"You didn't treat her right," Ned growled.
"Hey, don't bite me. She's just a pretty face, but too shy for my liking. I was just trying to get her out of her shell," his brother Ivan said. "No harm done."
"You embarrassed her in front of everyone. Nora deserved better than that from you." Ned wanted to hit his brother and hard, but knew he'd hear it from their father who always protected his first born.
"What's it to you. Even if you were sweet on her, she'd never look at you. You'll end up with a starter herd and a point in the other direction when our father dies while I get the ranch. You have nothing to offer anyone, certainly not the daughter of the largest ranch around."
Just because Ned's brother was right, it didn't make it go down any better. It was a bitter pill.
"You still shouldn't have made her waltz with you holding her so closely. She isn't that kind of girl. If you want to hold a woman so tightly you should go to the bawdy house in town. They wouldn't mind." Ned was still seething.
"How would you know about the bawdy house women anyway? Is that where you..."
"Shut up, just shut your trap. I'm sick and tired of your self-righteous blather." Ned stomped off.
He couldn't wait to go on the trail drive in the morning leaving his father and brother behind in his dust. He was sick of this ranch, sick and tired of being unappreciated for all his hard work. Ned bet that without him, his family wouldn't even begin to be able to run the ranch so smoothly. Something tickled in the back of his head. The more Ned thought about it, the more the idea grew legs. It wouldn't take long before it'd be running away with him. Ned scratched the bristles on his chin. He might just do it.
Ned ignored his father's wave and acted like he couldn't hear his last minute instructions. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that the ranch foreman had ridden over to listen. Once these cattle were loaded on the rail car, he'd divvy up what he figured the portion owed him and take off. He'd send the rest of the wad of money back with the ranch foreman. Ned was already dreaming of finding his own homestead, far away from this barren land. He might take his pick of too, his own starter herd for his inheritance due him. Ned looked over the cattle as they moseyed along. There were a few who stood out as pretty as a cow could be, ones who had thrown good calves. Yep, he was going to strike out on his own. Ned didn't need his father or his brother anymore or the Bar IN ranch, even if their brand stood for Ivan and Ned.
The foreman was between a rock and a hard place when they hit the cattle yard where Ned cut his pick out.
"I'm striking out on my own. I'm just taking my due, my inheritance. I'll just take a third of the profit off the sale of the cows, then take this little herd and skedaddle. I'm not going back. My father and brother can make of it what they may, but I won't be under their thumb any longer." Ned spoke convincingly.
"I don't know," Joe worried. "I don't like to do anything without the boss' say-so."
"Well, I'm in charge right now, so it's not your doing. This is how it's going to be." Ned spurred his horse around to move his cows away before they could be rounded up with the others. I'm going to camp tonight just outside of town right by the road back home. I'm expecting my money, Joe. Don't try to cheat me out of it. As long as my father's not here, you answer to me."
The next day with his money in his pocket, Ned headed west. His plan was to get as far as he could away from his family. After a couple of days of herding slow moving cows, he headed to a ribbon of green where trees grew along the banks of what could only be a river. The cattle needed to drink. They'd found a pond and even a buffalo wallow which had some standing water in it, but they were thirsty. It was almost dark by the time he reached it. He was too tired to build a fire, so he chewed on a little jerky then fell asleep.
When the first splotch of water hit him in the face, he mumbled for his brother to leave him alone. Then more followed, and Ned woke up not to one of Ivan's tricks, but to a rainstorm. In was darker than the inside of a mule. He stumbled over to put on his slicker. Just then a flash and a crack of thunder immediately on its heel was deafening. It couldn't have been more than 200 feet away that lightning had struck a cottonwood tree. The cattle. With a bawling and pounding of hooves, Ned realized his small herd was stampeding. He barely made it to his horse or he would have been trampled. He rode with them trying to slow them down, but they were terrified. One huge mama lunged into his pinto. His horse stumbled then went down. Ned jumped clear just in time, but he didn't know if he was about to be trampled to death or not. He was on his knees with his hands over his head calling out, "Oh, God!" Then it was over.
