
As the road wound through the dense trees and tall, craggy ridges, Ellie thought to herself that it was the perfect place to escape to. In the winter, the roads were probably impassable. They passed through Wapiti, a town that seemed to consist of one building holding both the post office and a bar, along with one house, presumably belonging to the post master slash bartender. Other than that, they didn't see any evidence of civilization. The more isolated the better, thought Ellie.
"It'll be right around here, babe," Devon said, obviously trying to soothe Ellie's frayed nerves as she read the directions over and over. "It should be six miles past Wapiti . . ."
"There, I see it!" Ellie cried out, pointing to the wooden sign branded with the words "Lazy H Ranch" above the same cowboy's silhouette from the letterhead in her hands. They turned and drove up a long winding road along a babbling brook until they came to the ranch. Devon parked the car in front of the main lodge and they surveyed the situation.
The lodge was built in the style of a large log cabin and seemed to house some guest rooms, a large main room, and a restaurant. Next to it was a grassy lawn that seemed to be the center of guest activity. A wrangler was teaching a couple in clean starched jeans how to rope a cow using a sawhorse, while a man attempted to play a game of horseshoes with two young children. Several guests were resting on the patio, and two more guests lay in a hammock by the stream, perfectly relaxed as they read their books.
Ellie couldn't relax, though. Where was Chuck? Her eyes frantically scanned the ranch further. Beyond the lodge there were perhaps a dozen private cabins, presumably additional guest accommodations. Next to the stream stood a stable and large corral filled with horses. A group of guests were leaving on a trail ride, and two wranglers were standing next to a large horse while gesturing animatedly towards his rear right leg. Ellie had hoped Chuck would be there to great them. She realized that they were going to have to ask someone for him, but she had no idea who she should ask for.
A wiry man in a faded button down shirt and a well-worn cowboy hat walked towards them.
"Welcome to the Lazy H! My name is Brian. Can I help you?"
Devon shook Brian's hand as he cleared his throat. "Sure, we're here to check in, but we're also looking for someone."
"You're in luck, I know everyone," Brian said. "Staff or guest?"
One glance at Ellie revealed that she was unsure of the answer as well. "Um . . . staff," he said, his voice rising into a question.
Brian looked at Devon strangely, but didn't say anything. "Okay, what's the name?"
Ellie and Devon exchanged the same perplexed glance. "Um . . . Chuck?" Devon definitely phrased it as a question this time.
Brian wrinkled his nose in thought. "Chuck? Oh wait, do you mean Charlie?"
"Yes!" Ellie said, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. "Charlie. I'm his sister."
"Of course! He said you were coming in today." Brian turned to face the corral as he raised his voice to a gruff bark. "Walker! Hey Walker, someone's here to see you."
Ellie and Devon whipped around and looked at the corral. The taller of the two cowboys was bent over and was supporting the large horse's bent knee on his thigh as he and his colleague examined the animal's rear hoof. At the sound of his name, his head snapped up and he stared at the couple for a moment, frozen.
Suddenly he dropped the horse's leg and stood up. "Ellie!"
Ellie started to run towards him, and before she knew it, she was in his arms, tears running freely down her cheeks. They joyfully embraced until Devon came up behind them and enveloped them in a three-person hug, and suddenly all three of them were laughing.
As they detangled themselves, Ellie wiped the tears from her eyes and took in the sight of the man in front of her for the first time. He looked so . . . grown up. He had easily gained twenty pounds of muscle, and his chest and shoulders were so much broader than she remembered. He even seemed to stand taller, but perhaps that was just the effect of the well-worn cowboy boots adorning his feet. He was wearing a pair of dusty jeans and a faded button-down shirt. His hair looked shorter, but it was tough to tell under his beat-up old Stetson. His eyes were just as bright and lively as always, though, and the enormity of how much she had truly missed him over these last two years hit her. She had no idea what to say.
They stood quietly staring at one another, until all three burst forth with questions simultaneously.
"How was the wedding? How is Morgan? How did you get here?" Chuck looked at the couple's car nervously.
"Are you really a cowboy? That is seriously awesome. Look at those muscles," Devon said as he admired his brother-in-law's new physique.
"Is everything okay? Are you safe?" Ellie's question voiced the concern she had been fighting since she got his letter.
Chuck saw the alarm in her eyes and immediately soothed her. "Don't worry, sis. Everything's okay. We just wanted to see you."
