Jack Broad Miniseries: Part 4
Shannon sat awake on the sofa three days later. She'd weaned herself off her crutch as the days progressed and had ventured out that evening without it for the first time. She was significantly slower with just her protective medical boot and nothing to hobble around with. There was little on television since there was only very basic cable. She'd settled for watching world news on PBS.
It was after one in the morning and she was waiting on Jack to call so she could talk them both to sleep. Minutes ticked by and he still hadn't called. She'd gotten used to sitting up until two or three AM and sleeping in until almost noon every day. It made the evenings quite dull and the day seemed too short to accomplish much in. She needed to change her schedule.
In truth, she wanted to change more than that. It was making her increasingly uncomfortable to be living for free in a strangers home. It was most unsettling that she was comfortable there. The thought of anything comforting or soothing made her uneasy, she lived in a constant state of preparedness for the next loss and suffering in her life. She was in the habit of staying up waiting for his call simply because she'd otherwise lay in bed reliving all the things that she feared the most.
At two she turned the television off and carried herself and the phone up the stairs to the bedroom. She tried laying awake in the bed for a while but soon found she had a hard time sleeping without someone on the phone there to keep her company.
Eventually, she turned the light on and out of sheer boredom and frustration she pulled out the boxes from the shelf in the closet. They were dogeared cardboard shoe boxes, one for a pair of women's shoes the other for a man's pair of sneakers. She opened the smaller one first. She had initially mistaken it for being full of papers, but it contained much more.
On further inspection, she found newspaper clippings along with a couple photos. She carefully unfolded the clippings and laid them on the floor beside her. She straightened up against the side of the bed and stretched her legs out into the closet as she read.
The first article she picked featured a photograph of a young cowboy holding a rope and trophy. He was in his late teens and smiled widely from under the brim of a big white cowboy hat.
'J.Broad named state champion in steer wrestling and calf roping, pockets $19,780 in prizes.' read the caption. The story talked about his season on the state circuit and quoted him talking about taking up bareback riding for the next season.
Shannon was amazed. The more she read the more appealing Jack seemed to become. There were countless articles touting his achievements in the state, he even did two years on a regional circuit in the entire southwest which spanned five states. He took second the first year in both of his events and first in bronc riding the second year. In the photographs, he evolved from a tall slender boy into a man with thickness to his frame and dark blond facial hair.
At the bottom of the box was a stack of photographs taken of him during his events. His face was scrunched up an intent, his knees bent and spurs rolling, his left arm waving in the air as various wiry mustangs kicked and arched under him. In other pictures, he was leaping from the back of a work horse and diving for the head of some clueless loping calf. A few featured him as a younger man throwing ropes from horseback, his face set like flint and eyes intensely focused. She put the items back in the little box and pulled out the other.
As exciting and amazing as the first box was the larger one was heartbreaking. She dumped out pictures of his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places and found papers folded neatly in an envelope at the bottom. They too were clippings from newspapers. But they were not in praise of rodeo achievements. One showed a group of emergency workers standing beside the smoking remains of a country home.
'Three dead in killer house fire' The title screamed. “Jackson S. Broad talks with investigators outside the remains of his home on Tuesday.” Read the picture's caption. Shannon cried as she read the story. The house had been the family homestead, two of the dead were identified as Martha and Sterling Broad, aged 48 and 55. The third death was an unnamed woman.
Shannon wiped tears away as she read the other articles. “Forth victim identified in deadly Bosque county fire.”, “Possible negligent homicide charges in last winter's deadly Bosque county fire.” Her throat ached. Jack's family home had burned, his parents had died in it as well as his pregnant fiance. The paper made it seem as though the pregnancy was unknown. The cause of the fire was up for debate. Jack confessed to being drunk and falling asleep at the kitchen table with the stove burner on. He was quoted by police in the paper,
“It was cold in the house, we often would heat the area with the stovetop just to take the edge off for the night. I fell asleep drinking at the table and woke up on fire.”
Later articles chronicled neighbors' cries of dismay that he had already suffered enough. The girl's parents, however, were recorded as wishing him dead.