The cattle had run past, his horse was getting to its feet and Ned was staggering in the pitch blackness. He mounted his horse but it was limping badly. There was nothing but to get back off and start walking leading the lame thing. He hoped he was headed back to where he had camped, but it was hard to tell.
He gave up and just squatted down in the mud and waited until daylight. Finally, he could see the tree lined river not far away. He went back and rolled up his wet bedroll, picked up his saddlebags, and tried getting up on his horse. She was still limping. Badly.
Ned had a feeling of desperation wash over him. He'd have to hoof it and try to go find his scattered herd. Hopefully he could find a ranch that would sell him a horse somewhere along the way. This walking was for the birds. His pants chaffed as they dried on him. His boots rubbed his feet raw. He was beginning to feel real sorry for himself about then. Finally, he saw some smoke just over the rise, as if it was coming from a chimney.
Ned didn't see anyone around. There were no horses in the corral, just a small burro and some sheep, ewes with their lambs. He knocked anyway on the door.
Behind him, a slight man walked out of the barn, "Hola."
"Buenos tardes. Do you speak English?" Ned had just about used up his knowledge of Spanish. His father had shied away from hiring vaqueros because he said he wanted cowboys who could understand everything he said.
"What can I do for you?"
"My name is Ned Sorenson. My herd of cattle stampeded in the storm last night, and my horse went lame. Do you have a horse I could buy?"
"No, senor. That burro is all I have. My friends called me Jorge." The man had come over and was feeling Ned's horse's legs then checking her hooves. "I can't tell why she's limping. Maybe she'll be better in the morning, no?"
"I hope so. No telling where my cows will be scattered by then. Are there any ranches close by that might sell me a mount?"
"Si, about eight miles that way." He pointed east.
"Eight miles?" Ned felt like cursing and stomping his hat. "Now how am I going to make it eight miles with these blisters on my feet?
"I can take you on my burro part way there. I can't take you all the way though. They hate my sheep. It would only cause more trouble. Are you hungry?"
Ned smiled, "Just a little."
After a belly full of warm pinto beans wrapped in tortillas, Ned saddled up Jorge's burro. The saddle swallowed up the animal and the stirrups almost grazed the ground. Then Ned climbed on. "Are you sure this thing can hold me up?"
"Si, senor. She is very strong."
Now here was the worst kind of humiliation a cowboy could stoop to, being led by a sheepherder on his burro. It didn't get lower than that. Finally after about five miles, the Mexican stopped.
"About three miles that way, you'll find a ranch. They might have horses, but what they breed are mules. I hope you find what you need."
"I'll be back for my horse, Jorge. Thanks."
"Adios." The man jumped on his burro and rode off looking like a much better fit on the beast than he'd been.
By the time he made it to the ranch with his saddle over his shoulder, he was tender-footing it in limping worse than his horse had ever thought of doing. He knocked on the door.
A weathered to wrinkles woman opened the door a crack. "Whaddya want?"
"I'd like to buy a horse. Mine went lame a ways back there."
She pried open the door a little more with her rifle barrel. "Hmm. My man will be back soon enough. You can sit outside and wait if you want. Suit yourself." Then she shut and barred the door. Ned went over to the well and drew up a bucket of water. He lifted it up to slake his thirst, then he went to sit in the shade of the barn. First though he hung his saddle up on the fence and untied his bedroll to hang it out to dry. Then he waited. About dusk, supper time by the way his stomach was complaining, the man of the house rode up.
"Evening, sir," Ned said stepping out of the shadows.
The man had his hand on his gun as Ned had startled him. "What can I do for you, cowboy?"
"I need to purchase a horse. Mine went lame back there. My cattle stampeded in the storm and my horse went down. My name's Ned Sorenson, sir."
"Are you related to Oren Sorenson of the Bar IN Ranch?"
"That's my father. I was just settling down with my own small herd when the storm broke right over us hitting a cottonwood by the river."
"That's probably why I found six cows with your brand standing in the field by my own."
"You did! That's great."
"Your father always did do a fair business with me years back. My name is Warren Smith. Here's what I can do. I can't sell you a horse, but I could spare a mule."
