March 16

Heat. Oppressive. Unbearable. Alone. Abandoned. Can’t breathe, can barely move. Shifting away, his body drenched in a sweat that seemed to evaporate without cooling his sizzling flesh in the slightest. Demon knives sent stabbing pain shooting up his left side, leaving him breathless and immobilized. Darkness. Pain. Heat. The acrid air attacking his eyes, forcing them shut against the sulfurous fumes. In the blackness, the sounds intensify; embers and debris echo hollowly as they ricochet off the aluminum top of the coffin. Hands gripping the ground, scrambling for leverage against the roaring winds of Hell that buffet against him, pulling him, no, dragging him, kicking and fighting, further into the flames. Face down, gasping in short bursts, lungs aching for relief as the heat, the horrible hellish heat sucks away the air, and with it his screams...

With an anguished gasp, Dan Mangan woke from his nightmare, slick with sweat, his right hand locked in a death grip on the pillows, the fingers of his left scratching at the mattress, struggling in vain to get free from the cast that surrounded the hand and arm to which they were attached.

“It’s just a dream. A dream.” Dan whispered the words as a mantra, willing his heart to stop racing as his lungs took in blessedly clear and cool air. Moving carefully to avoid the pain of his healing injuries, he rolled onto his back, focusing his eyes on the faceted crystal knob of the ceiling fan chain pull as it dangled in the darkness of early morning. “You’re in Jim’s old room in the Wheeler’s New York City apartment. It’s March, and the air is cold. You’re safe. It was just a dream.”

Sleep was done. That much was clear. The clock on the bedside table read twenty minutes before five in the morning. Earlier than he would have liked, given the time he had gone to bed, but an acceptable time to rise. He had a lot to do; a lot to think about. With a groan he pushed himself out of bed, wincing as his body protested the movement. He limped out of the bedroom, across the living area, and into the spacious kitchen. The Wheelers were in Canada on business and had offered Dan the bed in their apartment since his plane had arrived too late to make the last train to Sleepyside. Dan’s hand reached with complete confidence for the cupboard that held the mugs. Some things never changed. He filled the black ceramic teakettle with filtered water from the dispenser, and set it on the burner. As the flame burst forth, he stared into the waving blue tips, his mind careening back in time to his youth.

Dan could see his younger self, huddled at the small, dented kitchen table, wrapped in his favorite blue flannel blanket and shivering from one of the nightmares that had plagued his sleep after his father’s death. His mother, her voice speaking soothing nonsense to him as she heated water for tea, brewing it strong and dark and lacing it generously with milk and honey. He remembered the feel of her arms wrapped around him, holding him safe and tight while he sipped his tea, humming a gentle lullaby of comfort as they shared their sorrow.

Dan turned back to the cupboard, searching until he found a package of Irish Breakfast tea. The kettle whistled its alarm, and he turned off the flame, pouring the boiling water over the tea bag, watching as the liquid went from pale to deep, rich brown. Adding milk and honey to his mug, Dan went to sit near the window in the living room. The view from the Wheeler apartment was decidedly better than the view from the shabby walk-up he and his mother had inhabited after his father had died. Central Park versus the back alley of the Bowery; no contest, there. Still… Dan closed his eyes and sipped his tea remembering the warmth of his mother’s embrace, the fleeting feeling of security in a world that had gone completely sideways and upside down.

Mum had always been able to make things right, even in those horrible days after Dad… Dan shook his head. Don’t go there, he told himself. He well knew the slippery slope on which he teetered in the vulnerable mist of the early morn. One thought would lead to another, always ending with the emptiness, the hollow horror of being lost and alone in a world too big and too cold for one small soul. “I miss you, Mum,” he whispered. “I miss you both, especially now.” With a sigh, he finished his tea, knowing it was already too late. Being here, back in the city, had already determined his path. He was heading for a trip down memory lane, and he only hoped he was really ready for it.

He dressed carefully, layering his clothes from the meager stock he carried in his duffle bag. Standing at the door, Dan looked around the apartment. This place had memories, too. Good ones, for the most part. Long weekends in the city to see a play, or to Christmas shop in the big stores, among the hustle and bustle of holiday trade. House parties and playing tourist in NYC with the Bob Whites, these were the kinds of memories that still made Dan wonder if he were imaging them. He grinned to himself, at the ghosts of teenagers past. Long past. He hadn’t been a teenager for over five years, although there were still days when he didn’t feel quite like an adult. He set his duffle bag down by the door. He could pick it up before he caught the train; there was no sense in carrying it around all morning, especially since his mobility was limited anyway. Dan patted the pocket of his zip-up sweatshirt, feeling the letters inside. He had what he needed from it, at least for the time being. He struggled into his heavy jacket, and headed out into the cool of the morning. The clock on the wall read 5:43 a.m.

Dan let the doorman call him a taxi. He had spent several hours cramped up in an airplane the day before, and his hip and leg were making their displeasure known. It looked to be a long day ahead, so he figured he might as well take it easy while he could.

The cab driver looked a little surprised when Dan gave him the address, but the additional ten Dan slipped into his hand as he exited the cab in the Bowery district seemed to smooth things over. The cab zipped away, leaving Dan on the littered sidewalk with the sun still fighting to bring the day.