“That man's no good. Filth. Cally was only eighteen, she had no business with that twenty-five-year-old man. He killed our baby. If it was up to us we'd wish the same for him.” One paper quoted them as saying.
The last article described the district attorney ruling that it was accidental. The local fire chief pleaded with readers to never allow an open, unattended, flame in their homes. A team of local pastors and parishioners begged the parents of the dead girl not to press charges against Jack. They raised a fund for Jack anticipating a legal battle, but Jack donated it to her parents after buying a large tombstone for Cally and their unnamed baby. A picture of it was included in the latest article, it was a tall obelisk of gray granite with her smiling picture engraved on it.
Shannon put everything back in the envelope and laid it gently on the bottom of the box. The rest of the pictures were of his various military tours. He participated in a lot of peacekeeping operations and almost all of the images featured him helping small children or women. In one he was sitting on the dusty ground in some foreign country cradling a small emaciated boy. In another, he was handing out water and supplies with a few other men to a group of figureless women under black robes.
Unlike the rodeo picture, he was not proud and smiling. His eyes were narrow and his face hard and cool. Shannon's heart ached. No wonder he was so alone. He'd exiled himself. She carefully replaced all the photographs and put the boxes back on the shelf in the closet. With the lights turned back off she crawled into bed and went to sleep.
She woke to knocking on the door downstairs. It was sunny outside and the little clock on the phone beside her read a little after nine in the morning. She ignored the knocking. No one knew she was there and surely anyone looking for Jack would know he was gone. She went to the bathroom and got ready for the day.
The knocking continued periodically until she was finally finished getting dressed and hobbled her way down the stairs. There was no peephole and no window to peer through, so she carefully unlocked the door a couple inches and looked out cautiously.
“Don't be mad.” Jack said, standing on the stoop, “I didn't call. I was afraid you'd leave if I told you I was coming home.”
It was true. She would have left. The more time she spent talking to him and learning about him the more uncomfortable she was with the feeling he gave her. Each passing night left her hollow and hungry for affection and normalcy. But it was something she promised to henceforth deny herself for fear of losing it once she had it. Or worse, she feared she'd actually never be happy even with everything she thought she craved. She opened the door and limped into the living room, sitting down awkwardly on the sofa.
“I probably would have...” She said finally.
“I figured.” He came in and shut the door.
He had a duffle bag over his shoulder and dropped it on the bottom step. He was dressed for the first time since she'd met him. He wore jeans and a had his short-sleeve plaid shirt tucked into them. He looked like an advertisement for Wranglers jeans. He filled them out in all the ways a man should, something she noticed out of the corner of her eye when he wasn't looking.
“Wow, it smells really good in here.” He said with an clumsy smile.
Shannon thumbed over her shoulder at a red plastic cup containing a thick bouquet of wildflowers, “I went for a drive the other day and happened across some flowers.”
“It smells like lavender.”
“Oh... yeah. I bought some bath stuff.” She flushed a little. There had never been a plan to share the space with him and it was uncomfortable knowing that as a man he was surely imagining her naked in the bathtub. His bathtub. In his house.
“It's nice.” Jack strode into the living room as though he'd never spent a day in his life in the hospital. He eyed the couch and settled on the end farthest from Shannon and sighed contentedly as he sat down.
“So... they let you out for good behavior?” Shannon broke the awkward quiet, “I thought you had another week, at least.”
“I lied. I had at most a week left.” He tapped the arm of the sofa with his index finger, staring at it fixated. “Just stay, okay?”
“I don't know, Jack...”
“For just a little while? Stay today. Leave tonight if you want...”
“Collin's barely dead... I hardly know you.”
“I'm not asking you to do anything, Shannon.”
Her stomach did flops at the sound of her name. He'd never called her anything before. It cut through the tangle of confusion and the screaming in her mind and reached her heart.
“Okay.” She whispered.
“Okay.” He repeated.
Jack leaned back on the sofa and seemed to relax some. Shannon slipped away to gather her things, so they would be ready when it was time to go. She threw her clothes into the shopping bag they'd come in and threw her toiletries on top. The bathtub had a soap ring left in it, so she took a moment to wipe it down. The bed was messed from where she'd tangled in the blankets all night, so she made it up. Finally, she brought her bag downstairs and set it near the door. Jack eyed it with an expression of panic.
