Part One



A few hours later Nate is staring into the grey light coming through the window when he hears something that sounds like a baby crying. He sits up and turns to shake Brad awake.

"Brad, wake up," he says, the material of Brad's undershirt bunching up under his hands, but Nate can still feel the warmth of Brad's arm under his hand, and he removes it.

"What?" Brad says, turning around to look at Nate over his shoulder. "What is it?"

"I heard something like a baby crying. Do you think—?"

Brad turns back and sighs once, then pushes himself up so that he's sitting up. It's cold enough in the room that their breath mists, so they hurry to pull their clothes on and make their way down the hall to Nate's room.

The smell is even worse than it was before, humid and rank, and there is blood everywhere on the bed, and the girl, Lilley, looks like she's dead, her skin grey and her eyes closed, her hair matted and damp.

Dr. Bryan's face is haggard, and he's wiping his hands off with a piece of torn cloth. Tony is holding a small bundle. He looks up when Brad and Nate enter.

"It's a girl," he says, and he looks like he's been crying. He stands up. "God Almighty, I ain't never seen anything as bad as what I seen in the last few hours."

"Is she alive?" Brad asks, gesturing toward the bed.

"Yes," Dr. Bryan says. "I can't make any guarantees, though. She lost a lot of blood. The labor kept ripping that bullet hole right back open, and she was in shock. The laudanum affected the baby, too, and slowed things. I don't know if she'll make it. She can't feed the baby. The state of her makes me think she hasn't eaten well or regularly in a long time."

Tony holds out the baby to Brad like an offering. Brad makes no move to take it.

"I gotta go milk the goat," Tony says. "There ain't nothing else we can feed her."

Still Brad doesn't relent, staring hard at Tony.

"Please, Brad," Tony says desperately, and Nate knows he isn't just asking Brad to hold the baby.

Finally Brad looks down at the bundle in Tony's arms. He reaches over and pulls the sheet back from the baby's face. It is still mewling weakly, its body all wrinkled and scrawny and red and ugly, head misshapen and eyes closed.

Tony holds it out to Brad again, and Brad grimaces a little, but he takes it, holding it awkwardly, one hand under its head and one hand under its bottom.

Nate looks over to the doctor, but he is asleep in the chair next to the bed. Nate takes a quilt out of the closet and drapes it over him and they go downstairs.

Walt is up already, stroking the fire in the stove, and Ray soon comes in, blowing on his fingers. "Evan and me's got the feeding done since Tony couldn't do it," he says. And then he looks up at Brad and whistles. "Holy shit," he says, and laughs. "Never thought I'd see the fucking day."

"Quiet, Ray," Brad says. "Don't use words like that in front of the baby."

Nate stifles a smile.

Walt turns around and stands up, moving toward Brad to peer over the sheet and look at the baby.

"You wanna hold it for a while?" Brad asks.

Walt smiles and nods, sitting down in a chair and holding out his arms.

Brad hands the baby over, and Walt cradles it much more naturally than Brad did, letting it rest in the crook of his arm and touching its cheek with the tip of his finger. Ray comes forward to lean over Walt's shoulder and look down at it.

"Kinda scrawny, ain't it?"

"It's a girl," Nate informs him.

"I wonder what they'll name her," Walt says.

"I think they should name her Concertina," Ray says.

Walt glares up at him impatiently. "You messed-up hick, do you even know what a concertina is?"

"No," Ray says. "I just like the sound of it. We could call her Tina for short."

"Shut up, I think she looks more like a Naomi."

They bicker about her name for a while, and then Tony comes in with a pail of milk.

"How we gonna feed it to her?" he asks, setting the pail down on the table.

"Use a clean cloth, dip it in the milk and let her suck on it," Walt says. Then he hands the baby to Ray. "Here, I'll get one." He disappears to rummage around in the bag of rags they keep in the linen closet.

"Tony," Brad says. "I'm not gonna let you dump off the care of this baby on Walt. He tries to do too much as it is."

"I know that, Brad."

"How you gonna support a wife and a kid? You gonna be a hired man your whole life?"

"Shit, Brad, I don't know. I hadn't planned on thinkin' about any of this so soon."

Brad stands up, straightening his belt and then letting his hands fall to his sides. "You'd best start thinking about it. Stop blowing all the wages I pay you on liquor and tobacco. Start going to church. And maybe if you save up enough I'll let you buy that southwest corner section for a real good price."

Tony looks up at Brad briefly, then nods his head and stares back down at his hands again. "Thanks, Brad."

Brad goes outside, and Ray starts singing the baby songs. It cries even louder, but soon Walt comes back with a clean strip of cloth and they settle in to feed and coo over it.

*

By the time Nate comes home from school that afternoon, the doctor's gig is gone, Tony is asleep in the chair next to Lilley's bed, Walt is scrubbing the kitchen floor, and the other men are out in the field.

"Did Trombley ever show his face?" Nate asks Walt.

"Yeah," Walt says, wiping at his forehead with his sleeve. "Brad told him if he ever so much as looked at that shotgun again, he'd be turned out. His wages are gonna go toward paying the doctor's fee. And he's to sleep in the barn until he can show that he's civilized enough to be among people again."

"Won't he freeze out there?"

"Nah. You never slept in a haystack before?"

Nate shakes his head. "Can't say that I have."

"It's warm. Probably better'n sharing that room with Evan and Manimal. Manimal snores awful loud."

Lilley's fever breaks four days later, and soon she is on the mend. She comes downstairs for the first time on the day of the first snow they get, and she sits down in a chair at the table. Walt puts the baby in her arms.

Since Nate's only experience of her has been when she is delirious with fever or dead to the world, he is surprised to see how animated she is, even when still weak and sore.

"It shore does a body good to be sittin' upright in a chair and, 'stead of lyin' on my back in bed. I'm done with lyin' on my back, I suppose lyin' on my back was what got me into trouble in the first place, ain't it?" She laughs, a tiny tinkling sound, and her eyes are bright, darting around the kitchen to take everything in. "Everythin' is so fine here. Them big windows, gosh, I allus wished my pa and ma had a place with big windows, but we was never what you would call wealthy. I used to say that I wanted a house made out'a nothin' but glass, a glass house like in them stories, though I s'pose that means anybody passin' by could see in, but of course if I could afford a glass house I'd have me some real pretty lace curtains, too, and I'd pull those over but they'd still let the light in. But I guess you know all about glass and lace and fancy things, seein' as how you're from Boston?" she asks.