"I can't say that I've ever ridden a mule, sir."
"I bred them for the Southern cause in the war. Now there's not as much of a market, but I've grown particularly fond of them. You'll find they are as dependable as they come." He nodded towards Ned's feet. "Sure beats hobbling around like that, I'd wager."
"Sure does. If you don't have a horse, then, I guess I'll buy a mule off you. Thanks."
"Let's go see what the old woman's cooked up for us."
His wife didn't look happy to see him, but set a tin plate with roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy in front of him. It was enough to make him want to kiss her. He made short work of it then said, "That's as fine of eating I've had ever since my ma passed on two years ago. Thank you, ma'am."
That was enough to earn him a second plate heaped higher than the first. Ned thought he'd died and gone to heaven.
"You might as well bunk out in the barn and we'll send you off in the morning with one of my best mules. I'll show you where you cows are then, Mr.Sorenson."
"It's just Ned, sir. Thank you." He limped out towards the barn, dragged his bedroll off the fence and was asleep as soon as he'd hit the hay.
In the morning he was fed biscuits and gravy with a good cup of coffee. The mule was about fifteen hands tall. A good looking animal in its own odd way. It sure beat riding a burro.
When they got out to the field, sure enough, five of his cows were grazing placidly just outside Mr. Smith's barbed wire fence.
"I've had to fence off my land to keep those dumb sheep out. They are a pest. They graze the grass so close that it about destroys it so that it won't grow back. Then there's the sheep scab. That's the real danger. The ranchers in these parts aren't going to stand for it. We'll get rid of them like the nits they are."
Ned didn't say anything, but thanks after he'd paid for his mule and urged his cattle to move on. He hoped they didn't do anything too drastic to his friend Jorge. Somehow, he'd taken a liking to the man. Lately the range wars were getting out of hand though. A Ute shepherd had even been beheaded in Arizona. It was enough to make a man sick just thinking about it.
Ned found four more of his cows grazing over another hill which now made his herd ten head of cattle. He kept looking. He went back by Jorge's sheep farm to check on his horse. He saw six of his cattle in his pen. "Hola, amigo! Como esta?" He wasn't sure of his Spanish, but he knew he was profoundly grateful to Jorge.
"Hola, Ned. I see you found some more of your cattle. Good for you! And you got a mule too. That thing would make two of my little burro," and they laughed. "I have some beans warm on the fire if you're hungry."
"Gracias." Ned followed him into his hovel.
After they'd eaten, Ned told him what Warren Smith had said. "Just be careful, Jorge. It can be dangerous."
"I will watch my back, amigo. Gracias. Your horse is still lame, I'm afraid."
"Do you mind if I leave her here while I keep looking for the rest of my herd?"
"No, that will be fine. I'd offer to keep your cattle too, but I don't want to give them an excuse to string me up as a cattle thief. I was getting nervous about keeping your them here in my corral and was just about to set them loose hoping you could round them up soon."
"I understand. I appreciate all your help," Ned said seriously.
Ned set out then moseying his little herd along. He found two cows back where he'd camped during the storm.
After wandering all over, Ned was running low on supplies. He decided he'd look as he headed back. He sure wasn't making any progress finding a place out west. The closer he got to town, a niggling started in his head. Then it started pounded between his ears. He decided it was harder than he thought to move a herd by himself. He probably should just sell them and take the money. He was already out the cost of a mule.
He drove them to the stockyards. Since he'd been there last, so many herds had come in that the price was down. He only got a third of what they'd been worth before. He took it anyway. Cattle were troublesome when a feller had an itchy foot.
By that night, he had a nice wad of cash in his pocket. In fact, he felt so rich that he decided to splurge on a night in the hotel. Kicking back in the soft bed, a restlessness wouldn't let him loose. Ned decided he needed to have a little fun. It was his chance. There would be no big brother to tattle on him or foreman to look down his nose like he was a kid wet behind the ears. Ned put his boots back on and limped over to the saloon. His was still a little tender-footed.