Gentrification hadn’t yet reached this area of town. It was still rank and run down, graffiti on the walls, trash on the streets, broken windows and shattered souls. Dan stepped around a homeless person sleeping against the edge of a stoop, the form wrapped in reeking clothes and old newspaper, rendered genderless by poverty. On the corner, a metal waste bin sparked with flames, shooting embers into the sunrise as people gathered around it, seeking warmth against the cold spring morning.

He’d lived here. Or rather, existed down here, after his mother’s death. Dan watched the fire, remembering those days. It had been early February when she died, his lack of family bringing him sharply to the attention of social services. Unclaimed and unwanted, he was slated for institutional life due to a shortage of available foster parents. By mid month, he had escaped and was on the streets. Small and quick, his days had been filled with picking pockets and avoiding both police and people who had wanted to “help” him. Nights had been hard; cold, dark and scary. Leaning against a light pole, his vision blurred, spinning him back in time.

The wind was blowing snowflakes into his face, their icy sharpness stinging his cheeks. His fingers felt frozen, as he flexed them in his coat pockets. Around the corner from the sputtering red neon X of the video/book store sign, the cast of regulars huddled in the alley, sharing the trash can fire. Dan yearned to join them, to warm his aching bone-chilled body by the flames. He moved closer, cautious, creeping slowly forward, not knowing if he would be welcomed into the fold, or kicked roughly to the curb. A week on these streets had shown him that it all depended on the mood, and the contents of the bottle being passed around. The barrel beckoned, he could feel the radiant warmth reaching for him, just as a rough hand grabbed the back of his jacket, yanking him back out into the cold, dark night.

Scrambling free, Dan turned, crouching low in a defensive position. The dark figure before him laughed quietly. “Whoa there, kiddo. I just want to talk to you.”

Dan shook his head. “No thanks.”

The laugh sounded again, but this time there was no humor. “It wasn’t a request, punk. C’mon.” Before Dan could protest, two other young men appeared from the shadows, grabbing him by the arms and forcing him to walk out of the alley with them.

Caught, he couldn’t do anything but go along. They deposited him inside the front door of Jake’s Restaurant, standing in front of the door, blocking his exit and giving him no choice but to follow their leader to a table near the back. At least it was warm, Dan thought as he slid into the booth, across from his kidnapper. The other guy tugged off his peaked leather cap, setting it on the table. “I’m Luke,” he said. “You look hungry. Want a burger?”

Dan did. More than anything right now, he wanted a hamburger with extra cheese. His mouth was watering with the wanting, but he had learned very quickly that nothing on the streets came free. Licking his lips, he shook his head.

“C’mon,” Luke wheedled, repeating, “You look hungry.”

“What’ll it cost me?” Dan asked, meeting Luke’s eyes defiantly.

“See, you’re smart.” Luke signaled the counterman to bring food. “Don’t worry, kid. You ain’t my type – I like dames.” He grinned and leaned across the table, lowering his voice. “But you already figured that nobody gives you nothing without a price. That tells me you’ve got the smarts. I’ve been watching you the last two days. You’re quick and you’ve got the touch. I can use that.”

“Use that for what?” Dan asked suspiciously.

“For our gang,” Luke told him, leaning back as the counterman dropped two coffee mugs onto the table and filled them with hot coffee. As the man wandered away, Luke continued. “I run this territory. We got the run of most of the lower East Side. Don’t got a lot of guys yet, but I’m building. You should join us.”

Dan picked up the coffee cup, letting the warmth of the beverage seep through his hands. Absently, he raised it to his mouth, grimacing at the taste. His mind was racing, trying to figure out what he should do; what he could do. The counterman returned, dropping two plates on the table. The aroma from the cheeseburger teased his nose, making his stomach rumble.

“Let me put it this way,” Luke told him. “Join the Cowhands, kid, and I’ll make sure you have a place to crash, food, and brothers to watch your back. Refuse, and you can find a new territory for your thieving. I don’t share with strangers.” He pushed the plate closer to Dan, tempting him.

Dan’s mouth was dry, his eyes on the burger. He assessed his options: Slow starvation and hypothermia, risking the wrath of those whose territory he crossed, or joining Luke and his gang. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, he reached his hand across the table. “My name is Dan.”

Luke shook his hand, a smirk on his dark face. “Welcome to the Cowhands, Danny. Eat up!”

“Hey, mister?” The thin voice dragged Dan back from the past with a start. Looking down, he saw a young boy about ten looking up at him. “You okay, man?” the kid asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, kid. I’m fine. Thanks. Just thinking. Here.” Dan reached into his pocket and pulled out a five-dollar bill. “Go get some breakfast.”

“Thanks, mister!” The kid gave Dan a big grin, and scampered away. Pulling himself upright, Dan gazed around at the street coming alive, the residents waking and going about their daily business, the people of the night shrinking away, out of sight. He glanced at his watch. Crossing the street, he headed up the sidewalk to the subway station. He had a breakfast appointment at eight.

Two subway transfers later, Dan found himself in front of the Last/First Stop Diner. Close to New York University, and just a few blocks from the station housing the police officers of Precinct Six, the place obviously catered to cops and college students. Dan pushed open the door to a burst of warm air and the scents of coffee and bacon. A waitress in a pink apron gave him a big smile, but before she could speak, a voice boomed out from behind him, “Hey there, Hotshot! Long time, no see.” Before he could even fully turn around, Dan found himself the recipient of a firm handshake, followed by a brief but enthusiastic man hug from Spider Webster.

