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Ghost of a Life

Chapter Three

Delores Reese turned off Fox Road into the Belmore driveway. She was surprised to see Clay sitting on the front porch. What startled her more was he had his father's Winchester rifle lying across his lap while he swung in the glider.

She parked and removed a bag of groceries from the backseat of her Gremlin. "Clay? What you doing out here?"


"With your daddy's rifle?"

"Got company. You watch him for a while."

"Him, who? What's going on?" She stepped up on the porch and glanced through the screen door to the living room.

"Letting that fella I pulled out of my wheat field stay here for a couple days. That's all."

"What fella? That's why you sitting up in here with that loaded rifle?"

"Don't worry. Watch him. Gotta go take my walk." Belmore leaned the Winchester against the siding next to the door frame and departed.

Delores tiptoed into the living room. She saw a swatch of dark brown hair and the pale skin of a hand laying on the armrest. She peeked over the couch. The man was sprawled asleep in Junior's pajamas. The covers were half on and half off his body. A shot glass was tipped over on the floor next to the couch.

What had Clay gotten himself into? She winced at the thought of not knowing what was happening and what could happen.


Joe, awakened by the sounds of pans rattling and the smell of bacon frying, twisted to look behind him into the kitchen. He gasped; wrong move, his ribs protested. He saw a portly black woman in an apron with her back to him. When the throbbing subsided, he sat up. "Morning. That smells pretty good."


Joe stretched his arms. A dull ache started in the back of his head. He needed a couple of aspirin. He rose slowly, testing his balance. His chest didn't feel as congested. In spite of the headache, he was on the mend.

He noticed a pair of a jeans, and a blue plaid shirt stacked on the coffee table. He grabbed his shoes and the clothing, slid the .45 underneath them to hide it from the woman's view, and went to the bathroom. He quickly showered, shaved, and dressed. He took a seat at the table. "My name's Joe."

"Delores. Don't sit there. That's Clay's spot." She placed silverware on the table for two. She returned to the griddle on the gas burner and flipped the pancakes over. Joe moved to the other end of the table.

"Got any coffee?" Joe asked.

"There's the pot. Make it yourself."

Joe found an old peculator next to the sink. He filled it with water and searched the kitchen cabinets for the coffee.

"Third on the left."

"Thanks." He found the coffee, measured for about three cups, plugged it in and returned to the table.

"How many?"

"How many what?"


"Oh, ah, three." Joe watched her slap the pancakes on a plate and then slam the plate on the table in front of him. Joe and the pancakes jumped. She plopped the bottle of Mrs. Butterworth next his plate. "Are you mad at me for some reason?"

"Damn straight. What have you gotten Clay into? I came here and he's sitting on the porch with a loaded rifle. Damn straight, I'm mad."

"Wait a minute, I didn't know he . . ."

"No, you wait a minute. You need to get up out of here and go back to where you came from. Whatever's going on, this house don't need no more trouble."

"Delores!" Belmore bellowed from the doorway. "You don't treat a guest in my house like that."

"Clay! He's trouble."

"I don't want to cause any problems. I'll go find a motel or something." Joe said.

"You got any money?" Belmore asked.

"Uh, no."

"Last time I checked, you need money to rent a motel room. Eat your breakfast."

Delores dropped the platter of bacon, eggs and ham in the center of the table. "I'll get the laundry started." She vanished down the hallway.

As Clay washed his hands in the sink, he noticed the coffee brewing.

"Who made the coffee?"

"I did," Joe said.

Belmore retrieved a pair of coffee cups and poured a cup for each of them. He sat down at his place and took a taste of Joe's coffee.

"Hope you get your memory back soon." Clay pushed aside his cup. "You forgot how to make coffee."

Joe's face grew warm. "It always tastes like that."


After breakfast, Joe moved to the porch glider. A cloudless blue sky coated the day. The screen door squeaked; Clay stepped from the house.

"Here's some ugly-ass sunglasses Delores bought me. Probably look better on you than me."


"Got chores. Delores's here if you need anything."

"I'd be afraid to ask."

"Don't take it personal. She worries about me being out here alone. You take your pills?"