A game of poker was going on. Ned usually could win most of the hands in the bunkhouse, so he decided to sit in. At first he had lady luck on his side. The drinks were making it all the more enjoyable as well as the pretty, well almost pretty woman sitting right up close filling his senses with her heady perfume. Then, things started spinning in slow motion. His glass kept being refilled. Somehow he was losing. No matter how hard he tried to win it back, his money just kept disappearing. Finally, he had just enough left to pay for a pair of arms to console him.
When Ned woke up in the morning, at first he couldn't figure out where he was. His head was killing him. When he got dressed, he felt his pocket. His money was gone! He looked everywhere, before the realization of how he'd spent his night hit him. The woman was long gone. So was all that was his inheritance, his cash and his cows. He groaned. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" He went back to his unused hotel room and searched his saddlebags. No money was in them either. He didn't even have enough to pay for his mule's board at the stables.
With every pitchfork full of manure laden hay, Ned almost retched. The stabler had pity enough to let him work off his debt for boarding his mule. His head was full of misery and his heart was sick. He'd lost it all. He was just glad his mother wasn't alive to see it. He didn't deserve the inheritance he'd helped himself to without so much as asking. Now it was all gone. He'd be nothing but a ranch hand the rest of his life, and everybody knew there weren't many poorer than a cowboy. But it was all he knew.
After he left without two nickels to rub together for even a cup of coffee, he wandered. Somewhere out there were his two last head of cattle. He was determined to find them. He stopped at every ranch he came upon and asked if they had work. Of course they didn't. Any good rancher had just sold off a big chuck of his cattle and had let go of most of his ranch hands. Now there were more cowboys without work than you could shake a stick at. Still he hoped for a handout, a sandwich or at least a cup of coffee. Most of the time, western hospitality prevailed, lucky for him or he'd starve. Still he didn't find his cows.
Then he thought if he went back to Jorge's maybe his horse was better, and he could sell this blasted hard-headed mule. The stupid thing seemed to think it couldn't go unless he swore at it, like that was the only language it knew. Having met Warren Smith, he figured that was pretty much where he'd learned that.
First he saw the buzzards. Then he found just a few of Jorge's flock scattered thinly across the field.
Suddenly, dead sheep were everywhere. Then he came upon Jorge's dog. It too was shot dead. He spurred his mule swearing. He started calling, "Jorge, amigo!"
Then he saw the dead burro and the heap next to it. Jorge. He used the man's poncho to wrap tightly around his wound which seemed to be through the bottom of the ribs. He lifted the still form not even sure if he was alive. The man was easy enough to carry as light as he was. It wasn't until he had him on the horse he heard the moan that proved his friend was still breathing. He rode for the man's sheep farm hoping that at least they had not burned him out. It was still standing. His horse neighed a greeting from the corral.
Ned laid the man on his bed, then he went outside to draw water from the well and grabbed a shirt off the line and began ripping bandages. After cleaning out the wound as best he could, and finding the bullet had passed through, he began winding the bandages around the man. He didn't have as much as a shot of whiskey to help the man with his pain as he floated in and out of consciousness. One time Jorge came to and said, "Pray for me, amigo." Then he was out again. Pray?
Ned went out to the barn to take care of his mule and to feed his horse. Then he fell on his knees in the hay. "Oh, Lord, you know I haven't bothered to talk to you much since we buried my Ma, and to tell you the truth, it wasn't much before that either. But here I am one of the most worthless men under the sun begging for my friend Jorge's life. You know how I stole my inheritance from my father, how I lost it all in a den of iniquity, how ashamed I am of myself, but I ask you for this good man that you would save his life...and mine. I know mine's not worth saving, but his is. So I guess that's about all. Amen."
He knew that in some places huge herds of sheep were run off cliffs or into rivers to drown. Sheep wagons were burned. Some shepherds were attacked, like Jorge. Sometimes when these things happened not far from his own home, Ned wondered where his brother had been, and if he was involved. He'd not pondered much about it before. Now it involved his friend.
Ned caught a chicken, wrung its neck, scalded it, plucked its feathers, then threw in a pot. He'd never thought much about the food either that magically appeared on their dinner table before, but this was a lot of work. He'd have broth for Jorge when he woke up. But the fever and chills set in instead.