"Well, I am from Boston, but—"

"My sister Minnie must be in your class, she's about seven years old, I think, and she got blue eyes and blond hair just like me, you know her?"

"No, there's no one by that name—"

"I guess Pa hasn't changed his mind 'bout girls and schoolin'. I can't wait 'til little Amy here is old enough to go to school and learn all them big words and how to read, I ain't never learned, my pa says a girl don't need to know those things. He didn' even want us in church, but Ma insisted so we went. I could never read the Bible but I knew all the hymns by heart. I love to sing."

She looks down at the baby, her voice softer. "I guess I can't show my face in church now, since I'm livin' in sin. Do you think God will forgive me? Or forgive Amy, at least?" She turns beseeching eyes on Nate.

"There is a Psalm," Nate says. "'As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.'"†

She beams at him, her eyes watering a little, and clutches her baby closer. "Thank you," she says. "That is a comfort. Even if Tony wanted to marry me I'm not at all shore Rev. Sixta would marry us. I daren't go back home, either, 'cause they'll—" She bites her lip.

"They'll what?" Nate prods.

She shakes her head. "I shouldn't say. I don't know what they'd do. They don't care what happens to me and they don't have any idea where I am and I hope it stays that way."

Nate knows it's only a matter of time before Rev. Sixta or someone else from the town comes by on pretence of paying a social call. Soon they'll find out, and it will get back to the girl's parents that she is living in a house full of unmarried men. But there's nothing to be done; she has nowhere to go, and anyway, she belongs with Tony. Brad speaks of riding to the next town over come spring and seeing if the minister there will marry them. The child hasn't even been baptized, but poor Lilley is the only one who seems to be worried about that.

Tony is sleeping with her in what used to be Nate's room upstairs. Nate moves everything of his into Brad's room, and they sleep with their backs to each other every night. Nate gets used to the rhythm of Brad's breathing, takes comfort in it when he can't sleep, and sometimes hates it so much, hates how much it makes him want things he can't even name. But there is also the more mundane comfort of another warm body as the nights get colder and colder.

There's a final rush to get the last of the corn picked, and by now much of the remainder is withered and rotting from frost and rain, but they rush to sort out the good ones and get it packed and hauled off. The horse traders will come through in spring and Brad wants two more cart horses. They'll butcher a pig in January, and Brad wants to build a fence along the road leading up to the house. They have more mouths to feed, and Nate knows Brad wants to set aside money for doctor's fees, in case Walt's condition worsens. Then there is the tax, and Brad is careful with all of his bookkeeping. Nate likes to watch his fingers holding his pen, enjoying the novelty of Brad's hands with ink stains on them. Nate's own hands are getting rougher and stronger, and he is proud of them.

Soon it gets cold enough that the ground is too hard to work, and the men have nothing to do but sit indoors all day, antsy and irritable and shouting at each other. Poke gives long sermons about his life philosophies, which always rile Evan and Jim, and they argue loudly and fruitlessly. Sometimes fistfights break out between Jim and Ray, and Brad does nothing to stop them, letting them knock over furniture and crash into the walls. Nate is glad to escape to school most days. The walk is excruciating in the cold and invigorating all at once.

He gets a few more lectures from Rev. Sixta and Schwetje about the inappropriate subject matter that he's teaching; apparently some parents have complained about the profane and perverse nature of some of Nate's lesson materials.

"I will not apologize for exposing these children to the beauty and richness of our literary traditions," Nate says calmly. "I am giving them a taste of the world."

Poke leaves soon to visit his family, and everyone assures Nate that he will be back when it's time to start the planting. Brad starts spending long hours in the barn around mid-December, and two days before Christmas he emerges with a small two-person sleigh.

"Come out for a sleigh ride, Nate," he calls, waving Nate over. Nate throws on his coat, hat, scarf and gloves and they're off.

Brad is silent as he drives, but the silence is peaceful, the snow muffling everything, white stretching out for miles and miles around them.

"You alright?" Brad asks.

"Yes," Nate answers as he gazes out at the landscape, feeling completely content in the moment. It's like they are the only two people in the world.

"I thought I could use this to drive you to school and back," Brad says.

Nate looks over at Brad, who is still staring straight ahead.

"I'd like that," he says, and can barely contain his happiness at the thought of so much time spent alone with Brad, sitting side by side, so close their sides are touching under the heavy horsehair blanket Brad has tucked around them.

On Christmas Eve, all of them but Tony, Lilley and the baby go into town for the service. A few people greet Nate, and some of the girls make eyes at Brad and Evan, but for the most part they are ignored, everyone giving them cold looks and a wide berth.

The next day, Lilley helps Walt and Ray cook a Christmas dinner. They have a ham, goose, and mince pies, and after dinner they sit around the fireplace in the parlor and pop corn and eat shriveled apples from the cellar. Lilley forgives Jim for shooting her when they're all sleepy and full and warm, and he is allowed to come back into the house to sleep.

After New Year's Day school begins again, and several older girls and boys join the class. There are two brawny boys, Ben and Jacob, who are still in grade two despite being nearly seventeen years old, and they torment the younger children and say rude things to Nate, but Brad is always there watching them at the end of the day. Sometimes he even comes at midday to bring Nate his dinner and eat with him, the children all staring at him and cowering away, though he never speaks to them.

"Things must be really unbearable at home if you're driving out here three times a day," Nate says, though he's always glad to see Brad.

"I get cabin fever," Brad says, but he's smiling.

Nate is almost dreading spring, since it means that he won't have anyone to tell funny stories to on his way home, won't have anyone to give him pithy yet sound advice about handling the troubling behavior, won't have anyone to sit silently by his side. He doesn't know when or how he came to need Brad so much, because Brad hardly says anything. But just his presence is such a comfort to Nate, and the way he looks at Nate makes Nate feel like he is speaking a silent language that only Nate can understand.

On a morning in late January a blizzard moves in quickly while Nate is at school. A few parents arrive to collect their children, and Nate allows a few of the older children whose homes are in town to run home before the snow gets too heavy, but many of them live too far away to make it. The snow piles higher and higher outside, and Nate experiences a moment of panic when he realizes that they are probably not going to be able to leave the school that day. Luckily there is plenty of coal in the bucket, though more than a few feet away from the stove it is uncomfortably cold. He hopes the children who left found their way home in time.

