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Excerpt from Julia London'sA Light at Winter’s End

The cowboy rose at dawn’s first light and pulled on a pair of worn, dirty denims. “Come,” he said to his dog and, scratching his bare abdomen, which had been made lean and hard by the work he did around the ranch, he padded down the hall of the nondescript red brick ranch house and into the kitchen.

There was something sticky underfoot on the linoleum, but since a fluorescent bulb overhead was out, he couldn’t really see.  He sleepily made a note of it and thought Sunday, when he washed his clothes in that old harvest yellow washer, he might wash a few things around the house, as well.  He couldn’t remember ever mopping the floor here, and figured, after a year, it was as good a time as any.

He studied the row of buttons on the trendy contraption that some would call a coffee machine, and he called a pretentious piece of pain-in-the-ass machinery.  It was one of the few things he’d kept from his marriage.  He’d bought it for her, of course, and she’d been ridiculously pleased with it.  He’d never quite figured out how to operate it correctly.  Why had he kept it?  He didn’t know anymore.  The only thing he did know was that Wyatt and Macy Clark were no more.

He punched a few buttons and the machine sounded like a locomotive steam engine.  He turned away and almost tripped over his black lab.  Milo was always sneaking up on him like that, appearing underfoot, that damn tail always wagging.  Wyatt had never known a happier dog, and he’d had quite a few in his life.  No matter what he put the dog through, he grinned and wagged his tail and acted like he wanted more hard living.

Milo was the other thing Wyatt had kept from his marriage.  Because Milo was his dog.  Not hers.  His.

His dog was hungry.  Wyatt opened a sack of dog food he kept in a trashcan next to the greasy kitchen wall.  He scraped out two cups of chow and poured it into a dirty dog bowl.  Milo didn’t mind that he ate from a Petrie dish—he had one eager paw in the bowl as he wolfed it down.

Wyatt walked back to his bedroom and found a shirt in his pile of unwashed clothes that didn’t smell too bad.  Today, he was going to tackle that broken fence the cattle kept trampling, and he didn’t need to be clean or smelling of roses to do that.  He dressed, pulled on his boots, brushed his teeth and ran his fingers through his black hair.  It had grown kind of long, and he’d taken to wearing it in a little ponytail at his nape.  Never thought he’d see the day he did that—he’d always been a clean-cut kind of guy before his world collapsed—but what the hell?  He lived by himself.  The only person he saw on a regular basis was his baby daughter Grace, and she didn’t care what he looked like.  He didn’t have anyone to impress, and Milo would like him if he walked around naked.  Which, in all honesty, he’d done a time or two.

Wyatt returned to the kitchen.  The coffee maker now showed all green lights, so he poured himself a cup and sat down at the kitchen table.  There was a neat line of stuff he used every day:  Salt and pepper, Tabasco sauce.  A stack of paper napkins next to a stack of paper plates.  And his laptop, his only real connection to the outside world.  Oh, he had a television hooked up to some rabbit ears so he could get football and golf, but not much else came in over the rabbit ears.

He opened the laptop and his home screen popped up, with the news and the sports scores and his personal favorite, the Word of the Day.  Today’s word was chary.

Chary. chary • \CHAIR-ee\ adjective

1  a : discreetly cautious: b : hesitant and vigilant about dangers and risk.  Example:  The gentleman is chary about voicing his concerns.

Chary.  He sipped his coffee, clicked over to ESPN.com to check the baseball scores.  He didn’t see anything he didn’t already know, and closed his laptop.  He took a couple of sips of coffee and looked outside.  Wyatt never bothered with breakfast.  He liked getting out early while it was still cool and the wind was still.  He liked the sound of the morning birds before the day got too warm for them and they disappeared into the brush.

He heard a bit of whining and looked over his shoulder.  Milo had finished his breakfast and was standing at the back door, ready to go out.  The paint was all scratched up where Milo would claw on it when Wyatt wasn’t paying attention.  Wyatt stood up, picked up his sweat-stained hat from the table, and fit it on his head.

He opened the back screen door.  Milo took off, racing across the unkempt lawn with his nose to the ground.  Coffee cup in hand, Wyatt moseyed on down to the barn, put his coffee cup on a shelf inside the barn next to two other coffee cups.  He had three horses inside and turned two of them out to the pasture, swatting their rumps and sending them trotting to stretch their legs.  He saddled the third.  Troy, he called him, named for the great Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman.

When he had Troy saddled, he led him out, whistled for Milo, and swung up into the saddle.  The dog raced out of the brush and ran alongside Troy as Wyatt reined him around.  He rode out into uncut land, through thickets of cedar and pin oaks and around prickly pear cactus spread as wide as swimming pools.  His ranch was big for this part of Texas, about fifteen thousand acres and twenty- four square miles.  That was a lot of fence to mend, a lot of ground for cattle and horses to cover.  Wyatt had had an old pickup truck he used when the work warranted, but mostly, he liked to ride.

He rode up on the southeast corner of the fence where the cattle had gotten their big heads through and had busted through the barbed wire.  He surveyed the damage; the wire would have to be cut out and restrung.  He figured he’d call Jesse Wheeler to come out and give him a hand.  Jesse was Cedar Springs resident jack-of-all-trades, a skill he’d picked up as he hopped from one woman’s bed to another, when he needed to do odd jobs to earn his keep.

Wyatt spent the morning cutting the barbed wire from the posts.  It hot as blazes by eleven, and he paused to wipe the sweat from his eyes and take a drink from his canteen.  He was standing next to Troy in the shade when he heard the cars.  He turned around to see a hearse turn into the drive on the adjoining property.  Another car was right behind it.  And another.  A funeral procession was heading up to the old Fisher cemetery.  Wyatt had heard the old lady who lived there had cancer, but he hadn’t heard she’d died.  Frankly, between him and Milo and the big blue sky, he’d had been biding his time, hoping to buy up that property when the opportunity arose.

That’s what Wyatt did.  Or used to do.  He used to buy and sell ranch lands, then turn them into developments.  And Wyatt Clark of Clark Properties would buy up half of Texas if that’s what it took to keep him from civilization.  Since his wife Macy had left him for her first husband, he hadn’t felt much like being in the world, and the more land he could put between him and the world, the better.

He squinted at the cars as they disappeared into the cedar on the drive up to that old homestead cemetery and took another swig from his canteen.

It looked like the opportunity to make some chary inquiries had presented itself.