"Yes, Papa."

"The Winchester's on the inside of the door. What'd you do with the .45?"

Joe leaned forward and pulled up the back of the plaid shirt. The .45 was tucked into the small of his back with the butt sticking above the waistband of his jeans.

"Funny place to keep a gun."

"I don't know . . . it just seemed right." Joe placed the shirt back over the gun.

"If you ain't a cop, you ought be."

"You need some help? I'd like to do something to repay your kindness."

"What's a city boy like you know about farming?"

"I . . . my pa . . . grew grapes." The memory of the smell of the vineyards overwhelmed him. "I remember helping him. I'm from . . . California."

"Hold up your hands." Joe was puzzled by the request. "No callouses. You ain't done any of that lately. I'll take care of the farming and you take care of the remembering." He ambled toward the barn.

The screen door squeaked again.

"Clay, the girls are asking," Delores yelled. "Are you going to coach softball this summer?"

"Nah, ain't got time," he yelled back. He vanished through the barn door.

"Sorry about earlier," Delores said. "I worry about him."

"He coaches softball?"

"Girls softball. Eight out of ten years he's taken his team to state and won twice. Junior was his assistant coach."

He noted that for a farm this size maybe only a quarter of the acreage was planted. Not enough to keep the farm profitable. A lot of things didn't add up. Through the trees he glimpsed a silver building.

"He must be proud of his son, the Medal of Honor and all."

"He don't care about that. He wanted Junior to come home and take over the farm like he did when he got out of the army."

Joe rocked and thought. The whole situation sounded familiar. "Do you know anything about his award of the Distinguished Service Cross?"

"He doesn't talk about it. Some say he should have gotten the Medal of Honor for what he did. Some say he didn't get the Medal of Honor because he's a black man." Delores wiped her hands on her apron. "I worry enough about him running around here all alone."

"Why doesn't he hire someone to help him?"

"Since Junior died, he don't want no help." She pointed to a small hill with trees and grave stones. "He goes up there every day to visit Junior."

"How do you know he visits the grave every day if you only come out on the weekends?"

"Sometimes I drive out before work and make sure I see him moving around."

"Does he know?"

"Probably. You need anything?"

"I'm fine."

"Holler. I'm almost done with the laundry."

The door squeaked again, and Joe was left to ponder his flash of memory. He grew up in California working with his father in a vineyard, but that had nothing to do with what he was doing in Enid, Oklahoma, about fifteen hundred miles away.

What did he about himself? He handled a gun like a cop. He'd been in an accident, but nobody knew where the car was and why and how it happened. He'd escaped from someone, but again who and why? He wasn't going to get the answers sitting here. He stepped off the porch into the sunlight, grateful for the sunglasses.

He paced from the driveway to the end of Fox Road and back looking for any clues that would trigger more memories. He searched the area of the wheat field where he had been found and crossed the road several times looking for anything that would tell him where he had been before. Powers was right; the rain washed away any evidence of where he'd come from. It had to have been from somewhere nearby. He was too injured to have traveled far.

He trudged back to the shade of the porch. The day was already a scorcher. He needed answers and aspirin. His head was aching again. As long as he didn't make any quick movements, he could almost forget he had bruised ribs. The rest of his body was only sore and stiff.

Joe tired of sitting on the porch and climbed the little hill that held the Belmore cemetery. He eased his body to the ground and lounged against one of the trees. Six headstones. If he didn't remember what happened, somebody might be picking one out for him, but right now he wanted the aches and pains of his body to go away. Under the coolness of the shade tree, Joe drifted off to sleep.

Field, he was in a field. A field of what? Stalks lashed his face. Keep moving . . . he's coming.

Rain . . . wet . . .

"Joe? Joe!"

A hand jarred him awake. His right hand reflexively reached for the gun underneath his shirt. He stared up at the startled face of Delores standing over him. She watched him replace the .45 in its hiding place.

"What you doing with Clay's gun?"


He caught her studying him like she wanted to ask questions she wasn't certain he had the answers to.

Finally she said, "I left dinner warming in the oven, fried chicken and vegetables. Sandwiches on the table for lunch and lemonade in the refrigerator."