He has the remaining children come forward and huddle around the stove. They play games and Nate persuades them not to eat everything in their dinner pails, since they might be stuck here for a few days.

The snow soon covers the windows, and it's impossible to tell time by the light coming through the window. Several of the children start to cry, and all of them are restless and hungry and not warm enough. Nate boils some water out of the stone crock by the door, which has a thin layer of ice on top. They each take a few sips of hot water and then huddle together on the floor in front of the stove to sleep.

Nate takes each of them outside when they need to urinate so that they don't wander too far, using the shovel to dig a path and then pointing it in the direction of the door so that they won't miss it and go the wrong way when they go back in. Each time it gets harder to go out, the cold biting into their bones so quickly that their teeth don't even have time to chatter. Soon they don't bother, pissing into jars they'd used to study tadpoles in, and Nate dumps it out the windows into the snow.

It is still snowing the next day, though it's barely possible to tell day from night because the clouds are so thick and the snow piling so high. They recite poems and sing songs and eat a little more out of their dinner pails, but most of them have run out of food. Nate gives his food to the younger ones. They are now mostly listless and quiet, bundled up in all their clothes, faces grey and wan. Nate's own fingers are grey with cold, he can see, and toward the end of the second day he begins to feel too weak to stand, but they continue drinking water boiled on the stove, which helps a little.

On the afternoon of the third day, Nate hears a faint scratching, and perks up. He goes to the door, which hasn't been opened in a while, and pulls it open. Snow spills into the doorway, but even better is the sound of a shovel digging them out. Excited, he rouses the children who have fallen asleep and has them listen for their deliverance.

Of course it is Brad, Brad with a scarf tied around his face against the cold, his eyes under the brim of his hat so worried that Nate almost runs into his arms.

He's brought them some food, but the children need it more, so Nate doesn't eat any. They decide to wait to see if other parents will arrive to collect their children. After four hours of waiting, there are just two left, and the sky is beginning to darken.

"We'll have to take these two home first," Brad says.

They bundle up in the sleigh. The clouds are dispersing but the temperature is dropping, and everything is icy. "Don't fall asleep," Brad warns the children.

The horse struggles, and several times they have to get out to push snow out of the way of the blades. When they're sitting, Nate catches himself drifting off. The children are silent. When he catches one of them asleep, he shakes them both and gets out of the sleigh with both of them to walk next to it for a while. It takes them nearly three hours to reach the children's homes. After they've dropped them off, one with his widowed mother, who thanks them profusely, and a girl at a tiny sod house, her parents looking almost disappointed to see her, Nate is weak and tired and his hands, feet nose and ears are completely numb.

"You still with me?" Brad says, looking down at Nate, and Nate nods. Every second feels interminable; the snow has obscured landmarks and the darkness is settling in around them. Nate doesn't know how Brad knows the way. He thought he was too cold to shiver, but his body starts shaking almost uncontrollably. Brad puts his arm around Nate and rubs his shoulder vigorously, but it isn't enough. Nate wants to apologize, but he hasn't eaten in two days and he doesn't remember what it feels like not to be freezing to death.

Nate thinks he did doze off by the time they pull up to the house. Brad lifts him up in his arms and is shouting something, and the next thing he knows he's being sat down by the stove. At first he can't even feel the heat. Brad takes Nate's shoes and gloves off and rubs his hands gently, and as the feeling begins to return it burns, hot and painful, and Nate grits his teeth and watches the way they redden, like they're on fire inside. He doesn't think he'll ever be warm again, but Walt brings him a bowl of soup, and after he's taken a few sips Brad lifts him up and takes him upstairs to the bedroom. There's a hot brick in the bed already, and Brad strips Nate's cold, wet clothes off for him. Nate is too delirious from his ordeal to be self-conscious, and Brad is very business-like, pulling a nightshirt over his head quickly. Then he gets Nate under the blankets and climbs in behind him, and Nate's eyes close with the feeling of Brad's heat wrapped all around him, and finally he begins to warm up.

*

Nate wakes up the next morning with Brad still spooned behind him, his arm draped loosely around Nate's waist. Nate tries to keep his breathing steady. He can feel the way Brad's chest expands to press lightly against Nate's back, the soft push of Brad's breath against Nate's neck. Nate's eyes almost water with how much he wants this every morning, and not just because he almost froze to death.

He can feel the moment when Brad wakes. His arm flexes a little bit, and Nate's heart is beating fast, though he tries not to move, doesn't want Brad to know he's awake. Brad shifts his head slightly, almost imperceptibly, but then Nate realizes that he isn't moving to get away, he's moving to get his head even closer, like he wants to push his face into the back of Nate's neck, and in that instant, Nate is sure, he's certain, and it's like the most triumphant victory and the most devastating loss all at once, to know that he has Brad, he has him, but that he's given himself over completely, too, to the wanting of Brad. The feeling lasts for one glorious instant of certainty, and Nate feels himself flush all over; before he can stop himself he shivers.

Instantly Brad stiffens, then removes his arm and rolls slightly away.

"You warm enough?" he rumbles, his voice scratchy.

Nate is still reeling from Brad's sudden withdrawal, barely able to mourn the loss of his newfound knowledge before it is gone completely from his memory, because he is certain no longer. He panics, trying to get it back, to draw that feeling back to him, is so preoccupied with this that he forgets to find the words to answer Brad's question, too.

The silence draws out—for one second? five? a hundred?—and then Brad is moving even farther away, up out of bed and across the room, misinterpreting Nate's reluctance to speak.

He pulls on his trousers and a thick wool shirt, and Nate shuts his eyes, bringing his arms up to shield his face from Brad's view.

"I'll have someone bring you up some food," Brad says distantly, and then he's gone.

"Come back," Nate whispers, but the only answer comes from the lonely wail of the wind on the prairie.

*

From then on Brad is careful to get into bed long after Nate does, in the hope that Nate is asleep, and to be out of bed before Nate wakes. Nate is hardly ever asleep when either of these events occur, but he lets Brad think he is.

Four days later, the baby, Amy, begins to sicken. She was never strong and had put on almost no weight, her cries always weak and watery, never developing into the lusty wails of a healthy infant. Lilley does almost nothing but rock her, and try to feed her, but she has begun to refuse the goat's milk and everything else they try to dribble into her tiny mouth.