“Let's take a drive. Wanna take a drive?” He said nervously, standing up quickly.
Shannon shrugged, “Sure.”
“Okay. Um. Hang on, I gotta make a phone call.” He said clattering up the stairs excitedly. She heard him pace into the office before calling to her, “Where's the phone?”
“Oh yeah, sorry. It's by the bed.” She said, looking up the stairs but not seeing him. She'd left it within arms reach, expecting his call last night that never came.
He shut the door behind himself in the bedroom and she could hear his muffled voice as he spoke on the phone. A few minutes later he came out and shut himself in the bathroom. Shannon pulled a single flip-flip onto her good foot and sat on the couch to wait, undoing and redoing the velcro that held her protective boot on the bad foot. When Jack finally came down he was washed and smelling like cologne.
“Ready?” He asked, pushing a pair of aviator sunglasses onto his face.
Jack opened the door for her and she hobbled out ahead of him slowly. She was just beginning to be able to tolerate weight on her foot. The boot was designed to take some of the impact and weight off the bottom of her foot, but she still moved slowly anticipating the various cramps and shooting pains from the healing appendage. It slowed her, frustrating every plan and motion she made.
“Where is your car?” She asked, scanning the curb and nearby parking lot.
“It's the blue one over there.” He was strolling slowly beside her and gestured towards an old '69 GTO.
“That's your car?” She asked, amazed.
“Yeah...” He nearly cooed with pride, “I bought it just before I deployed this last time. I don't have time to restore anything myself, so I had to buy one already done. It's the one thing...” He paused and scratched his neck, “Well, it's the one thing I let myself have.”
He opened the passenger door for her and she slid in as gracefully as possible with the clumsy boot. Jack raced around to his side and hopped in. The engine roared to life and he drove them away with a flourish.
The plastic normalcy of taking a drive fostered a false sense of calm in her. The windows were down and her long hair whipped around in the wind. The black leather interior was smooth and plush. She tucked her good foot under her butt and folded her arms on the open window; laid her head on them and listened to the rush of wind. Shannon closed her eyes. For a moment she was flying and free. There was nothing beyond the warm red-orange glow behind her eyelids and the weightless rushing of warm summer air. She brushed her tangled hair out of her face and sat back in the seat a while later.
“Where are we going?” She asked casually. The Texas countryside slipped by in a cloud of dust stirred up from the dirt road they were on.
“Out here.” He said, nodding in the direction they were going.
They listened quietly to the sounds of the engine and popping pebbles under the tires. They passed fields of natural gas wells like silent sentinels in the heat of midday and other fields filled with black and white Angus cattle and horses. The hills hid little groves of trees that sprang up in between them and crisp brown and tired green grasses baked on their tops.
After what seemed like forever Jack pulled the car into the driveway of a sprawling horse barn. A small ranch house sat under some trees nearby and a burly looking man came out onto the wrap-around porch followed closely by a blue cow dog.
“What is this place?” She asked, looking at the long lines of white fence that stretched out in all directions from the long, low, barn before them.
Jack parked the car under the wide canopy of a big tree by the house, “This is a buddy of mine.”
Shannon looked at the glowering character on the porch. He didn't look like a friend. He didn't look friendly at all. Jack exited the car and sauntered up to the porch. When he realized Shannon was still in the car he doubled back and helped her out.
“Come on.” He guided her by the elbow toward the steps.
Shannon watched the questionable glare from the man on the porch. His hair was big and he was bearded like a bear. And about the size of one. He moved slowly, easing his big self against the railing as she and Jack made it to the porch. The little cow dog danced around them the whole way, making up for the excitement its master seemed to lack.
“Hey Walter.” Jack said reaching his hand out.
Walter accepted it and shook it halfheartedly. He was staring at Shannon.
“The hell?” Walter chuffed sticking his chin out in her direction.
Jack looked her over too. Shannon stood a little distance from them both and raised a single eyebrow at them.