"Don't thank me. Whatever you're mixed up in, get Clay hurt and you'll have to deal with me. Gun or not. Understand?"

"Yes, ma'am." Joe had no doubt Delores could back up her threat. She glowered at him as she backed down the driveway and disappeared down the road.


Vincenti observed the Belmore farm through binoculars. Mr. Russo was arriving at the Enid Airport that afternoon. He'd be there in plenty of time to pick him up, and then Mannix would need to do some remembering.


For a while Joe sat and listened to the hot breeze of the late morning wind rustling through the trees. He realized what he didn't hear was the sound of tractors or any other farm machinery, only the chickens. He hadn't seen Clay since breakfast.

As fast as his battered body would take him he checked the house and the barn. An old Dodge truck, he guessed was Clay's, was still in the driveway. Wherever he was, Clay had to be on foot. He returned to the hill to survey the rest of the farm. A large, silver metal maintenance shed stood on the other side of a fallow field.

His dread powering him, he traveled down the hill. As he crossed the field, he noticed a windsock at the far end billowing in the wind. As he approached the shed, he drew the .45. One of the twin sliding doors was open about three feet. He removed the sunglasses and peeked in. Clay was sliding a cleaning rag across the engine cowling of a Piper Cub airplane. Joe exhaled and stepped into the shed with gun pointed to the ground.

Clay glimpsed the .45 in Joe's right hand. "Plan on shooting somebody?" he asked.

"I hadn't seen you in awhile. I was worried."

"Worried about me?"

"I'm worried enough for both of us." Joe returned the .45 to its hiding place in the small of his back. "She's a beauty. Are you a pilot?"

"Nah, not me."

"Your son's?"

Clay shrugged and kept polishing. "Know something about planes?"

Joe skimmed his fingertips over the plane's wings. Something about the smile on his face reminded Clay of Junior.

"I . . . flew jets in the Korea. My basic flight training was in one of these."

Clay could almost see Joe's memories returning in the way he touched the plane as he explored it from the wings to the tail.

"You want to talk about it?" Joe's fingers brushed the propeller.

"Talk about what? Ain't nothing to talk about."

"A makeshift landing field and a plane in a shed. Only a part of the acreage planted. I think there's a lot to talk about. What happened between you and your son?"

"None of your business."

"You made it my business when you pulled me out of your wheat field and took me to the hospital. And when you let me stay here until I can remember what happened to me."

"Didn't do nothing special."

"No, you just did the right thing."

Clay swiped at the sparkling surface of the plane. "You know, that's what I tried to teach Junior. Do what's right. Yeah, I did what's right."

"That's all any man can do."

"Do you think I was right to throw him out of the house because he didn't want to be a farmer?" Clay saw that day all over again and the argument that drove Junior from the farm.

"You didn't do anything any other father wouldn't have done. My father did the same thing to me. The land couldn't hold me either."

Clay fought the memories. "Built him a play airplane from a crate and wood scraps. He'd pretend for hours. His mama, Louise, died right after he graduated from high school. She told me to let him go, but I couldn't. Couldn't. Wanted him here with me. Wanted to give him what my daddy gave me, the land the Belmores have owned for almost a century. Wanted to give him a future." Clay flung the rag to the ground. " Why wasn't this good enough for him?"

"Maybe that was the problem. Your past wasn't his future. I can't speak for your son, but for me, all I could think of was I'd be doing the same thing my pa was doing until I died. Scared me. I was so afraid my whole life would be digging in the dirt. There had to be more to life than vines and listening to the morning frost reports. So I went off to college on a basketball scholarship, and then the Korean War happened. I came home before I was sent to Korea hoping that we could come to some sort of understanding. All we did was argue. Mama tried to be the peacemaker, but he wasn't listening to anyone. He told me if I wasn't coming back to work his land, don't come home ever again."

"But you survived. You had a chance to straighten things out between you and him."

"Yes and no. I came back, but we didn't get this hammered out between us until about five years ago. At least now we can talk without getting into too much of an argument."

"So why are you remembering all this and not what happened to you a couple days ago?"