“Hey, Spider,” he said, hiding his wince of pain with a grin for his old friend and mentor. “You’re looking pretty good for an old man.”

“And you look better than I expected,” Spider told him, ignoring the comment in favor of an assessing look. “How’s the hip?”

“Getting there,” Dan said with a shrug. “I was lucky. It could have been a lot worse.”

“That’s what I heard,” Spider said, directing Dan to booth on the right and signaling the waitress to bring coffee and menus. “When do you get your arm back?”

Dan tapped his cast on the table and grinned. “Later today, I hope. Doc Tremaine said he take it off for me, if I make it to his office by six. Evidently, Mrs. Doc Tremaine expects him home and at the dinner table by six-thirty sharp.” He waited while the waitress filled his cup and set menus in front of both men. “What did you find out?”

“I recommend just about anything off the breakfast menu,” Spider said, not answering Dan’s question in front of the waitress. “I’ll have the blueberry pancakes with eggs over easy, hash browns and bacon.”

“I’ll have the same,” Dan told her, “but scrambled and I’ll take the fruit instead of the hash browns.” He waited until she had walked away before asking again, “Spider? Is it true?”

“Yeah. It’s true.” Spider took a long drink from his coffee. “He’s dying. It could be a few weeks or a few months, according to the prison doctor. He has some sort of lung disease, and he’s not willing to receive treatment. My question is why do you care?”

“He sent me a letter,” Dan said, pulling the tattered envelope from his pocket. “He said he’d heard about the… accident… that he was dying and thought we should talk.”

“And you think that’s a good idea?” Spider asked, quirking a skeptical eyebrow. “How long has it been since you saw him?”

“Ten years.” Dan tapped his fingers on the table. “And no, it isn’t a good idea. Luke is never a good idea, but if he’s really dying…” He shrugged.

“What do you think he wants, Dan? To make amends?”

Dan snorted. “Not likely. Luke’s never been one to apologize for anything. Still, he asked. Ten years and he never made contact. Now…” He shrugged again.

“You don’t owe him anything. You know that, right?” Spider slid the glass vase with its single daffodil towards the wall, allowing the waitress to set their plates on the table and refill their coffee.

“I know,” Dan sighed, breathing in the aroma of his pancakes. “Most of the time, that is. Still…” He sighed again. “I need to do this, Spider. I can’t explain it.”

“Yeah, I figured as much.” Spider chewed on a forkful of pancake. “So I called out there. You can visit Luke between noon and two today.”

“Thanks, Spider.” Dan dug into his own breakfast. “This is good.”

“It’s a good place for breakfast; cheap and tasty. Not as good as Mrs. V’s cooking, but it’s about as good as it gets without making it myself.”

“You always were a horrible cook,” Dan joked. “Tad insisted that he learned to cook out of self defense.”

“Why do you think I was such a bad cook?” Spider asked, a smirk on his face. “I hate cooking. But I didn’t get bad at it until Tad was old enough to use the stove.”

Dan shook his head, laughing. “That’s sneaky.”

“Worked, didn’t it?” Spider shrugged. “Speaking of Tad…”

“How’s he doing? I was surprised when he ended up in White Plains.”

“You and me both,” Spider swirled his coffee. “If you had told me ten years ago that I’d be living and working in the city while Tad was doing the same in White Plains, I’d have called you crazy. But here we are, both of us working away and as happy as clams at high tide.”

“Life’s funny that way.” Dan placed his knife and fork across his empty plate, staring at his reflection in the silver. “I never thought I’d be… here. Hanging from all my loose ends.”

“Speaking of your loose ends and Tad’s job in White Plains, I happen to know that there are a couple of positions at his station that will need to be filled at the end of the year; transfers and retirements, if you’re interested. You’d have to be able to pass the physical, of course, and it would mean moving back into the area, but it’s an option.”

Dan ran his finger around the edge of his cup. “If everything goes as planned, I should be able to pass the physical by June, and the good Lord knows I could use a few more options. The ones I’m looking at aren’t all that exciting.”

“I’d think you would have had enough excitement over the last few years,” Spider noted mildly. “Maybe it’s time to come home.”

“Maybe,” Dan mused, the idea of coming home more comforting a thought than he would have expected. “Maybe I’ll give Tad a call once I get to Sleepyside.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Spider said with a grin, as he reached into his shirt pocket. “So I took the liberty of writing down his numbers for you. Here.” He handed Dan a bright blue piece of paper. “I put it on the blue post-it so you wouldn’t lose it.”

Dan took the paper, staring at it for a long moment before tucking it into his coat pocket. “I won’t lose it, Spider. I can’t promise I’ll use it, but I won’t lose it.”

“That’s all I can ask, Hotshot.” Spider leaned back in the booth. “Now, how about some pie?”

Dan suppressed a shiver as he entered the cold, sterile building. No matter how many years passed, no matter how necessary the institution was, no matter what purpose it served, the buildings never failed to strike a spark of… something deep within him. Dread? Horror? Guilt? He couldn’t pinpoint the emotion, and didn’t really want to. What purpose would it serve, other than giving him something else to have nightmares about?