Frantic with worry that her child would die an unbaptized bastard, Lilley cries and begs Tony to go for the minister. He staunchly refuses for two days, and everyone in the house takes a different position on letting it be known that Lilley is living with them, and has a baby, no less. But when, on the third day, the baby stops crying completely and just lies, still and white, in the makeshift basket they use as a cradle, he nods and says he will go.

Rev. Sixta is almost purple with moral outrage by the time he arrives with Tony, spitting and gesticulating about hellfire and the wages of sin. As he walks by Nate in the hall, he stops, glaring at him.

"You," he shouts, drops of spit hitting Nate in the face. Though he is short enough to have to look up at Nate, he is still fearsome. "Allowing this to happen under your nose. I expected better of you. And to think you're s'posed to be teachin' the impressionable young minds of our community the difference 'twixt right and wrong."

Nevertheless, he performs three quick ceremonies, first to marry Tony and Lilley, next to baptize the baby, and then last rites. He does all three with an air of disgust, and reserves his most vitriolic ranting for Brad and Nate, who are the only two to witness it. Lilley cries during all of it, and after Tony leaves to take Rev. Sixta back to town, she lays the baby down on her bed and curls up around it, clutching it close to her body.

It's dead by morning, and Tony and Brad have to go out and dig a hole in the icy ground deep enough to bury it. Nate catches Walt crying in the kitchen, turned toward a corner, his face in his hands.

*

School resumes with the improvement in the weather, though suddenly there are far fewer children in attendance. Nate wonders if it has to do with Rev. Sixta having given the town a report on the moral depravity of the schoolmaster. Brad is still driving Nate to school, but Nate is silent now, too, unhappily aware of the fact that Brad seems to be holding something in check—anger, maybe, or maybe something far more dangerous. His face is always forbidding, and he is tense enough that Nate does not want to risk riling him further.

Nate decides he can't stand the tense drives much longer, and when they arrive home one day, Nate informs Brad that he no longer needs driven; he'll start walking again.

Brad says nothing, doesn't acknowledge that he heard, doesn't even look at Nate. But the drives are indeed over, and Nate resumes walking to school and back every day.

A few weeks later, they all go to town for the monthly trip to the General Store for supplies and to check for post. Lilley stays behind, since she has lain in bed every day since the death of her baby, listless and weepy.

When they return, they find her hysterical, and several giant rocks thrown through the parlor windows, shattered glass everywhere on the floor.

"Motherfucker," Ray says, whistling.

"They've never gone this far before, right?" Evan asks, though he knows the answer. "Goddamn."

"Who did it?" Brad demands, looking furious.

She's almost hyperventilating, her hands shaking as she wrings them nervously. "They yelled filthy things at me, called me names, oh, I was so scared, I thought they were gonna—gonna—"

"Who?" Brad repeated, looking as if he wants to shake her.

"I—don't—know," she sobs, cowering away from Brad.

"She's upset," Nate says, trying to draw Brad's attention away from her.

Brad swings around to glare at Nate. "I can see that," he says witheringly.

"Well, shouting at her is not going to solve anything," Nate says.

Brad makes a wordless noise of frustration and goes to the window, looking out on the land. Nate takes his handkerchief out of his pocket and wordlessly hands it to Lilley, who buries her face in it.

Brad turns, suddenly. "Fine," he says. "I'm going to take Tony and Ray and Evan into town and we'll find out who did this."

Evan, Ray and Walt are cleaning up the glass and trying to figure out how to cover the window, and Tony is still stabling the horses. Jim is just sitting at the table, cracking walnuts and watching the proceedings impassively.

"Brad, you don't even know it was people from town. They could've been bandits, roamers, anyone."

Brad looks at Nate almost pityingly. "You think that, Nate, if you want."

Nate reins in his temper with difficulty. "Even if it is someone from town," he snaps, "what are you going to do? Give them a beating? You don't think that will just bring them back, and maybe with more of their friends?"

"What are we supposed to do, just lie back and take it?" Trombley says, grinning a little as if he's enjoying this. "Fuck no."

Trombley's perspective and input on the situation seem to have the opposite effect on Brad that he intended, because he sighs heavily and puts his hand up to his eyes. When he drops his hand he looks at Nate. "You're right. We've just gotta make sure someone's always here."

"You gonna let me pick up that shotgun again if I need to?" Trombley says, still smirking.

"Only if and when I say," Brad says grimly, and then he goes outside.

*

Schwetje and Mattis decide to close the school.

"We can't have a schoolteacher who condones the kind of sinful behavior that has transpired in this here house," Mattis says. He and Schwetje are sitting in chairs in the parlor in Brad's house, Griego hovering behind them as if he came along to be their bodyguard. "As Rev. Sixta so rightly says, we don't want our children's minds desecrated with perversions. Such things might be acceptable in your fancy old world halls of learnin', but we won't have you bringin' Sodom and Gomorrah here."

Nate is angry at himself, because he's stunned, but he knows he shouldn't have been.

"Sodom and Gomorrah," he repeats incredulously.

"We don't want to know what all goes on here," Schwetje says, almost nervously. "But we're going to ask that you keep it out of our school."

"What exactly are you implying?" Nate says, his back straight.

Schwetje sighs, as if he's sorry it has come to this. "We've heard a lot of strange stories about Brad Colbert from folks as knew him before he come here. We was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But he ain't proved anything wrong. We sent you out here to live with him thinkin' you would be a good influence, bring some civility and morality to this house. But he's sucked you in like has all the rest of his boys. It's thanks to you, actually, that we finally can be sure of the truth about him."

Nate is so furious he can barely see straight. He can feel himself trembling with anger, at their baseless accusations, at the unfairness of it, at the smug way they are handing down judgment, delivering their speeches as if they'd planned them all along, before Nate even came to Mathilda.

"Get out," Nate says. "I have nothing more to say to you and no reason to defend myself or Brad and his men in the face of such ridiculous accusations."

"Facts is facts," Mattis says, standing and putting on his hat. Schwetje follows. "You'd best be careful, Nate. Folks haven't really taken kindly to you, and you haven't done yourself any favors in town by taking sides."

Nate forces himself not to jump up and throttle Mattis with his bare hands. "Is that a threat?" he asks instead, raising an eyebrow.

"Just tell Brad to think long and hard about what he's doin' here. And whether or not he might be better off somewhere else. Oh, and if he's thinkin' of sellin', tell him I can make him a good offer," Mattis says, still smiling.

"You can see yourself out," Nate says coldly.

They shrug and walk out. Nate has never felt so powerless.