“This is Shannon. A... friend of mine.” Jack finally said after a long while of struggling with his words.
“Since when do you have...” Walter looked her over again, “Friends?”
“Shut up, man. Don't be a douche.” Jack leveled his eyes at him.
“Yes, sergeant.” He said, giving him a half-assed salute and clicking his heels together, then, “How've you been? I thought you were in Iraq.”
“They kicked me out for eating too much metal. I've been under the knife the past few months. It's like a freaking game of Operation, buzzers and a little red nosed dude laying naked on a table.”
“Sounds exciting. Have you ever managed to finish an entire tour without eating some metal or another?”
“No.” He leaned up against the railing beside Walter, “How've you been? How's the wife?”
“It's been a few years, man. We had two kids. She's in town today running errands with them.”
“Poor kids, I hope they can forgive you someday for sharing your ass-ugly genes.”
Walter pulled his wallet out and handed Jack pictures of his family. Shannon stepped a little closer so she could see them and after a moment he instinctively handed them over to her.
“Thank God they took after Rebecca. They're gorgeous.” Jack said as Shannon inspected the images of two blond haired girls about one and two years old. “Came to see Tucker.” He said.
“Oh, he's out in the far field with that little paint pony I picked up after getting out.” He turned slowly to look at the horses in the back, “I sure know how to pick attitude. You could take her out if you want, but she's a handful.”
“You seem to be getting along good.” Jack pointed at the man's leg.
Walter pulled up his pants leg and exposed a metal pipe sprouting out of his boot where a leg ought to have been. “I hardly notice the thing anymore. Not until I take it off. Then I just flop around like a damned fish out of water.”
“Thanks for letting us stop in.”
“We're not thankin' each other.” Walter said gruffly.
“I don't want your thanks either.” Jack responded, both of them seemed to bristle. Shannon started to retreat to the steps, still unsure of the whole exchange. The dog, who she'd been petting, following along happily.
Jack and Walter shook hands again and Walter lumbered his heavy frame back into the house. The dog, however, was more interested in following the visitors it had befriended and blazed the trail to the barn ahead of Shannon and Jack.
“I'd hate to meet your enemies.” Shannon said quietly, trying to keep up pace behind Jack.
Jack pushed open the door to the barn revealing a huge riding arena. He closed it just as the dog slipped through.
“Walter has... issues.” Jack stated.
“As if we all don't.”
Jack nodded in agreement, “He was one of my soldiers two tours ago. He took a pair of NATO rounds to his ankle that blew his foot off. He had sat and watched himself bleed out, and probably would have died if I hadn't tied him off and hauled him out.”
Collin had been in the military for a year before he deployed. It was his first tour of duty and it was not in a war zone. She had little experience with soldiers coming out of war, just the odd friends he'd bring home from time to time. It never occurred to her that they'd all be so broken. Part of her wondered who Collin would have been when he got home and if maybe somehow his duties would have had ill effect on him.
She followed Jack through a wide door on the long wall of the arena and into the horse barn. Banks of stalls were separated by two large isles. Walter apparently was from money. Shannon had never seen such a well-appointed barn. All the stalls were built from real wood and not just the modular stall walls that had become so popular lately. She grew excited, and nervous as the years out of the saddle stretched out in her memory. The rich smell of shavings and horse dander swirled with sweet feed and had an intoxicating effect that soothed her back out again.
As she inspected the animals within, cruising down the stamped concrete aisle, Jack slipped outside. Shannon found a pretty gray mare with a brand new foal standing on its stilt legs in the fifth stall. They had the space of two stalls and the curious foal followed along the bars touching each one with its fuzzy lips as she walked along. She finally paused at the door and waited for the baby to walk over. It nodded its head at her and reached a curious lip towards her open hand before throwing its head and dancing away. Jack returned with a strawberry colored gelding in tow.
“I don't have a saddle for him anymore.” He confessed, looking at the animal. “You can make do without one right? I'll hang onto him.”
“Well, you said you loved horses and riding...”
She smiled and chewed her lip. She'd done gymkhana in high school for a season and done rather well. But there was no money for the horse she leased after that. She'd always longed to ride and just had never been able. She nodded excitedly.