“Step through the device please, sir.” The detached, bored voice penetrated his meandering thoughts, and Dan stepped through the metal detector, wincing as his leg was jarred when his foot caught on the lower ridge. He watched as his keys, wallet, change, and cell phone were set aside in a box and labeled. Between the dull ache in his leg and the lack of personal property, Dan felt stripped bare and vulnerable. Resisting the urge to turn around and go back the way he had come, he proceeded to the visitor registration desk.

“Inmate’s name,” the plain, middle-aged woman demanded, her demeanor as cold and sterile as the building.

“Luke. Luke T. Blevins.” Just saying the name put an acrid taste in his mouth.

Keyboard keys clicked momentarily. “Visitor Room 3, Stall 5,” she said without meeting his eyes.

Dan felt the sudden urge to lift the heavy atmosphere of the institute. “Thank you very much,” he told her, but he was unable to instill any warmth in the otherwise polite words. Instead, he felt himself becoming just as cold and sterile as the buildings and employees.

He’d come for a reason, though. Even if he wasn’t exactly sure what that reason was. And he certainly wasn’t going to turn tail and run now. One of the few lessons The Cowhands had taught him was to never show fear. As an adult, he’d come to accept that fear was inevitable. In fact, he’d felt it more times than he wanted to admit to. Giving in to it, however, wasn’t inevitable. He’d made the decision to visit Luke, and he would see it through. His resolve renewed, Dan followed the guard’s instructions and entered the visiting room. Seated behind a glass partition in the stall labeled number five was a face Dan had thought never to see again. Schooling his features to be as devoid of expression as possible, Dan dropped into the standard issue non-descript orange plastic chair and ignored the ache of his leg. He picked up the receiver and stared at the man across from him. Luke had not aged well. The prison-issued orange jumper hung on his gaunt frame, the outline of his shoulder bones clearly visible. His hair, which Dan remembered as perpetually greasy, was closely cropped. The short hair cut, however, could not hide large patches of grey. Most disturbing, though, was the pallor of his skin. He’d seen corpses with better color. Luke Blevins was a man fast approaching death.

Luke returned his scrutiny, but Dan found solace in the fact that Luke had never really seen him. Never understood him. Luke could look all he wanted now, and he’d see even less.


He flinched internally at the sound of a little-used and never-appreciated nick name. “Luke,” he returned, his voice even.

They continued to stare at each other, holding receivers to their ears, but not speaking.

“You came,” Luke said, finally breaking the silence. When Dan didn’t respond, he asked, “Why?”

“Heard you wanted to see me.” For some reason, it seemed important to economize his words. No extra information to the enemy.

Luke’s fingers began to fidget on the battered desk top. “Thought you might want to see what became of the man who made you.”

Images of his uncle, his own father and Mr. Maypenny, his surrogate father, flashed in his mind. “You didn’t make me.”

Luke’s eyes took on a cunning aspect. “Didn’t I? You really think you’d be who you are today if I hadn’t taken you under my wing?”

“You didn’t make me,” Dan repeated. Just because his association with Luke had led to the Cowhands, which had led to his status as a juvenile delinquent, which had led to his life in Sleepyside, didn’t mean that Luke had made him. He had made himself, with the help of some very good friends. Hadn’t he?

Luke snorted. “Sure I did. Course, if I’d done my job right, you’d be the one on this side of the glass.”

And you wouldn’t be here visiting me, Dan added silently. No. Luke hadn’t made him.

“You and me, we had a good thing going,” Luke continued, his voice raspy. “Ain’t no one ever lost the coppers as many times as you did.”

“I should have let them catch me sooner,” Dan replied. It was only because he finally had been caught that he had been given the opportunity of a second chance. As an adult, he could appreciate just how very rare that gift had been.

Luke’s eyes flashed angrily, and his tone became heated. “You’re not saying you let them catch you, are you?”

Dan studied the tightly-wound man. “What difference does it make now?”

“What difference does it make?” Luke’s voice rose, then dropped dramatically when a guard narrowed his eyes and placed a hand on his weapon. “What difference does it make? You were a Cowhand, Danny. You know the rules. You getting caught hurt the rest of us. We were down a member, and the cops wouldn’t leave us alone. You want to think about what you just said?”

Dan shook his head. “I didn’t get caught on purpose,” he told him. “But it was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Luke snorted. “Yeah. It let you hook up with those birds. Guess that’s where your loyalty always lay. Tell me, did they give you more money than the Cowhands did? Did they give you a better place to flop at night? I know all about your hoity-toity friends, Danny, and their fancy houses. And I know all about the cabin you lived in. If you had stuck with me, you’d be rolling in money.”

“If I had stuck with you, I’d be in jail,” Dan pointed out.

Luke’s eyes flashed. “No. You were good, Danny. Getting caught back then was a fluke, and you know it. If you had come back with me when I came out to those sticks to get you, we’d both be living the high life right now.”

Yeah, literally, Dan thought.

“You know, it’s not too late,” Luke continued. “Once a Cowhand, always a Cowhand. One word from me, and it’s all yours. Forgive and forget.” He leaned forward, his face inches from the Plexiglas separating them. “You owe me, Dan. If you hadn’t run out on me, I wouldn’t be in here.”