*

"Are you going to leave?" Walt says from the doorway a few moments later. Nate is still staring straight ahead, his jaw clenched and his mind working furiously, trying to figure out what to do. He looks over at Walt, whose eyes are sad and open, unprotected.

"I don't know," Nate says.

"You promised," Walt says, a bit desperately. "I knew this would happen, I knew they'd find a reason to make you leave, just because you're a good person."

"I don't want to leave," Nate says. "But there's nothing for me to do here. I would be a dead weight for Brad."

"No," Walt says. "He leans on you more than you know."

Nate shakes his head. "Walt, he barely speaks to me. I contribute nothing but the paltry room and board I pay, and I don't think it's money that Brad needs." He needs the hand of God, the balance of Justice, the power of Truth, all those lofty things that Nate, in his woeful mortal coil, could never provide.

"You're the only one he ain't carrying on his shoulders," Walt says.

"I'm afraid that's not true; I am most definitely a burden."

"Just a while longer," Walt insists. "Wait a little bit. You'll see."

Nate looks down at his clenched hands. "I just want to help. That's all I ever wanted, when I came out here."

"You have," Walt says, and Nate wishes he could believe him.

*

Brad has almost no reaction to the news. His eyes flicker a little bit, but otherwise he just blinks at Nate. "You going, then?"

Walt and Ray look up from where they are huddled together by the stove, sorting through a sack of beans.

"If it is an inconvenience for me to stay," Nate says, a trifle stiffly, thinking of the space he is taking up in Brad's bed.

"You know it ain't," Brad says stonily.

Nate curbs his temper. "No, Brad, I don't know that, actually."

Evan and Jim stop their arguing over their dinners.

Brad stares at Nate. "Well, what do you want me to say, Nate?"

Nate groans. "Say how you feel, for once in your life."

He immediately regrets the words. Brad looks like Nate has just slapped him.

Nate remembers the night Brad showed him the painting, his most prized possession. He never knew so clearly what a person was thinking as he did that night.

"I'm sorry," Nate says. "Of course you don't owe that to anyone." Oh, he's making it worse, and he wants to bite his tongue out.

Brad leaves the kitchen. They all hear a door slam a few seconds later, and the kitchen is silent for a long time afterward.

*

They stop going to church after that, and only go into town for supplies, speaking to no one. The shopkeeper is rude to them but accepts their money, of course, and some of the men in town shout insults at them as they ride through.

A few days later, a man arrives at the house. Nate is in the parlor writing letters, one to a former professor, one to the superintendant of the neighboring district, and one to his lawyer in Boston. He is the only one to hear the knock at the door.

"You must be the schoolteacher," the man says, taking off his hat. He's a little older than Nate, his face kind, but he looks a little beaten down.

"Not anymore," Nate says dryly. "How can I help you?"

The man regards him curiously, then clears his throat. "I'm lookin' for Brad, he around?"

Nate ushers him into the parlor, thinking of having him sit down while he goes to find Brad, but the man eyes the chairs with an air of embarrassment, as if he thinks they are too fine for him to sit in. Nate is about to reassure him when Walt comes running in.

"Pappy!" he says happily, and rushes at the man to grasp his hand and clap an arm around his shoulder. "I thought I heard your voice! I'm so happy you're here, Brad is gonna shit himself."

Pappy laughs and glances at Nate almost apologetically.

"Why're you here, old man?" Walt asks, and he's grinning up at Pappy adoringly.

Pappy pats Walt's back paternally. "Ran into Poke," he says. "Poke's wife is expectin'. He's real happy, but it means he probably ain't gonna be able to come back this year. Sent me instead."

Walt beams at him. "Glad to have you. You met Nate, I guess?"

"Poke said the schoolmaster was boardin' with you all."

"Nathaniel Fick, meet Pappy. Well, his name is Larry Patrick, but we all call him Pappy."

"Nice to meet you," Nate says, shaking Pappy's hand.

"Likewise," Pappy says, his smile making his mustache move like a caterpillar on his upper lip.

They go into the kitchen, and Walt gravely fills Pappy in on things that have transpired since Poke left.

"I think it's gonna get worse. I just got a feeling," Walt says. Then he gets up. "I'm gonna go down to the cellar and see if there's anything special to celebrate you comin' back to us," he says, and smiles, leaving the room.

"He looks sicker'n he did last time I saw him," Pappy says bluntly.

Nate shakes his head. "He works too hard and worries too much. Refuses bed rest outright."

"I think he's afraid of being thought of as useless," Pappy says.

"Brad thinks it's good for him to be up and about. It keeps him strong, and he's more cheerful when he's up than the days when he's confined to his bed."

"He's afraid of goin' to a real doctor," Pappy says. "Brad wanted to take him, was thinkin' about takin' him and Ray to Chicago, or maybe farther, to find someone who could help him. Walt didn't want to. I think it's frustratin' to Brad, 'cause he's a man of action, and when he can't fix things he gets real angry with himself."

"I thought, when I first got here, that Walt was right to tell Brad not to think about leaving. But now I'm not so sure." Nate had thought that Brad and all his men were bound together because of the land, their place. Coming, as Nate did, from a family that was not really a family, and the uncivilized civility of the city, he had thought, romantically, that there was something real about this land that tied them all together in some tangible, identifiable way, something comforting and safe that could offer much more to all of them than anything else in the world, and could help Walt more than any expensive doctors and sanatoriums. But he knows now that it is not the land; it is Brad and the way he cares for them, the way he deserves their unswerving loyalty, their hard work for him, and their faith in him, and his willingness to do everything in his power to help them and keep them safe.

"I know Schwetje and McGraw. They's got things skewed in their heads. Mattis is more subtle but that makes him more dangerous. Sixta's got his heart in the right place despite all his blusterin' and yellin', but they pay him and he can't really do nothing to influence the people in town in any way that goes against what the other three want. If things in town is gettin' worse I think it might be the best thing for Brad to sell this land and make a new start somewhere else."

Walt comes back, then, and he's followed by Ray and Evan, who whoop with delight at the sight of Pappy. Nate retires to finish his letters, leaving them to their joyful reunion.

*

Brad builds his fences as the snow melts. Lilley teaches Nate, Walt, Ray and Evan how to sew more than buttonholes, and they mend the shirts and trousers that have been torn and frayed. Soon it is time for the plowing to begin as the ground softens and dries up, and the men spend all day in the field. It's exhausting work, even with the plow horses.