Ellie smiled, her fears assuaged. "Where's Sarah?" she asked, her eyes surveying the ranch.
"They just went into town to get a few things. She should be back any minute. Now tell me everything about your life, starting with the wedding."
Ellie smiled and began to fill Chuck in on all of the details she had longed to share with him for so long. Devon was just finishing telling the story about how their cousin Eileen's tube top had fallen down while she was doing the YMCA at the reception when the growl of a loud engine broke the peaceful silence of the ranch. A familiar beat-up yellow truck with a bed full of hay bales rounded the corner, its gears grinding to a painful stop a few feet from the group.
A short brunette jumped out of the passenger seat, but she hung back behind the truck when she saw the group. The driver's side door opened, and a fuzzy gray dog leaped to the ground, running immediately to his master.
"Lucky!" cried Ellie, leaning down to kiss the dog that had lived with them for a week. She stood up in time to see a tall woman wearing a loose, checkered blouse and faded jeans step gingerly out of the driver's seat. Her hair was darker, but she was unmistakable. "Sarah!"
Ellie ran towards her and embraced her tightly, the tears flowing once again.
Chuck started laughing behind the women. "Careful, don't crush her!"
"I'm sorry," Ellie said, standing back but still gripping Sarah's hands in hers. "I just can't believe I'm here with the both of you!"
"We can't believe it, either," Chuck said, crooking his arm around his sister's shoulders and kissing the top of her head. "There's someone else I want to introduce you to."
He gestured to the woman hanging back behind the truck, and she shyly walked towards the group. "Ellie, this is Sarah's cousin, Emily."
"Its so wonderful to meet you," Ellie practically squealed, her excitement getting the best of her as she squeezed the brunette.
Emily looked shocked at the reception, but enthusiastically hugged Ellie back.
"And this," Chuck said, gesturing to a tall man who was approaching the group with two small children, "is Sarah's brother Nate, and Emily's kids Sam and Susie."
"Sarah's brother! Oh my gosh, I can see the resemblance." Ellie gave Nate a tight hug, which he responded to with a sheepish grin. It had taken a full two years, but Emily had finally convinced him to try and repair his relationship with his sister. This weekend was the first time they had seen each other, and although he was still slightly standoffish, Chuck knew it meant the world to Sarah that Nate had begun to forgive her.
"Hey dudes," Devon said, kneeling down to the children. "Didn't I just see you guys beating the pants off of your Uncle Nate at a game of horseshoes?" The children dissolved into shy giggles.
Chuck surveyed the scene, visibly overwhelmed by the sight of the people surrounding him. "Come on," he said, grabbing Ellie's hand, "lets get you settled in."
After a long hot shower rinsed the grit from the road off of them, Devon and Ellie walked down to the lodge to join Chuck and Sarah on the patio. Ellie paused before they joined the couple. She couldn't believe she had been given this gift, and she needed a moment to absorb the sight of the two of them. Sarah was leaning back in a wooden Adirondack chair, her long legs stretched out and resting on Chuck's lap, her boots sitting empty beside the chair. Chuck's worn cowboy hat was perched on her head and tilted up slightly, looking as natural as if she had been wearing it her whole life. Chuck was leaning forwards towards her, his face filled with pure joy and love. They were happy. They were safe. There was nothing more Ellie could ask for.
Chuck's face lit up even farther when he saw them approach. He quickly dragged two more chairs over, and soon the foursome was engaged in lively conversation, Chuck insisting that they hear everything from Ellie before he filled her in on his life.
"Frosty! Come meet my family." Chuck yelled out, greeting his friend as a rugged man headed over to their table, a tray of beers and waters in his hand.
At the sound of his name, Ellie struck her head with her palm. "Frosty! We've been trying to figure out how you ended up here! I forgot you had a friend in Wyoming."
Chuck laughed as he introduced his friend to his sister and brother-in-law. "I was counting on that. Frosty, this is Ellie and Devon."
"Awesome!" Frosty said as he shook Devon's hand.
"I guess my reputation precedes me," Devon said with a small smirk on his face.
"Don't worry about it. Everyone called me Dave until this guy showed up," he said, pointing his thumb at Chuck. "Now the entire staff calls me Frosty."