Dan stared at him in disbelief. “I owe you?” he asked incredulously. “I owe you?”

“You were good,” Luke told him, his eyes burning with intensity. “Real good. If you had just stuck with me, we could have ruled the Cowhands. You and me, Danny.”

Dan felt as if Luke’s eyes were boring through the glass.

“I wouldn’t be stuck in here,” Luke hissed, his face contorted with rage and jealousy. He tried to continue, but was overcome by a spasm of deep, wracking coughs. “Don’t you have any loyalty?” he choked out.

Dan shook his head. “I save my loyalty for people who earn it.”

Luke let out one last drawn-out, hacking cough. “Don’t you want to make something of your life? The Cowhands are looking for leadership, Danny. You’d be in charge. You’d have money. Any woman you want. I know you ain’t got none of those things now.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” Dan retorted, his jaw clenched.

“I know you have a limp. Probably that’s not good news in your line of work.”

Dan ignored the coil of unease in his stomach.

“You should be thinking about your future, Danny,” Luke cajoled.

Dan stood up quickly, sending the orange chair scraping loudly over the chipped linoleum. Looking Luke square in the eye, he told him, “I may not know my future. I do know that you’re not in it.”

He hung up the phone, but he could still read Luke’s lips clearly.

“Don’t fool yourself, Danny. You haven’t changed that much.”

With a smug smile, Luke replaced the phone in the receiver and motioned to the guard. When they reached the door, Luke turned and met his eye. “You owe me,” he mouthed.

Dan turned and walked back the way he had come, his body stiff with tension. As if the walking through New York City hadn’t been tough enough on his leg, he couldn’t seem to relax enough to help the muscles ease. He walked down the corridor with a wooden gait and waited impatiently to collect his personal effects. By the time he slipped his wallet into his pocket, he was fighting the urge to make a smart comment to the obviously disinterested guard.

He quickened his pace as he strode through the imposing doors, then stopped abruptly to breathe in the fresh clean air. Only it wasn’t clean. Or fresh. Huddled about twenty feet from the door, a group of prison employees, janitorial and food service by the look of them, were enjoying a smoke break. A flicker of flame caught Dan’s attention, and he watched as a man in a blue janitorial jumper brought a lighter to the cigarette in his mouth, shielding it from the breeze with his hand. Dan blinked as he stared at the briefly flickering flame…

The flames leaped tall between them, a barrier that Dan was happy to employ as a buffer.

“You did good scoping the joint out,” a much younger Luke told him. “There’s plenty of rich people we could pay a little visit to.”

Dan looked away. “I guess.”

“What? You turning yellow, now?” he taunted. “Scared of breaking into your little friend’s houses?”

“I’m not scared!” Dan protested, even as he took a step backward. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea, that’s all.”

“I’ll show you what’s a good idea,” Luke said, reaching into his jacket pocket. “A little insurance.”

Dan recoiled at the sight of the switchblade and stared at the older boy in horror. The unease he’d been feeling was rapidly giving way to panic.

“Relax, Danny, it’s for you.” Luke held the knife out towards him, offering it.

Dan shook his head. “No. No, I don’t want it.” He watched as the shiny steel of the blade reflected the flames from the fire. “Besides, I thought our fists were supposed to be good enough.”

Luke narrowed his eyes at the slight. “I told you. It’s insurance.” He flicked it open and ran his finger along the edge.

“I don’t want it,” Dan repeated, hating the sight of the weapon. He sank down onto a fallen tree and stared at his fellow Cowhand. Luke, however seemed to be trying a different philosophy, and was now ignoring him as he slung his bag over his shoulder. “A guy can change his mind about things, can’t he?” Dan protested defiantly.

“You’re jest yeller,” Luke insisted with a sneer. “You got it soft here and your real friends don’t mean a thing to you anymore. I oughta give you a beatin’!”

Dan tore his eyes away from the flame as Trixie Belden burst into the clearing.

“Dan! You’ve got to help me! Bobby’s caught in a hole and I can’t pull him out!”

Dan watched in shock as she stumbled and fell. Without thinking, he scrambled to her side and grasped her elbow, helping her stand. Her eyes filled with terror, and at first he thought she was terrified of him. When she clutched him harder, though, he realized that she was reacting to the strange howling noise.

“If you don’t come and help him, that awful thing may get him!” Trixie cried.

Dan had almost forgotten about Luke until he got in his face again. “You’re a fool, Dan Mangan, if you think I’m hangin’ around here any longer. Stay here with your friends, but don’t forget, if anything happens where I’m going, you’re in it deep!” With those last words, Luke turned and strode out of sight into the darkness of the woods, and Dan was left in the clearing with Trixie, beside the flickering flames.

Dan sank against the cool stone of the prison building, his heart pounding. It had been an easy choice ten years ago, and it was an easy choice now. So why did he still feel so terribly unsettled? After a minute he pulled away from the wall and started down the walk, hoping to leave Luke as far behind him as possible.

An emotionally exhausted Dan climbed into the car he had rented and sat for a few minutes. As much as he tried, he had a hard time dismissing the image of Luke sitting behind that glass mouthing the words “You owe me.” He knew that he owed Luke Blevins nothing. He just had to remind his heart of that as he pondered what he would be doing for the rest of his life.