One day they come into the barn to find that the horses, the two cows, the goat, and the pigs are all sick, and all the fowl but one chicken are dead. Brad sends Tony, Evan, Jim and Ray out to continue the plowing without the horses, but he and Pappy stay to try to nurse the sick animals. Nate knows nothing about animals and cannot help, but he does what Brad and Pappy tell him to do, and when they start dying off he helps to dig holes to bury them in.

Brad wields his shovel with silent fury. This time he did not even propose going into town to try to punish whoever poisoned all his animals, but Nate could see that the impotence was infuriating him, and the horror of watching his favorite horse die before his eyes was excruciating.

"They won't get the better of us," is all he says when Ray complains loudly about the backbreaking work of plowing the fields by hand, and Trombley keeps boasting he can shoot anyone right between the eyes from two hundred yards away.

"That's impossible," Evan says flatly.

"You wanna bet?" Trombley says. "Just give me a chance to prove it!"

He's never had a chance to prove it, but Nate is afraid he may, soon, because Brad's patience is wearing thin, and though his men are all polite and upstanding, for the most part, despite their colorful language, there is a hard ferocity in all of them, probably the result of difficult childhoods, that seems to have been incited. All are eager for retaliation, and Brad is the only thing holding them in check.

They lose all but one of the horses and the lone chicken. It will be months before the horse traders come through, and without the plow horses they will not be able to farm as much land as before.

Lilley, who has been getting steadily stranger since the death of her baby, starts to say that she is going to leave on her own if Tony does not arrange for them to leave together. She starts at every sound and refuses to be left alone in a room, so Tony spends most of his time sitting with her. She gets thinner and thinner and less chatty; all she talks about is wanting to leave this place and the curse that must be on it. She runs away twice, but never very far, and Tony always brings her back, exhausted and whimpering, in his arms.

Finally he decides to leave, strike out on his own. He tells Brad that he can't afford to buy the land that Brad was going to set aside for him, and thinks maybe they'll try their luck in California. He says he can't stand sitting around doing nothing while the people of the town sabotage Brad's farm. Brad pays him his wages and donates his wagon, their one remaining horse, and some supplies, and they set out in early May, hoping to reach California by October.

"You think she'll make it?" Ray asks skeptically as they all watch the wagon disappear down the road.

"Nah, she'll be dead before they get through Nebraska," Jim says, chewing on a blade of grass.

*

Nate moves his things back into the bedroom that Lilley and Tony vacated. Brad had started sleeping in the barn weeks ago, and after Walt has a particularly bad spell Brad orders him to move up to his bedroom instead of sharing the small room downstairs with Ray and Pappy. Walt is unhappy with this but he follows Brad's orders. Several times Nate catches Ray sneaking out of Walt's room in the morning.

"He sleeps easier with me there," Ray explains, unembarrassed. "I just don't know if Brad would like it."

"Your secret's safe," Nate promises, though he doubts there is anything that goes on in the house that Brad is unaware of.

Things are still unbearably tense between Nate and Brad. Long gone are the easy conversations they used to have. Nate begins to doubt they ever had them; maybe they were all a figment of his imagination, so remote do the memories seem. Brad is a solid fortress. He blocks out anyone's attempts to draw him into conversation, though Nate suspects that Pappy is sometimes successful, when they're alone. Sometimes he catches Brad looking at him, the look in his eyes making Nate want to reach out to him with everything he's got, but Brad's gaze always slides away slowly, which makes Nate doubt what he saw. Most of the time he is sure of nothing, when it comes to Brad, but then sometimes he is sure of everything, can see how it could be, if Brad would only let his guard down, and if only Nate had the courage to face him head on, to ask Brad for everything he is sure Brad wants to give him, and to accept it without thinking of anything else.

*

Fortunately, three weeks later, the horse traders come through, much earlier than expected, and Brad buys four, trading much of their grain supply in addition to the money. The first opportunity they get, Brad, Nate, Ray, Evan and Jim take the cart into town for supplies. The planting is finished and the men are exhausted. Brad drives, Nate beside him in front, and the other three ride behind.

Jim disappears the moment they arrive in town, like he always does. The main street is mostly deserted. Nate checks for mail at the post office and takes a walk past his beautiful brand new school house, empty and locked up, no new teacher found yet. He also walks a little ways down the road leading out of town, thinking of taking Brad by the hand and dragging him away to board a train for New York, and then sailing on a ship to a faraway land where none of the ugliness of Mathilda could touch them.

When he gets back to the store, Jim is back, and they load up the cart and make for home around five o'clock, having spent no more than an hour and a half in town. When the house comes into view, Jim points at it and says, "Why's there smoke comin' out of that window?"

Before he's even done saying the words Brad is already unhitching one of the horses. "Ray, do the other," he barks, and then he's up on one of them, galloping toward the house. Ray scrambles to follow, and Nate, Jim and Evan run as hard as they can after them.

It's the downstairs that's on fire, the two front rooms and the hallway. Pappy is lying on the ground a few yards from the house, his foot a mangled and bloody mess, and Walt is a few feet away, wheezing and gasping.

"They shot my foot before I could scare 'em off," Pappy says, grimacing through what must be horrific pain. "Walt was upstairs and they nailed his door shut, stole a bunch of stuff and set fire to the front before takin' off in a wagon just a few minutes ago. I couldn't put out the fire all lame like this, had to crawl upstairs to get Walt out, he was coughin' pretty bad, and now he can barely breathe at all."

"Evan, ride for the doctor," Brad shouts as he runs into the burning house.

They put the fire out by running buckets of water in and beating it back with burlap sacks, but most of the front of the house, including Nate's room, is ruined, everything that wasn't touched by the fire in shambles. Broken glass litters the floor, furniture is splintered, and many things are missing. Nate's shoulders ache and he's inhaled lots of smoke; they are all sooty and sweating and coughing, but Brad's face is like stone. Nate's eyes are watering, but he's not sure if it's from the smoke or from looking at Brad's face.

The smoke has done Walt no good; when Nate comes back out front, Walt is awake, but wheezing more loudly and painfully than ever before, on his back in the dirt, his body arching up with the effort of expanding and contracting his chest. Brad takes one look at Walt and turns to Pappy.

"You recognize any of them?" he asks.

"No," he says, white-faced with pain. "They weren't no one I'd seen in town afore. I think they were outsiders, maybe. They talked like they'd been sent by someone. And they left in a wagon."