Frosty's wife Naomi, balancing their infant son James on her hip, met them on the patio and Emily, Nate, and the kids soon joined them. Devon and Ellie were finally treated to the story of how Chuck and Sarah ended up outside of Wapiti, Wyoming. They recounted several stories of their disastrous trip north--how the truck had broken down twice in Nevada, how they were stranded in the middle of nowhere and had to sleep in the bed of the truck on their first night, and how Lucky had gotten sick all over the driver's seat. No matter how trying it had been, they had gotten through it together, and Chuck knew they'd be laughing about the drunk tow truck driver who was missing all of his teeth and loved to sing along with Britney Spears until they were both old and grey.
Frosty told a hilarious story about his reaction when Chuck arrived and informed him about why exactly his name was now Charlie Walker, and then amused the group with tales of Chuck's first few awkward attempts at working with the horses. Ellie was amazed to hear that Chuck had learned to ride a horse and that he now regularly lead trail rides up and down the surrounding mountains. As a child, Sarah had ridden horses, so the transition to wrangler was easy for her, but Chuck had never been a natural athlete.
"You have to take us on a trail ride tomorrow. I can't wait to see you in action," Ellie exclaimed.
"Hmm," Chuck said, pausing as he took a swig of beer, "we've already got plans for tomorrow. But I've got a horse with your name on it for Sunday."
Ellie's interest was piqued. "What's on for tomorrow?"
"Actually, we're getting married," Chuck said casually.
Ellie and Devon simultaneously choked on their beers as the rest of the group laughed at their reactions.
Sarah and Chuck exchanged an amused look as he rubbed her legs still resting in his lap.
"Yup, I'm going to make this little cowpoke my wife," Chuck said, leaning forward and teasingly pushed the brim of the hat down further on her face. Sarah gave him a small kick to his ribs in retaliation.
"Oof. I guess I deserved that."
Ellie looked back and forth at the couple, practically bursting with happiness. "Tell me everything!"
"Well," Sarah said, taking a drink of water, "at first we didn't really see the need. I mean, I'm not that traditional. I don't feel like I need a piece of paper from the government to bind Chuck and I together. I mean, I think we kind of cross that threshold back in that truck in Nevada." The couple exchanged a secret glance, and Ellie decided not to push that topic any further.
"Plus, there was the small fact that, according to the government, Sarah Irving and Charlie Walker didn't even exist," Chuck said with a small laugh.
"Yes, there was that small little detail," Sarah said, sharing a private smirk with Chuck. "But recently, something happened that convinced us that we should probably shore up our identities with some official government papers. I talked to a safe contact who hacked into the system, and just like that, we had social security cards and tax records."
"What happened to make you want official identifications?" Devon asked as Ellie gave Sarah a suspicious glance.
Chuck cleared his throat and gave his sister a sheepish look. "We needed health insurance."
With that, Ellie suddenly squealed and leapt up, first embracing Sarah, and then turning to her brother and throwing her hands around him.
"What?" Devon was obviously confused by his wife's sudden excitement over health insurance. He looked to Sarah for clarification. She gave him a mischievous smile and took an exaggerated swig of water. It took the doctor a moment, but the clues slowly began to fall into place. The loose blouse, the way Chuck had been gingerly doting on her, the water, and the health insurance.
"Congratulations! That's awesome," Devon said as he followed his wife, giving Chuck and Sarah large hugs. "How far along are you?"
"Four months," Sarah said, blushing slightly from all of the attention. She held her shirt closely to her body, and a slight bump was immediately visible.
"Once we became official U.S. citizens, we thought we might as well go all in and get legally married," Chuck said, looking into Sarah's eyes adoringly.
"Ellie," Sarah said, taking her legs off of Chuck and leaning forward towards the brunette, "will you be my bridesmaid?"
Ellie wrapped her arms around Sarah for what seemed like the eightieth time that day. "Of course!" Her eyes clouded up momentarily. "But I didn't really bring anything appropriate to wear."
"Don't worry," Emily said, "we've got you covered."
"And Devon," Chuck said, addressing his brother-in-law, "I've got a suit with your name on it if you will be my Best Man."
"It'd be my honor, bro," Devon said, shaking Chuck's hand earnestly.
"Is it a girl or a boy? Do you have names picked out?" Ellie was already in aunt mode, thinking of all of the cute clothes she would buy for the baby.
"We don't want to know the sex. I like surprises," Sarah said with a small smile. "We were thinking of Eleanor Emily Irving-Walker for a girl, after two women who made us the people we are today."
Emily and Ellie exchanged a gleeful look.
"I thought we had decided on Walker-Irving," Chuck said, an amused expression on his face. "You know I've always hated the name Irving."