His hip ached. It was a good ache though, from use and not from lack of. After sitting several minutes collecting his thoughts, he shook his head to clear his mind and started to raise his left arm to check the time. Old habits die hard and he berated himself for forgetting about his injured arm. He switched arms to look at his watch. Two o’clock. Just enough time to stop by Doc Tremaine’s office and get that cumbersome cast removed before he headed out to visit Mr. Maypenny.

He backed out of his parking space and headed to downtown Sleepyside. As the gates of the prison faded in his rear view mirror the thoughts of Luke Blevins faded from his memory. Luke Bevins was only a distant unpleasant memory for him.

His visit with Doc Tremaine took longer than he anticipated. Doc wanted to know all about what Dan had been up to. In a not so subtle way he tried to pump Dan for information about his accident. It took all of Dan’s strength to redirect the conversation. He just wasn’t ready to go there yet.

As he left the good doctor’s office, he contemplated where to go to next. Suddenly, he felt the need to see the people who had help mold his life. The people he really did owe. He turned onto Glen Road and headed out of town. Calm washed over him, as he passed familiar landmarks. Turning his car into the Manor House driveway his eyes automatically glanced over to the old gatehouse, which had once been home to the Bob-Whites of the Glen. He had to search to find that beloved place. The underbrush had grown around the building much like it had before the group had discovered the abandoned building. He felt a sadness that this favorite place had fallen into such disrepair. He reminded himself that despite the condition of the building, the friendships that had developed had not.

He pulled the car up next to the stable and parked it. Slowly pulling himself out of the car he looked around wondering if his uncle was around. Gingerly he walked into the stables. As he opened the door he was assaulted by the familiar smell of saddle soap, hay and leather. Nothing seemed to have changed in the stable and nothing was out of place.

“Uncle Bill,” he called. “Are you here?”

Hearing no answer, he walked into the office and left a note. With no reason to hang around the stables, Dan retrieved his duffle bag from the car, suddenly eager to see the man he thought of as his second father, Mr. Maypenny. Despite the fondness he had for the man, he could never bring himself to call him anything but that. Slowly he headed out of the stables and painstakingly made his way to the path that would lead to the cabin.

The walk was slow. His hip began to ache; an ache from exerting effort instead of from sitting around doing nothing. It felt good to stretch his muscles. As he walked, his memories started to assail him. Most of them were good -- moonlight trail rides with his friends, hunters stew and even chopping wood. Those were all happy memories. His step picked up as he thought of seeing his former guardian and good friend. Dan’s mouth began to water as he thought of the pot of hunter’s stew Mr. Maypenny was sure to have simmering over the fire in the cabin.

He walked further into the woods still deep in thought, not noticing that he had missed a turn and had wandered farther into the labyrinth of trails that led into the center of the preserve until he heard a twig snap in the distance, and then the call of an animal. Looking around Dan realized that he was near where Bobby had been trapped in the cave ten years ago. Odd how sometimes it didn’t seem like it had been that long ago and then, bang, it seemed like it was a hundred years and three lifetimes ago. He had been so scared back then. Not trusting anyone but the one person he shouldn’t have trusted. Dan often wondered what he would have done had Trixie not asked for his help that night.

Sounds began playing in his head. He whipped his head around almost expecting to see Trixie running through the woods, raveled sweater in her hand, her eyes pleading with him to help her. She was nowhere to be seen, of course, but it had felt so real. He remembered that day like it was yesterday. It was the biggest turning point in his life up until now.

He had been so naïve. In the short time between when his mother had died and Judge Arman had proposed his experiment, Dan had gone from a loving, caring son to a cynical thug. He had been so angry. Angry his father had been killed. Angry that his mother had gotten sick and there was little money to pay for medicine. Angry he had joined the Cowhands. Angry he had been caught. Angry at his own inability to control any aspect of his life.

That anger had clouded his emotions when he came to Sleepyside. Where most people would have seen concern from Uncle Bill, Dan saw him as just being tolerant of him because he was family. When Honey Wheeler had extended her friendship, Dan saw some rich snob taking on the charity of the month. His hurts had made him cynical. He shuddered to think how close he had become to throwing away the best thing that had ever happened to him.

When Luke had approached him to join the Cowhands, Dan had been desperate. Later, he had misinterpreted Luke’s greed for caring. How he wished long ago he had never sent that letter to Luke telling him about Sleepyside and encouraging him to join them. In the short time between when he had sent it and Luke had arrived in town, Dan had begun to see that good people did care about him. He remembered the dread he felt when Luke had met up with him in the game preserve. Instead of feeling excited about him being there, Dan had felt regret. He wished he had trusted Mr. Maypenny and Uncle Bill enough to go to him with his problems. His fear was that they would send him back to juvenile detention because of his actions.

Again, Dan’s mind wandered back to the night Bobby Belden had gotten his foot stuck under that rock. He and Luke had been huddling around the fire that Luke had made, Luke making these wild plans about what they would do with all of the money they were going to steal. Dan just sat there silently trying to figure a way out of the mess he had gotten himself into. He was afraid of Luke and even then had no doubt that should things go bad, Luke would leave Dan holding the bag without any regrets. He wouldn’t have admitted it at the time but he was never so glad to see Trixie that night. It gave him an excuse to break away from Luke and the Cowhands.