"I do remember pieces. I remember someone was chasing me. I can't remember why. I think I was looking for someone. Sometimes I can almost I can touch . . . I'm supposed to be—"

"Did you forgive your father? You know he was trying to do the right thing."

"Fathers have a funny way of saying 'I love you'. Did your son ever write to you from Vietnam?"

"A letter from him came the day after he was buried. Never read it."

"Do you still have his letter?"

Clay nodded. "On his dresser, in his G.I. Joe toy footlocker. Wrote him a letter too." Clay patted his shirt pocket. "Never mailed it."


"Don't know. Guess I was scared." Clay stared down at his feet. "Do you think he forgave me?"

"I'd say so." Joe pointed toward the little hill. "If he hadn't forgiven you, he would have stipulated in his will to be buried in a military cemetery, not at home."

Clay's mind returned to the days before the funeral. He dug Junior's grave by hand as he had for his father and his mother and his wife. Every shovelful of dirt grew his guilt, but no tears came that day or the day of the funeral.

In the last year Clay had stood at the graveside hoping for some sign of Junior's forgiveness. The stranger who stood beside him had helped him see it. From his shirt pocket, Clay pulled a ragged envelope containing the letter he never mailed. He did the one thing he had been unable to do. He read his letter to his son.

"Dear Junior, I want to apologize to you for what I did and said. You . . . a grown man and you can make your own mind up about your life. I've . . .always dreamed . . . of our working the farm together . . ."

Clay wept like he hadn't during his son's funeral. He wept for all the words he shouldn't have said and for the words he wished he had said.

Joe took the letter from his friend and continued reading for him.

"Your mother knew what I wouldn't admit. Before she died she tried to tell me to let you go. That if you really wanted to, you might come back to the farm after you were gone a while, but it had to be for you decide not me.

"The farm is yours if you want it. If not, please come home to visit. I'm sorry for what I said. Please come home."

Clay wiped his tears with his hand. "Did your father ever forgive you?" he asked.

"I'm not sure." A face, not quite in focus, came to him. "I hope he's learned to live with my decision." Joe refolded the letter and gave it back to Clay. He had wondered what would have happened if he hadn't returned alive from Korea, how his father would have felt. Through Clay, he glimpsed what could have been his father's anguish.

Through a cloud of dust a Garfield County Sheriff's patrol car approached. Deputy Powers greeted them.

"Afternoon, Mr. Belmore. Joe, Flint Jones may have found your car. It's nose down in a creek on the next farm over. How about taking a look?"

"Of course. Coming, Clay?"

"Go on without me. Got something I got to do."

"Let's go," Powers urged.

Joe hesitated. "Are you sure?" he asked Clay.

"Yeah, go on. Talk later."

Powers drove down Fox Road. "Still having trouble remembering anything?"

"Faces, some things, but pieces to a puzzle I can't put together because I don't know what it looks like. Some of what I remember doesn't seem to have any connection with what I'm doing here. I need to remember what happened here."


Anthony Russo was as short as Sal Vincenti was tall. He never let his lack of height keep him from letting others know he was the boss. Even in the afternoon heat he wore a suit and tie. Vincenti had stripped to his shirt sleeves. Russo watched as a deputy and Mannix left and a black man entered the house.

"So that's Mannix. The word is he's a pretty tough guy."

"He can't be too tough. His brains got scrambled when he ran his car off that bridge. We'll find out how tough he really is. Right, Mr. Russo?"

"He'd better get unscrambled real quick, or he'll be permanently fried."

Vincenti moved toward the car.

"Where you going?"

"The cop's gone, I thought . . ."

"You thought? Don't think. I'm here now. I'll do the thinking. We'll wait a little bit."

"Sure, Mr. Russo. Anything you say."

"We're going to use that black guy."


Clay opened the door to Junior's room. Long time since he'd been in here. Dust had settled on his son's desk and books. Junior's model planes hung from the ceiling over his bed. His duffel bag leaned on an unopened box of his personal items from Vietnam. An old, worn black & white photograph of Junior in the wooden crate plane was jammed in a corner of the dresser mirror. Clay touched the footlocker. "Clay Belmore Jr" was written on it in crayon. With the footlocker in hand, he rested on Junior's bed and held it on his lap. Finally he opened it.