Sitting on a bench by his friend hour after hour, Ned held his own head in his hands. He had a lot of time to think. That niggling feeling crept up on him one night and slammed him upside the head. He could go home and ask his father to take him on as a ranch hand. He'd eat crow, humble himself and beg forgiveness. He could live in the bunk house and be happy to eat whatever cook slapped down in front of him. At least those at the ranch ate beef instead of mutton. He'd never acquired a taste for mutton and didn't want to start now if he could help it. But he'd known enough of starving days these past few weeks that he would have been more than glad to eat even so much as a rattlesnake. But still he hankered after beef, the Bar IN beef.
Then his thoughts turned every night to an image in his mind of a fine pair of dark eyes, silky tresses, satin skin, perfect pink lips so tender...Ned would shove it back in his thought box and turn the key in the lock. Nora would never be his, ever. He'd sought comfort in the wrong place. He'd squandered it all away, his chance to homestead and raise his own herd of cattle hoping the day would come when he would be able to come back and ask for her hand.
Ned's heart felt like a giant hand squeezed it inside. It had hurt less when he'd been kicked by a horse. He'd loved Nora since he was fourteen when he first noticed her at a church social. They'd walked and talked at first shyly then as time went on, like old friends, unless he looked into her eyes and then he'd become tongue-tied. He didn't miss church much after that, until his mother died. By then he'd grown up and knew he would never have enough to offer for her hand. Not only that, but now he'd sunk so low that he'd never be worthy of her anyway. He had two reasons to be mad at God. His mother's death and the death of his hopes. He'd have another, if his brother so much as touched her. He couldn't promise what he'd do then.
Finally--he'd lost count of the days--his friend woke up. "Hola." It wasn't nearly as big a smile on Jorge's face as Ned's. He'd survive. But for how long? Jorge would need to move on or be attacked again. There was no justice for sheep herders from Wyoming to Colorado, New Mexico to Arizona. The cattlemen won every time. The courts looked the other way. Cattle had come first and was still king.
Ned had eaten the first chicken all by himself when Jorge was lost in his delirium. But now he was glad he'd cooked up another one. He spoon fed the broth to his friend. He finally waved it away with a weak hand.
"Do you know who did this, Jorge?"
"They wore masks but it was men from more than one ranch. I recognized Warren Smith's prize mule though. It would take more than a mask to hide that creature."
Ned felt like kicking or throwing something. And to think, he'd sat down at that man's table.
"You can't stay, Jorge. You know that right?"
"Si. I know." He looked so sad. My burro. Is she dead?"
Ned put his hand on his shoulder. "Yes."
"And my dog?"
"Are all my sheep gone too?"
"No, I rounded up as many as I could and brought them in close to your place."
"I don't know, about fifty maybe. I don't know if I found them all. I didn't want to leave you too long."
"I had three hundred with so many lambs coming." He sighed. "Maybe I'll go back to Mexico. It's a long trip, but if I went slowly going around the cattle ranches I could make it. Such a small herd shouldn't be too difficult."
"You can take my horse. She's not lame any more. I'd gladly give you the mule, but Warren would string you up as a horse thief, or rather, a mule thief. Nobody knows what my horse looks like, so you'd be safe riding her."
"It is too much. I will walk."
"Don't be ridiculous. You won't be strong enough for awhile yet for that kind of trip on foot. I'll always be indebted to you for finding my cows, and for that little ride on your burro and the beans you filled my stomach with, not to mention your chickens I've been eating. I wouldn't have survived without your help."
"And me, without yours." They clasped hands in friendship.
A week later, both men headed out. It was a silent farewell that was brimful of gratitude.
The closer he came to home, the more Ned wanted to turn his mule around and gallop until he found Jorge and to become a sheep herder with him. But no. He had to do this like a man. It was time to grow up.
"Son, you're back!"
"I'm sorry Pa. I'm sorry I stole from you, took off without so much as a by-your-leave. I'm sorry for all the terrible choices I made with my life. If you'd just let me hire on as one of your cowhands, I'd be forever grateful..."