Then there was Bobby. How could anyone resist that toothless smile and earnest determination to find a new kitty to replace the china one he had broken? He had been so brave as the two young adults tried to rescue him. Dan would never forget the feeling of realizing someone truly liked you without any hidden agendas. Bobby didn’t have any preconceived notions. He just knew that he liked Dan, and Dan liked him. Dan grinned, realizing that he owed Bobby Belden a huge thank you. He made a silent vow to never again allow Trixie to remind everyone what kind of trouble Bobby caused when he was six. All could be forgiven because Bobby had been the catalyst that permanently removed Dan from the Cowhands.

It was funny. Over the past five years, Dan had kept in touch with Bobby more than he had with the other BWG’s. Even though the boy was now sixteen and a sophomore in high school, Bobby still idolized Dan, accepting him in a way that never made Dan feel as if he had to explain himself to Bobby. The rest of the BWG’s rarely questioned him either, but Dan still felt like he had to prove to them that he was truly worthy to be a member of the Bob-Whites. Deep down he knew his feelings were ridiculous, but it was sometimes hard to convince his insecure heart.

Dan shook his head to clear it, turning around and heading back to the previously missed fork in the road. In the distance he heard the thunder of a horse’s hooves, and turned toward the sound wondering if it was his Uncle Bill. A smile broke across his face when he recognized Bobby approaching him on horseback. Bobby did a double take when he spotted Dan, pulling up on the reins.

“Dan,” Bobby said. “When did you get into town? You’re the last person I expected to see out here today. I didn’t think you’d be here until tomorrow.”

“I just got into to town. I guess no one told you of the change in plans. I’m meeting up with the Bob-Whites tomorrow, but I wanted to do some reminiscing beforehand. I stopped by the stables to see Uncle Bill but he was gone.”

“Regan had to go into White Plains today to pick up some medicine and supplies for the stables. I’m sure if he had known you were going to stop by he would have postponed the trip. You know how much he loves to drive,” Bobby joked.

Dan chuckled. Regan’s dislike of vehicles was well known by those who lived along Glen Road. “What are you up to?”

Bobby dismounted, and Dan stepped back in surprise as he realized he now had to look up to little Bobby Belden. When did he get older than six?

“Mr. Wheeler hired me to patrol the preserve,” Bobby explained. “Mr. Maypenny won’t admit it but he’s getting on in age. I work a couple hours after school and on the weekends. The pay is good and I don’t mind being outdoors. Your uncle likes it because I get some of the horses exercised as well. The Lynch twins help out when there are bad storms with lots of debris to pick up.”

The two of them talked a few more minutes before Bobby headed off in one direction and Dan headed toward Mr. Maypenny’s cabin. Dan shook his head. Bobby had certainly grown up. He stood a good four inches over Dan’s five foot eleven frame, but it was the maturity of the young man that amazed Dan. Bobby had mentioned that he worried about the aging Mr. Maypenny, but had become very adept at checking on him without the older man becoming suspicious.

Slowly, Dan made his way through the woods to the cabin. The weight of the past several months was still on his shoulders, but he felt as if it had gotten lighter in the last few minutes. Yes, it was good to be back in Sleepyside. Maybe it was time to move back. Hopefully the lead he’d received from Spider would pan out. He had saved more than enough money to move back and survive while looking for a job, but he wasn’t sure he had the patience to sit around all day without a lot to do. He’d had enough of inaction to last a lifetime.

Before he could see the cabin, he could smell the hunter’s stew simmering over the fire. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was until his stomach growled in appreciation. Despite the growing ache in his leg and hip, Dan picked up his pace. As the cabin came into view, Dan had to resist the urge to run the rest of the way to the porch steps. When Mr. Maypenny came out of the front door and looked at him, huge smiles broke across both of their faces. They met halfway, and as they embraced, the rest of the weight was lifted from Dan’s shoulders. He was home.

“It wouldn’t be a homecoming without stew,” Mr. Maypenny said as he headed towards the fire to check on the simmering pot. “It’s mostly chicken,” he apologized as he stirred.

Dan followed, noticing that the older gentleman was moving even slower than he’d expected. He leaned towards the large black cauldron and inhaled deeply. “You almost had me convinced it was chicken that first time you made it for me.” Dan recalled when he’d first moved in with the older man and seen him preparing squirrel for a similar meal.

Mr. Maypenny chuckled. “The look on your face! I’m sure you thought I was poisoning you. I never used chicken back then, but now-a-days I move too slow to hunt anything other than a few of Helen Belden’s old hens.”

“I never would have tasted it if I’d known. And now…” Dan inhaled again. A bowl of Mr. Maypenny’s hunter’s stew would satisfy much more than an empty stomach. “Squirrel, rabbit, chicken, whatever, it smells delish. Is it ready?”

“More than ready, son. Help me carry this pot into the house.”

Dan struggled with the heavy load, his weakened left arm not able to fully carry its weight. He was determined, however, not to worry his mentor. He’d fought against letting Mr. Maypenny know anything about his experiences over the past few months and he didn’t want him worrying any more than necessary. He hoped that Mr. Maypenny was too busy putting out the cooking fire to notice his struggle.

Once Dan managed to set the pot on the kitchen stove, he located all the necessary utensils, filled two large bowls with stew, poured two large glasses of milk and placed a large chunk of crusty bread on the table. He then waited for Mr. Maypenny to offer grace.