He read the letter and like Joe said, Junior had forgiven him. He knew his father didn't mean what he said. His letter talked of his everyday life as a helicopter pilot: inspecting his ship before take off, talking with his crew chief about that hesitation in the turbines, about his flight crew, the only time the chow is any good is on the holidays, his trip to Japan on R&R, what it's like to fly at night, and how much he loves flying. And when he returned home he wants to take his father up in a plane and let him feel the freedom up above the clouds.

Clay held Junior's letter in his hands, and for the second time that day, he cried. Then carefully he folded the letter and returned it the toy footlocker. As he stood in the doorway, the jets from Vance Air Force Base flew overhead with a roar. Junior would always look to the sky whenever he heard a plane. Clay looked up now knowing his son had died doing what he loved.


When he saw the wrecked rental car, Joe wondered how he had escaped with only a concussion. The hood and part of the passenger compartment were submerged in the creek. The windshield cracks spiraled out from his head's impact with the glass. Credit cards, receipts and maps were scattered across the bank of the creek. His small suitcase had its contents yanked and thrown about.

Joe surveyed the wreck and surrounding area. He remembered.

Headlights . . . No! . . .splash . . . hit the windshield . . . then nothing. Hands pulling him from the car dragging him through water . . . on his back . . . crunch . . . pain, ribs. Searching his pockets, rolling him over. His head . . .

Powers picked up and examined several pieces of paper. "Hey, your last name is—"

"—Mannix," Joe said.

"Your middle name is Ricardo?"

"My father's best friend in the army in WWI. He was killed in the Meuse Argonne."

"Glad to meet you, Joseph Ricardo Mannix."

Joe examined the skid marks on the wooden planks that signaled the car's plummet off the wooden bridge.

Powers pointed out a deep set of grooves. "Somebody else was here. Skidded right into that field."


Deputy Marshal Rivera strode into the Garfield County Sheriff's Office carrying a manila file with him. His eyes browsed the empty office. A man of medium height and balding head entered the reception area from an open office door.

"Morning, what can I do for you?" Rivera showed his badge. "Marshal Rivera?"

"Is Sheriff Kline available?"

"You're talking to him."

"About 24 hours ago your office made a fingerprint request on somebody we're looking for. His name is Joseph R. Mannix, a private investigator from Los Angeles. I need your help to find him." Rivera handed him a photo from the manila folder.

"I haven't seen him myself. Deputy Powers is handling the case. This guy's got amnesia according to Doctor Hampton. Can't remember anything but his first name, Joe." Kline waved Rivera into his office and pointed to a chair in front of his desk. "That's why we fingerprinted him. Right now he's with Powers. Took him out to see what's possibly the wreck of his car. A Los Angeles private investigator, you say?"

"Have you noticed anyone in town that you haven't seen before? Someone who doesn't fit the usual tourist types you get around here?"

"Does this involve the Mafia? The witness program?"

"Yes." Rivera would never underestimate small town law enforcement again. "How did you know?"

"One of my deputies noticed a guy, like you said, not one of the usual tourist we get around here, staying at a motel out by Vance Air Force Base. You want him brought in for questioning?"

"Unless this Mannix remembers what or if he did anything to him, we don't have probable cause."

"I don't like organized crime parking on my doorstep." The sheriff picked up his phone and dialed a number. "Hey, darling, this is Kline. Have Tim get in here with Joe." He returned the handset to its cradle. "I'll help you get this guy anyway I can."


Powers and Joe drove away from the car wreck after the deputy signed the tow authorization to haul Joe's rental car from the creek.

"So," Powers said, "you were being followed by this guy. Why'd you turn off onto a dirt road?"

"I thought I might be able to lose him. You know, no street lights, turn off my headlights so he couldn't see me. That sort of thing."

"Yeah, we see how well that turned out."

"If I hadn't driven into a dead end, it might have worked. Just as I turned around, he turned in and we almost hit head on. I went off the bridge and he went into the field."

"You didn't get a look at him?"

"No, it was too dark and I was too hurt."