His father was crying, wiping tears. He hadn't shed any since his mother had died. "Oh, son, you don't know how glad I am to see you. And no, I won't hire you as one of my hands. You're my son. Yes, you can work as hard as you always have, but you can never be just a ranch hand. Come on. We need a celebration."
The two men rode toward home. Ned still didn't know what to say. When they came into the barnyard, the foremen Joe and all the other cowboys came over to shake his hand and seemed genuinely happy to see him.
"Tom, I want you to go around to our neighbors and invite them to come to a shindig tonight. We're going to have a welcome home party for my son. I thought he was dead, but here he is living and breathing."
"Why did you think I'd died, Pa?"
"A Mr. Warren wrote me and said that you'd lost everything and was wandering around looking for work, and then you just disappeared. He said he thought I'd want to know."
"That's quite a mule you got there," Joe said.
"Warren's, I'd guess, right son?"
"Yes, but I'd be happy if I never saw it again. The man and the mule are two of the same if you ask me."
His Pa laughed, and it wiped away so much of his dread that a little happiness crept back inside.
"Oh, he's in town taking some girl to a fancy supper at the hotel."
Ned ground his back teeth.
Pretty soon as dusk fell, the stars came out, and neighbors started to arrive in their buggies and wagons. Both the bunkhouse cook and his father's house cook had been in a flurry of work preparing the feast at the moment's notice. Every group that arrived added to the food table. The calf barbequed over the coals was just what he'd been hungering for. He felt guilty for all this ta-do, but it was good to see his father so happy. He was in a daze. And then he saw her.
Nora was being helped down from her buggy by her father. Their eyes met. Ned dropped his gaze. He wasn't fit to be in the same room, not even in the same great outdoors. He turned his back and walked away with his heart kicking and screaming inside.
A little later, Nora's father was talking with Ned's Pa. He was walking by when his father grabbed his arm and pulled him over. "Mr. Sharpe had a question for you. He asked me first, but I told him it would be up to you."
"We're glad your home, Ned. I've always admired your hard work, never shirking just because it was your father's spread. He's always told me that you're his best worker. I've been watching you for awhile now."
Nate felt the heat of shame creep still crawl up his neck for his unworthiness.
"My foreman just up and quit on me. I need someone I can trust, someone who has plenty of experience, someone my men can respect and follow, a hard worker. There might be some bad attitudes as some might think they deserve to take the foreman's place, but I know none of my other men could fill those shoes. I know you just got back and all, but I'd like you to consider becoming my foreman."
"I don't know, sir. I don't feel worthy. I've let my father down..."
"Nonsense. I couldn't ask for a better son. We all make mistakes, and fortunately most of them we get over with in our youth. But God's the God of second chances, and I think you could be just the man he's looking for. Pray about it son."
The last time he'd prayed and told his heavenly Father what a miserable man he was, somehow God heard and answered by saving Jorge's life.
"I have to ask you, Mr. Sharpe. Where do you stand on the range war issue? I'm a cattleman through and through, but I'm not for running rough shod over the sheepherders either. I've seen some wicked stuff, and I want no part of it."
Mr. Sharpe exchanged a look with his father then clapped him on the shoulder. "That's just what I mean. You are a man of integrity and firm convictions. You are just who I need."
Just then a buggy came whipping into the yard. Ivan jumped down. "What is all this?" He threw his hands up. No one told me there was a party."
"Your brother came home. I thought he had died, then he came riding up on a big ol' mule. I had to share the good news with all our neighbors."
Ivan looked like he had a craw full of rocks. "But you never had a party for me, Pa. I've been here while this wastrel went off to do who knows what."
Ned was glad to see that Mr. Sharpe had excused himself as soon as Ivan showed up.
"Nice to see you too, Ivan," Ned said. Then he hung his head, "Sorry, that was uncalled for."