“But you have to put a bridle on him.” She said.
“Alright.” He said, gesturing for her to come hold the animal while he jogged off to the tack room to find a suitable bridle.
Shannon smoothed the old roan's forehead and squeezed the ridge of its neck down to its withers before scratching back up again. The horse drooped its head down low, enjoying the sensation of a good rub on an impossible to reach area. She smoothed her hand along its top line and patted its rump. Jack returned and slipped a bit in its mouth and set the sizing on the straps and kicked a step stool in her direction.
“Up you go.” He said, offering her his hand.
The horse stood stock-still through the whole process, only its ears moved as the plastic stool skidded in its direction. Jack's hand was strong as he steadied her up the stool. It was awkward standing on just her bad left foot to swing her right one over the animal's back but she was soon centered and ready.
“Tucker was the first horse I ever bought myself.” Jack said, patting him under his mane.
“You've kept him all this time?” She said, amazed. The horses hooves clopped on the cement as he lead them into the arena.
“No. I gave him to Walter a few years ago. I had no time for him and the place I boarded him at didn't seem to take care of him like I wanted. They used him for lessons without asking me. Tucker's a good boy but he doesn't need kids sawing on his mouth. Not at his age, not after putting up with me as teen.”
“Did you compete with him?”
“Oh yeah. We did many circuits together. He's done penning with me and steer wrestling. I used to ride in the rodeo.”
“Huh.” She said, not letting on that she had invaded his privacy by reading the hidden news clippings.
It felt good to sway and rock with the horse as it moved under her. Jack lead her around the perimeter slowly as if she were a child. When they finally made it all the way around she felt centered and solid on Tucker's back. It was all coming back to her.
“Take the rope off and let me go.” She said.
“Are you sure? You won't fall or anything?”
“I don't think so. If I do I promise you can point and laugh.” She grinned.
Jack smiled too and unclipped the lead rope from under Tucker's chin. She clucked at him and kicked her heels into his ribs a little. He jumped like he was coming out of a daze and suddenly had to pay attention. He threw his head a little as he broke into a jog. Shannon tried to get him to lope a little but her boot was in the way. She paused on the opposite side of the arena and undid the velcro of her boot and kicked it and the protective sock off. Her foot was white a dry looking, and the air made it feel cold and strange.
She squared up and kicked the old horse, this time her heels made even contact with his ribs. She smooched at him also and he kicked dirt up behind her as he raced across the arena. Shannon hunkered down and held on with her thighs, pressing her left leg into his side and pulling his head around. The old cow pony remembered its cues and nearly sat on its haunches as it turned hard to the left. No sooner had it made the turn when she did the same and he banked hard to the right, completing a neat figure eight.
He slowed into a jog and threw his head about excitedly. He'd not grown lazy eating grass, instead he seemed to have missed the fun of working. The best signs of a good cow pony. Jack watched her intently from the sidelines. She smiled big at him as she reached the far end and turned the horse around. She backed him up and he instinctively pressed his butt into the wall behind him. She kicked him again and he lurched into a fully stretched out gallop. Halfway across the space she turned him to the right and spun him around. He charged towards Jack a ways before she spun him again and set him back on course to the far end of the arena. Once there she spun him again and sent him back where he started, slapping him hard with the ends of the reigns. He flew with all he had and she bounced almost off of him as she pulled him to a stop and he crow hopped excitedly.
“You ride?” Jack asked, amused.
“I used to do gymkhana in high school, I leased a horse from a friend for a year or so. I tried barrel racing, but the group I was in didn't compete in it.” She beamed at him and smoothed her hair, swaying with Tucker as he danced a little under her.
“You are just right now the sexiest thing on earth. You know that, right?” He laughed, a big grin on his face.
She couldn't help but laugh too. It was contagious. She'd never heard him really laugh before. He'd chuckled, but never full on laughed. And his eyes looked at her so softly she felt like electricity was coursing through her muscles. She paced the horse over to him and he helped her down.
“Your turn.” She said handing over the reigns.