"You had enough sense to get away." Powers rounded the corner to Fox Road. "Now that we've got that part figured out, what about the envelope? Why a blank envelope and blank paper?"

"I agree with Clay on that. He said somebody was 'messing' with me. I didn't know the paper in the envelope was blank. I was told it had instructions on how to contact the lawyers about the estate. The blank envelope must have been a signal. As soon as I handed it to the missing person, he was marked."

"And so were you."

"Yeah, somebody's using me for a bird dog. Why? That's the question I'm going to ask John R. Regan as soon as I can get another rental car and be on my way to Medford."

"That guy's still out there waiting on you."

"This is where I was hoping for a little cooperation from a certain deputy sheriff."

"Oh, a little game of cat and mouse?"

"I don't mind being the mouse as long as I know the cat has a tail."

Powers laughed. "I'll see what I can arrange. Let me know when you plan to leave."

Joe watched Powers speed away. He had regained his memory and his life. Clay had been right when he guessed he was a cop, a private cop on a missing person case.

He gazed around the farm and remembered the smells and sounds of farm life: the dual smells of freshly plowed earth and fertilizer, the sound of the irrigation towers spraying droplets of water on the thirsty crops and the sun warming his skin. Clay's farm reminded him of his good times of growing up in California.


The ringing phone interrupted Rivera. Kline answered and listened. "Yeah . . . okay . . . tell him as soon as he's finished there, go back and get Joe and bring him in . . . thanks." He hung up the phone. "Powers already dropped Joe back at Mr. Belmore's. He's tied up with the OHP on a collision-death on Highway 81. Also he said seeing the car wreck jogged Joe's memory. He remembers most of what happened to him."

"Good, that's one story I want to hear."

Kline leaned forward. "Now, what are we doing about this?"


"Clay?" Joe clambered up the two steps to the porch. "Clay! I remem—" After he took two steps into the living room, someone slid behind him and jabbed a pistol in his back.

"Remember? Good. Now tell us."

Joe looked across the room and recognized the man holding a gun to Clay's head as Anthony "the Cat" Russo. Now he understood. A couple of years ago Adam Tobias told Joe about the new Witness Security Program, how it had been created to encourage the Mafia to rat on itself by giving immunity to squealers in return for their testimony against their former mob bosses. The turncoats got a new life and the bosses got a new address in care of the federal pen. Russo was using him to hunt down his snitch son, Johnny, AKA John R. Regan.

"Move." The other man urged Joe further into the living room with another poke in Joe's back.

Clay sat motionless at his place at the kitchen table.

"Stay cool, Mannix. I only want to know where Johnny is," Russo said.

"So you can kill him, kill your son?"

"He's my son! He broke the code." Russo waved his gun at Clay. "It's him or your black friend here, and we both know Johnny's not worth it."

"Wait a minute, Russo, you're only up on racketeering and tax evasion charges. You want to add murder to that?" Joe inched back toward his captor.

"Doesn't much matter. Anyway you look at it, I'm through because of Johnny."

"Stop moving, Mannix." The man's gun pushed on the .45 under Joe's shirt. "Hey, what's this?"

Clay jumped from the chair. "Joe, don't tell 'em nothing!"

"Shut up!" Russo elbowed Clay in the stomach.

Joe launched himself backward and slammed the man into the wall. Breath whooshed in his ear. Clatter, the gun dropped. Joe reached for his .45, but a jolt to his head stopped him in mid-motion. The man jumped him. His punch missed Joe's face and backed him into the sofa.

The sound of a gunshot jolted Joe for an instant. Joe, bent backwards over on the sofa, strained to reach the .45. A punch connected with Joe's jaw. He tasted blood.

Scraping sounds and the thud of bodies invaded Joe's focus. Clay! Another gunshot. Joe swept the man's feet out from under him. They both landed hard on the floor with Joe on top. The man stretched for his gun. Joe grabbed his hand away and punched him.

"Back off!"

Powers? Someone jerked his shirt. "Joe, stop! It's over. Stop!" Another tug. "Joe!"

Joe stared at the bloody face beneath him. His rage faded. He rolled the man over on his stomach; Powers handed his handcuffs to Joe.