Ivan snorted, but their father said, "Look at me, Ivan." The fury was still in his eyes, but his brother looked up at their father. "Look around, son. All this will be yours someday. Maybe when you have a son, then you'll understand what has happened tonight and why. Since I lost your mother, I never wanted to go through the pain of losing another one of you. It about killed me when Mr. Smith said he thought the worst, that Ned was dead. But he's back, and I am rejoicing. And since I am still alive, and this is still my ranch, I expect you to respect my wishes.
Just then a fiddle began some lively music. Lanterns lit up the barn that the hands had swept out. "Go have a good time son. We have good food, friends, and now family."
When he stomped away to stew in the dark, Ned looked at his father. "I am so sorry to have caused you so much pain, Pa. I never thought..."
"It's in the past. God casts our sins in the deepest sea, so a father can chuck his son's at least out to the shallow end, I guess."
"But Pa, do you really think I should be Mr. Sharpe's foreman? I know it would give Ivan the space he'd prefer, but if you need me, I'd be happy to work for you the rest of your life to make up for what I've done."
His father put up his hand. "It's all in the past son. Yes, I think you'd make a good foreman indeed. But is there some reason you don't think you should take the job?" Just then he saw his son staring off to the dance floor where Miss Sharpe was dancing with her father. "Oh, it's Miss Sharpe, is it?"
"I can't deny that I've had feelings for her for a long time. I'd hoped to homestead, build up my herd and come back to offer for her hand. But I knew it was ridiculous to dream. Then I lost it all."
"Ned, do you know how wonderful your mother was?"
"Yes, she was the best."
"Yes she was. What you don't know is that I was the worst kind of rascal. What she saw in me I'll never know. I should not have ever been in the same room with her."
Ned looked up sharply. That had been his thoughts exactly about Nora.
"But God did a work in my heart and made me into a new person. It didn't take away the shame about my past, but God forgave it. Then I had to forgive myself. Your mother was quick to forgive me as well after I was honest with her. Have you confessed your sins to God, son?"
"Yes, I know he heard me when I prayed because he healed a Mexican sheepherder who'd befriended me. It was Warren Smith and his rancher friends who shot him and left him for dead. I found him and took care of him when it didn't look like he'd make it."
"God has been at work. He will continue to do so, son, just like this job offer from Mr. Sharpe. So forgive yourself, son. Take this job. Then maybe in time you will come to the place where you can let Miss Sharpe decide for herself. You can find a way to tell her without hurting her sensibilities. She'll know what you mean without having to spell it all out. Then see where God leads. You do realize don't you, that Mr. Sharpe has no other heirs. Could be he's looking for the right man for his daughter. Perhaps he wants to keep you up close where he can examine you, if you know what I mean. But right now, the guest of honor has ignored his company long enough. And I do believe I see a young lady watching you who looks like she'd like to be asked to dance."
Ned clasped his father in a hug. God had been so good to him. He knew he didn't deserve it, but he wasn't about to turn down the gifts that God was offering him either. He walked over to Nora with a big smile.
"Care to dance?" Her eyes already were.
"You don't know how glad I am to see you back home, Ned. I've prayed for you every day."
"You have?" He fought back the tears that stung behind his eyes. "I needed it. Thank you. I might not have survived otherwise."
She filled him with her delicate scent. She was the one to draw close and lay her head upon his chest. Ned was humbled. God was so good.
When the dance was over, Mr. Sharpe was waiting. Ned swallowed hard realizing how closely he'd held the man's daughter. "Well, it looks like to me that I have my new foreman. Am I right?"
Ned clasped Nora's hand in his and said, "Yes, sir. I'd be honored."
And that wasn't all that Ned was honored for the man to offer him. For the next celebration was held at the Sharpe's ranch where the man gave his daughter's hand away in marriage to him. The prodigal had come home.
*Even after the party was over for the prodigal son in the Bible, I'm sure it wasn't the end of his story. For God always blesses that which is given to Him. I feel free to use the theme of love because God is particularly fond of wedding celebrations as He has used the imagery so often in Scripture.
I also came to realize in once again hearing familiar sermon our pastor gave recently on the Prodigal Son, why my husband loves his job so much. He has the special privilege to be like that father figure who gets to welcome home prodigals in his work at Teen Challenge. For home is not just a place, but a right relationship with the Father.