"Too bad, Lefty," she replied teasingly. "You should have told me that two years ago when I took it. If you're stuck with me, you're stuck with my name."
Chuck gave an exaggerated sigh, but couldn't help but smile. They had obviously had this conversation several times before. "I guess I don't mind being stuck with you." They shared another private glance before Chuck went on. "If it's a boy, Maxwell Douglas Irving-Walker, after our fathers."
Sarah gave Nate a quick glance, and he gave her a small nod of approval. Despite everything that had happened, Sarah had wanted to honor her father. He deserved the small tribute after all of the pain she had brought him.
The next evening, a small crowd gathered at the lodge and ascended the short trail to the top of the ridge behind the ranch. The setting sun reflected off of the orange rocks of the clearing as the ranch's employees stood in a semi circle, shirts freshly ironed, hats in hands.
Chuck stood tall in a dark suit, nervously folding and unfolding his hands. Devon whispered a few encouraging words in his ear as Frosty tried to quiet James, who was trying to squirm out of his dress clothes.
Angela, a waitress at the ranch, began playing the fiddle, and the ceremony started. Susie and Sam emerged from the trail, and Susie dropped flower petals in an uneven pattern as she toddled up the improvised aisle. Naomi, Ellie, and Emily followed behind them carrying bouquets of flowers from the ranch's garden.
Chuck adjusted his tie nervously as he waited for Sarah to appear. His breath was taken away when he saw her emerge from behind the trees on the elbow of her brother moments later. She was wearing a strapless white knee length dress and wildflowers were twisted through her hair. Her eyes were locked on his, and he knew that despite all of the pain that it had brought, that email from Bryce was the best thing that had ever happened to him, because it brought her into his life.
They pledged their love and commitment in front of family and friends, and then Sarah Irving and Charlie Walker were married. He kissed her sweetly as the crowd cheered, and in that moment, his heart was filled with more love than he could have ever imagined.
They made their way into the lodge, which was already filled with all of the guests at the ranch awaiting the reception. The lodge had been decorated with strings of white lights and candles, but Chuck didn't notice anything beyond the way they shown in Sarah's eyes. The two swayed slowly during their first dance, to "America," by Simon and Garfunkel. It might have seemed like a strange selection to their friends, but as Chuck held his wife close, he was taken right back to that night their truck had broken down in Nevada.
They had broken down on side of the road and were waiting for a tow that wouldn't come until dawn. They had stretched their sleeping bags out in the bed of the truck and were overwhelmed by the number of stars shining in the never-ending sky. Sarah was tucked into his arms and Lucky was tucked at his feet. The car radio was fading in and out and the song "America" softly came on. Despite the hardships of the day, despite the fact that they still had motor oil on their hands from the blown gasket, despite the fact that the temperature was dropping quickly and they hadn't seen another car in two hours, there was something magical about the moment. Chuck had kissed the top of her head, and quietly sang along with the first line:
"Let us be lovers we'll marry our fortunes together"
He could still remember the way she had looked up at him. Nothing else needed to be said. They had no idea what the future held. They had no idea whether they'd be dead within the week. But whatever was in store for them, their fortunes and fates were one. In their minds, they had been wed at that moment. Today was just the public acknowledgment of that fact. As she danced in his arms now, he saw he same thing in her loving gaze as he had that night. He could see tomorrow in her eyes.
As the night went on, everyone danced and celebrated. Chuck and Ellie finally got the chance to do the funky chicken together, and Devon twirled his new sister-in-law around the dance floor. James slept in his mother's arms as she swayed to "Pancho and Lefty." Roger, a craggily old wrangler, took a strong liking to Emily, who was grateful when Chuck cut in to dance with his new cousin to an old Van Morrison song.
After the cake was cut, Sarah took a breather from the dance floor and went outside for some fresh air. Nate and Devon were already outside, sharing a celebratory cigar. Frosty had set up a large bonfire in the fire pit next to the lodge, and the kids were sitting on a hay bale and roasting marshmallows. Ellie and Emily were sitting next to them, their head's dipped intimately together as they conversed animatedly. Sarah was happy they had found one another. Hopefully knowing someone else was in the same boat would help each woman deal with the missing pieces in their lives.
As Sarah stood in the doorway looking out at the scene, Chuck came up behind her and threaded his arm around her waist. She reached her arm around his waist and he kissed the top of her head. Neither said anything, but simply looked at the people in front of them-- their family.
They were home.