"Clay?" Joe twisted around to look for his friend. Powers had Russo leaning face first with his hands on the kitchen wall. Clay lay at his feet.

Joe knelt by his fallen friend's side. Clay clutched his hands to his midsection. Blood seeped through his fingers.

"Let me take a look." Cautiously Joe removed his hands. The bullet had torn through his stomach. "Hold on." Joe pulled a towel from the kitchen table and pressed it against the wound.

"Read Junior's letter . . . right . . . he forgave me," Clay grimaced. "Never been . . . in a plane."

"Hold this." Joe placed Clay's hand on top of the cloth. He rushed to the bathroom and pulled towels from the rack. He piled them on the wound, trying to stop the blood. He draped the afghan from the couch over Clay.

"Wanted . . . Junior to take me . . . oh." Clay gasped.

"Lie still." Joe gripped Clay's hand." You get well and I'll take you flying."

Clay's eyelids closed.

"Clay, stay with me. Clay!"

Powers touched Joe's shoulder. "Ambulance is on the way."

Clay opened his eyes. "Hope you fly better . . . than you make coffee."


The ride to the hospital seemed longer than ten minutes. Joe sat in the passenger seat while the medic tended to Clay. He hadn't felt this helpless since Peggy had been shot. If he hadn't taken the case, if he hadn't tried to shake the man following him, if he hadn't skidded off the bridge, none of this would have happened. For once he wished he was the patient, not the passenger.

Joe paced the waiting room. A couple of punches from his fight started his head aching again. He eased onto the nearest couch and massaged his temples.

Powers dropped down beside Joe. "Here." He opened his hand to reveal a two aspirins. "You ought to get that cut on your face looked at." Powers handed him a paper cup of water.

"Yeah, later."

"Don't be blaming yourself. You didn't cause this. Russo started this whole mess when he hired you to find his son. You and Mr. Belmore just got caught in the middle."

"I know."

"Sheriff Kline and a guy from the Marshal Service are interviewing Russo and Vincenti. Russo's squawking that he won't even give them his zip code without a lawyer. They want to talk to you when they're finished with them."

"Later on that too."

"Doc Hampton's working on Mr. Belmore. He'll be fine."


"Geez, I liked you better when you had amnesia."

Joe chuckled. His headache lightened. "Thanks. I guess the cavalry really does come to the rescue out here in Oklahoma."

"Just remember me in your will." Powers inclined his head down the hall. "I can't help you with this one, buddy."

Joe spotted Delores making her way toward them. They both stood when she entered the waiting room.

"Miss Delores," the deputy tipped his hat to her.

She ignored him.

"I told you. I told you." She slapped Joe. "You supposed to keep him safe. You supposed—" Joe grabbed her hand in midair before she could strike him again. "I'm sorry." He held onto her hand. In that moment, he knew she had the strength to knock him to the ground. "I tried," he said.

Her hand went limp.

"He don't need no more trouble. He just don't need no more." She sank to the couch and sobbed. ". . . don't need no more . . ."

Joe placed his arm around her shoulder and let her cry. She cried for both of them. After a while, she began to rock and sing. Joe didn't recognize the song, but the melody comforted him.

"Delores? Joe?" They looked up to see Doctor Hampton, in scrubs, standing over them.

Joe glanced at the waiting room clock. Three hours had passed.

The doctor smiled. "Barring any complications, in a few weeks he'll be back on the farm."

Delores wiped her eyes. "Thank God."

"Thank you, Doctor," Joe said. He grinned. Now he had a promise to keep.


"Are you ready for this?" Joe asked Clay.

"Ain't got all day. Got chores, you know."

"Yeah, I know."

Joe and Clay walked past the family cemetery down the hill to the Piper Cub waiting at the edge of the field. Clay eyed Joe as he did the preflight walkaround of the plane, and checked the windsock for direction.

"Well, get in," Joe urged.

"You sure you know how to fly this thing?"

"Better than I make coffee."

"We're gonna die." Clay teased and climbed into the passenger seat.

Joe looked into the clear, blue Oklahoma sky when he heard jets flying above. Another great day for flying and forgiveness.

The End