Jack walked off to the stables without a word. She worried that she had offended him. Obviously he had given up that lifestyle when he joined the military. Shannon stood holding the horse for what felt like an eternity. Her foot felt sore under her.
Finally he returned carrying a black plastic calf head mounted to a metal stand. He stuck it in the middle of the arena. It was in mid-lope and supported by a pole in its belly. He disappeared again, this time coming back with a rope over his shoulder and a bale of hay which he bucked against the wall near her.
“Have a seat. It's been a while, this might take some time.” He warned leading Tucker away to the far end of the area.
He jumped up expertly and set a loop in the rope that satisfied him as he swung it around over his head and shoulder. He reset it a few times before tucking it under his arm and turning the horse in a circle. He backed him into the wall again and kicked him into high gear. Tucker's front legs reached far out before him as he propelled himself along at top speed. Jack threw the rope and caught the little fake steer around the horns like a professional. Tucker seemed to feel it happen and automatically skidded to a stop and backed up, dragging the little cow with him. When jack finally stopped him he swished his tail as if proud of himself.
Shannon cheered and clapped her hands over her head, “Yay!” She laughed again.
Jack smiled at her as he hopped down and reset the calf and mounted a second time. He came in at another angle and repeated the same technique. He laughed at her as she cheered at him again. After the fourth time, he stayed down and picked up their things. He pulled the bridle off the horse and put it away, leaving the winded beast to roam the arena. Tucker wandered over to Shannon like a puppy and huffed big breaths into her hair, begging for some scratches. Shannon was obliged to give them. When Jack returned a final time he flopped down beside her, pushing the old horse out of the way.
“Well done.” She smiled, bumping herself against his side with exclamation.
“That poor horse. He's so old. I didn't know he still had that spunk in him. I haven't been on him in...” He trailed off, suddenly looking sad.
Shannon took his hand in hers before he could go very far down that train of thought. She knew where it went. He looked down at her and blinked the clouds out of his eyes before smiling again.
“Thanks for bringing me out here.” She said.
“I'm glad you stayed.” He replied, “Are you getting hungry?”
“What time is it?” She asked, looking at the watch on his arm. “Jeez, its almost four already! I haven't eaten yet today. I had better.”
“Well come on, Lets get some supper.” He stood and helped her up.
Shannon winced as she stood. Her foot was terribly sore. She'd not noticed until she stood and irritated it again. She almost sat on the dirt, losing her balance. Jack scooped her up without asking and carried her over to the discarded boot some distance away.
“It's probably easier to bring the boot across the arena.” She said, enjoying the feeling of being small. He carried her as if she was of no consequence. After nearly two months of not eating much she probably wasn't.
Jack shrugged a little, “Yeah, probably.” He set her down at her boot and she put it back on. “You'll be sorry tomorrow you ever took that thing off.” He added, watching her.
“I'm sorry already. I really think I might need my crutch back.”
He had started walking away to get the horse but doubled back as she spoke, “Really?” His face looked hurt, “I shouldn't have let you ride like that. I almost said something...”
Shannon laughed, “You're not my babysitter. Just help me back to the car when you're done.”
He came back a minute later and she stood to take his arm, but he scooped her up again instead. Shannon held onto his neck and laid her bobbing head on his shoulder. He carried her out through the door which he managed to open single-handedly and gently deposited her beside the car. She reached for the handle but he opened it for her and closed it again once she was settled on the seat inside.
He honked goodbye as they spun out of the drive and back onto the dirt road. Shannon kicked her aching foot up onto the dash and reclined her seat. She couldn't remember a day that had been so fun. It felt terrifying to note the building emotion for Jack within her chest. She feared nothing half so much as losing the people she loved. But she pushed the budding panic away and focused on enjoying the day. Tomorrow could deal with itself.
“I really enjoyed that.” She confessed, her right foot resting in the air from the open window with the aching left one on top of it.
“You know, I did too.” They neared town again and he asked, “What do you want for dinner?”
“There's food at the house. I made stuffed shells last night. They sounded good until they were done. I had cereal instead.”
“Italian it is.”
(TO BE CONTINUED...)