"The painting," Nate says involuntarily, and Brad's eyes snap up to meet his.

"It doesn't matter," he says, and Nate wants to cry, for some reason.

"You sit tight," Brad says to Pappy grimly. "I'm going after these motherfuckers. Ray, Jim, saddle the horses."

"How are you going to go after them? You have no idea where they went! They'll be miles away by now," Nate says, panicking a little at the idea of Brad going off and leaving them alone.

"See this?" Brad says, and he points to a pair of tracks leading out to the road. "Those are wagon tracks, but you can see the tread on this right rear wheel is different. Looks like they were holding an axle in place with some wire. Makes it easy to follow."

Nate stares at the tracks, barely able to discern the abnormality Brad is talking about. "What are you going to do if you find them?" he asks slowly.

Brad doesn't answer, but the hardness in his eyes fills Nate with dread, and he can only stare after Brad as he barks orders at Jim and Ray and mounts his horse. Ray kneels beside Walt for a moment, clasping his hand and saying something inaudible.

"Ray!" Brad says harshly, and Ray stands, dropping Walt's hand. Jim is sitting on his horse, chewing something and smiling as if he's finally come into some good luck. Ray mounts his horse and then they're off. They've each got a shotgun strapped to their backs, and Nate feels his own jaw clench.

Nate turns to go kneel at Walt's side. Walt's eyes are watering and his chest sounds worse to Nate than it ever has. The desperation on Walt's face as he fights for every breath is so unadulterated that it's as if nothing of Walt exists anymore, his entire being submitted to his illness. Nate has never felt so close to death as he does now, looking down at Walt, and his own powerlessness in the face of it is terrifying.

He's furious at Brad, suddenly, for leaving them like this, Pappy white around the mouth from the pain and Walt nearly erased by his suffering. He doesn't know what to do, how to help either of them.

"Have him sit up," Pappy says, "maybe get a hay bale so he can lean up against it."

Nate runs to fetch one. He props Walt up, but Walt is still agitated and frantic at his inability to get enough air.

"Walt," Nate pleads quietly. "Try to calm down, it might help. The doctor will be here soon." That's not true and Nate is sure Walt knows it, but Walt closes his eyes and nods anyway.

*

By the time Evan returns with Dr. Bryan, Nate has cleaned up the kitchen, which is relatively undamaged, and set Walt up in a makeshift cot by the window, where he can breathe air untainted by smoke but is close enough to the stove to keep warm. His breathing is the only sound in the room, and Pappy's face is grey with the dull throbbing in his foot; Nate had had to cut his boot off and though Pappy had made no sound through the whole ordeal, he has made no sound since it was over, either, and just sits on the floor, back against the wall, waiting for help to come.

Dr. Bryan arrives in the gig and examines Pappy's foot, concluding that he needs to take Pappy to a surgery, maybe as far as Des Moines, if he doesn't want to lose it. Pappy is dosed with laudanum and Nate and Evan hoist him up, looping his arms around their shoulders, and get him downstairs and into the doctor's gig, propping his foot up under a few kitchen rags.

"Am I gonna lose that foot?" Pappy says, his eyes hazy and his head lolling on the seatback.

"No," Nate says, as firmly as he can. "You're to be taken to a hospital."

"Can't afford no hospital," Pappy slurs. "Gotta get word to m'wife—"

"We'll write to her. Don't worry. The bill will be taken care of. You'll be walking in no time at all."

"The Doc wouldn't look me in the eye. Brad'll think—"

Nate leans over, resting his hand on the rail next to Pappy's head. "Listen to me. Don't worry about Brad or anything but getting better. You're in good hands."

Pappy closes his eyes.

Dr. Bryan descends the steps and pulls Nate away from the gig.

"I've spoken to Walt. He needs to be taken to a sanatorium; we all know that I can't give him the care he needs here."

Nate looks out at the field beyond the doctor's shoulder. Dawn is creeping out over the plains; spring had arrived, everything is tranquil and quiet. It seems strange to Nate that things have gone so spectacularly wrong.

"What did he say he wants?"

"He wants to stay, of course, but he said he would do whatever Brad thought best."

"Well, Brad isn't here," Nate says bitterly.

He's surprised when Dr. Bryan puts a hand to his shoulder briefly. "I'm sorry for your troubles," he says.

Nate turns to stare at him for a moment, and Dr. Bryan drops his hand, transferring his medical bag from the other hand.

"I can write to inquire about a place for him. In the meantime, all I can tell you to do for him is to make sure he rests and doesn't stop eating. He's very ill, Nate."

Nate nods. "Send me the bill for Pappy; I'll give you a draft on my bank."

Dr. Bryan shakes his hand and drives off, Pappy in tow.

Evan watches the gig disappear down the road, and Nate turns back to the house.

*

At about three the next afternoon, Brad and Ray come back, Jim's horse tied to Brad's saddle. Nate sees them through the kitchen window and throws down the rag he's scrubbing, lye soap making his hands burn a little. Walt opens his eyes and looks over at Nate, holding his gaze intensely for a moment before the door opens.

Ray comes in looking dirty and exhausted, his knuckles bloody and his mouth bracketed like he wants to cry, if only he had the energy. He staggers over to Walt and kneels down at his cot, putting his head down on the blanket. "Walt," he says, his voice muffled, and Walt raises his hand slowly, like it weighs too much, and rests it heavily atop Ray's head, his fingers weaving into Ray's hair.

Nate has to look away, and Brad is standing in the doorway looking like he was carved from marble, a bullwhip folded up in one hand. He tosses it onto the table and takes his hat off, sitting down and leaning back, looking at Nate.

Nate doesn't say anything, just stares at him.

"It was Jim that told 'em we were in town," Brad says finally.

There is nothing in Brad's face that evinces any hint of the sense of betrayal he must feel. Nate himself is shocked; even accounting for all of Trombley's faults, Nate hadn't thought him capable of this.

"Where," he says, his mouth suddenly dry, "where is he now?"

Ray raises his head. "We tracked 'em all the way to Lytton. They saw us and started tryin' to run, but Trombley got right up beside 'em and shot the driver right 'tween the eyes. The other guy with him started yelling, asking what the hell Trombley thought he was doing. It was obvious they wasn't expecting him to turn on 'em. That little shit ain't on no one's side but his own, and he was havin' a real good time, whooping and yelling like he'd been waitin' all his life to kill someone. Well then two other guys jump out of the back of the wagon and they got rifles, the horses was tryin' to bolt 'cause they was spooked as hell and Trombley shoots one of them, too."

"We killed them all," Brad says tonelessly.

"Trombley?" Nate raps out.

"No," Brad says. "I got him off my horse and told him never to show his face here again. Left him with the bodies."

Walt's breathing gets louder, suddenly, and Nate looks over to see the distress on his face, the way his chest is heaving.

"Can I speak to you outside?" Nate says to Brad, trying to hold onto his temper.

Brad regards him for a moment, then pushes up out of his seat and puts his hat back on. Nate follows him out the door and into the yard.

"What were you thinking?" Nate says, not knowing a better way to start, but so angry that his voice is shaking. Brad doesn't turn around, just keeps walking deliberately in the direction of the barn.

"Trombley is gone. Pappy is gone. Tony is gone. And you've just killed how many men?"

"Had to make a decision," Brad says, pulling down a few tools and rolling them up in a sack.

"What kind of decision was that? Now is not the time to be leaving on missions of revenge. You went into that blind, Brad, you had no idea about Trombley. That kid is crazy with bloodlust! He's been itching to do something like that for months now and you led him right into it. And then you just leave him there?"

Brad doesn't answer, just finishes rolling up the sack and reaches for a rope.

"He's got you deep in it now, and you couldn't hold on to your temper for just a little longer—"

Suddenly Brad turns around. "How much longer was I supposed to just take it?" he says harshly. "I made a decision. I knew what was likely to happen. It's my fault, yeah, I knew what he'd do if I took him to hunt those lowlifes down, but you know what? I wanted to kill them. I wanted to eat their goddamn hearts right out of their chests."

"They're not even the ones who are really responsible for all this!" Nate shouts. "You know that! It's Schwetje and Mattis who are after you, turning the town against you and trying to drive you out. These men were probably paid to do this, and Trombley too, maybe he was under orders to kill them anyway so none of it could be traced back to those two. But it looks like you're as hell-bent on bringing yourself down as they are. God knows we're miles from any civilized people but you know they can call the law up at their own whim, and now you've committed murder and played right into their hands."

"Dammit, Nate, what was I supposed to do?"

Brad's eyes are snapping with anger and he's holding a scythe. Nate's mind is in such turmoil that he has crazy, unbidden thoughts, sees Brad as some violent Norse god bent on vengeance, the world bending before his wrath.

"Do you even know how sick Walt is? He might only have weeks—"

"You don't think I know that?" Brad roars.

The wind rustles the grass outside the barn, and Nate feels very alone.

"Walt and Ray are all I've got and I can't do a thing to help them," Brad continues. "And these motherfuckers come to me, to my land, to my home, and try to have Walt killed and Pappy lamed. They try to burn my house down, and you expect me to not do a thing about it?"

"Was this the right thing, Brad? Is this going to stop them? And now you don't have Trombley under your eye. You don't know what he'll do, half your men are gone and I'm virtually useless—"

"Yeah," Brad says, that single word dropping heavily between them. "Another person I have to worry about, another person I can't keep safe. Every time you take one of your little walks into town I have to worry that they're gonna beat you like they did that last schoolmaster. Every time you're left alone here now I gotta worry that they're gonna come and do something to you, too, and then I'll have a dead school teacher on my hands on top of everything else."

It's the truth, but it still hurts Nate deeply that Brad views him as such a burden now.

Brad turns away from Nate. "You should never have come here, Nate."

The hurt gouges everything out of Nate, eats everything away so that he feels like he's empty, hollow.

"Yes," he says finally, watching Brad's back. "You're right."

He leaves Brad in the barn. As he rounds the corner to make his way back to the house he encounters Evan, who is looking uneasy.

"Ain't never heard the Ice Man lose his temper like that before," he says.

Nate shakes his head and keeps walking.

"Are you leaving?" Evan calls after him.

Nate turns back to look at him, the way he's holding his cap in his two hands, fingers moving restlessly over the brim of it. Evan's shirt is torn and looks too thin, blowing in the wind a little.

"I don't know," Nate says.

He goes back to the house. Walt is watching him, his eyes already looking close to dead, and Ray still has his forehead resting on the cot next to him.

Nate remembers the conversation he had with Walt, and the promise he made to stay. No matter how much Brad resents his presence here, he knows he can't leave Walt and Ray and Brad alone. For all Brad's stoicism and physical strength, they're defenseless. Nate doesn't know how anything he could do will help them, but there is something in the way Brad is holding onto this, something in the way he seems unable to stop fighting even at the risk of losing it all, that makes Nate think there is still some secret to be unlocked about Brad that will be the key to saving him.

The next morning Brad sends Evan away with some money, a letter of reference and a few tins of beans. As he turns to leave Evan has that look on his face of a boy trying not to cry, but relieved that he isn't allowed to. "Maybe I'll find Tony 'n' Lil," he says.

"You do that. Make sure Lilley's still alive and Manimal ain't drunk off his ass and face-down in a ditch somewhere," Brad says.

"Fuck you," Ray says to Evan. "Runnin' away like a goddamned coward."

"Ray," Brad says.

"Goodbye, Walt," Evan says, and Walt smiles a little through his wheezing breaths.

Evan nods at Nate and leaves, the sound of his footsteps fading. Nate turns back to the stove, where he's trying to cook corn mash.

"He was an orphan and a shrimp. I caught him stealing in the cellar one day," Brad says. "He sure was scrawny."

"Still is," Ray muttered bitterly. "You'll never see him again. None of us won't see no one again."

"You're free to leave, Raymond." Brad says impassively.

"For fuck's sake, Brad," Ray groans, "what is your plan here?"

"I'm gonna work my land," Brad says. "And we're gonna help Walt get better."

"Oh, that's your great strategy? Help Walt get better. Fuckin' fantastic. How, exactly? And how you gonna work that land with no hired men?"

"With my own two hands. And yours, if you don't leave."

"Jesus Christ," Ray says, his thin face and black eyes contorted with frustration and rage.

"I'll help," Nate says.

Brad doesn't even look over at him. "Gonna ruin those soft white hands of yours doing farm work?"

Nate looks down at his hands. They're rough by now, calloused and scarred.

"You worry about my hands if you want, Brad," Nate says coldly. "Just another on your long list of worries."

Ray looks up and flicks his eyes back and forth between them, but the conversation stops there, and Nate goes out with Brad and Ray to the field that day.

*

Part Three
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