“Amen,” they vocalized in unison before pulling out chairs and sitting down to enjoy the delicious repast. While they ate, Dan rambled on about a myriad of things, carefully avoiding any mention of his healing injuries or plans for the future. Mr. Maypenny nodded and listened silently, employing the same instincts that had worked so well when Dan first came to live with him. He was a shrewd and patient man who knew that nothing would induce Dan to share his troubles until he was ready.

Once Dan had enjoyed two large heaping bowls of stew, they began clearing the table. “I’ll take care of these dishes if you wouldn’t mind checking the fire,” Mr. Maypenny offered. He was confident he had extinguished the fire completely before coming indoors, but Dan had spent many hours staring silently into that fire pit when he’d first come to Sleepyside. Mr. Maypenny had no idea what Dan had seen back then, but he knew the younger man always found solace in the ritual.

“Sure.” Dan put on his jacket and headed out the door. He grabbed a long, thin stick and headed over to the cooking pit. Sitting on the sturdy log that served as a stool, he churned up the cold ashes and chuckled. He knew Mr. Maypenny would never leave a fire unattended, but he welcomed the opportunity to enjoy the solitude of the preserve for a few moments.

He stirred at the ashes again, wishing he had time to build a new fire. He’d learned camping skills from the best and it wouldn’t take much time. Yes, he had learned from the best: best camping buddies; best fly fishermen; best woodsmen, best character; best scholars and study partners; best supporters; best friends.

“C’mon, Mangan. Isn’t that fire started yet?” Mart Belden chided him. “Those steaks are more than ready for grilling and I’m starved. And where are the potatoes?”

Dan turned over the sticks and ashes, desperately hoping to find at least one smoldering ember. It looked as if he’d made a huge mistake offering to start dinner while the other male members of the Bob Whites set up their tent. In fact, he was beginning to think had been a huge mistake to come on the camping trip at all.

It was the first warm weekend of spring. Dan had been in Sleepyside less than two months and a member of the Bob Whites of the Glen even less time. After being unable to travel to Iowa for Spring Break with his new friends, he was thrilled when the boys invited him on this camping trip, even though he knew almost nothing about camping. Since moving to Sleepyside, Mr. Maypenny had ensured he was comfortable in the outdoors, but he was still far from mastering any skills. He had slept outside, warmed only by fires when he was living in the city, but he’d never actually started a fire himself. However, once they arrived at the campground, the other three boys had quickly begun working together in perfect harmony, each knowing exactly what to do, while he’d felt completely inadequate. Since he did know something about cooking and he’d seen enough fires started to assume he’d know what to do, he’d offered to start preparing their dinner.

Now, after wasting a complete book of matches, half a week’s newspapers, and countless twigs, they had no fire and he was too embarrassed to admit his inadequacies and ask for help.

“If you’d help set up the tent, you might be able to think of something other than eating for once,” Mart’s older brother Brian grabbed the collar of his jacket and pulled him away. “We’ll finish the tent while the two of you start dinner,” Brian called out as he dragged Mart away.

“We need to get the potatoes in the fire, first,” Jim Frayne cautioned. “They take much longer.” He set down the load of firewood he’d carried from the truck and waited for Mart and Brian to get out of earshot. “You’ve never built a campfire, have you?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Dan laughed. “Not much call for them in the city. And while I certainly have mastered chopping wood, Mr. Maypenny keeps the fire going round the clock and…”

Jim squatted down beside Dan. “Let me show you a trick or two.” Before Brian and Mart had returned from the truck with another load of gear, they had a large fire roaring and were wrapping potatoes in foil.

“I know it’s hard to believe,” Jim set a wrapped potato aside and picked up another. “But, you’ll be fine.”

“Building a fire?”

Jim laughed. “No. I meant, that ah… you’ll find your niche here. You’ll never forget, but you’ll be able to move on. I still can’t believe that I’m here and not… You do know about…?”

Dan looked up and saw the strain in Jim’s face. “Your stepfather? Uncle Bill told me about it. Sounds like you had it much worse than I did, but you never…I mean…”

“I was lucky. You too, Dan. Lucky to survive. Lucky to find Sleepyside. Lucky we have good friends like Brian and Mart. Lucky…but we’re survivors, too.”

Dan nodded as he placed two potatoes into the fire and took two more from Jim. “You’ve certainly fit in well. It seems like you’ve always lived here. People like you. They trust you. I mean Mart and Brian have always lived here, but everyone seems to admire and respect you. I don’t know how I’ll ever be anyone other than the gangster bad boy from the city.”

“We all carry baggage, Dan.” Brian walked up and joined them, obviously having heard at least the last part of the conversation. He grabbed a stick and stoked the fire. “I’m the youngest boy in the Junior class and considered a total geek. Everyone wants to be my partner in the science lab, but not friend after school. I’ve seriously considered starting smoking or flunking a class, just to make myself look more normal.”

“I’ve got a black leather jacket you can borrow any time if you…”

They all laughed.

“I’m serious. I’m pretty sick of being responsible, studious, serious and boring Brian Belden. Then Jim Frayne arrives and he’s even younger than I am and smarter, too. And he’s Mr. Honorable. Wow! Someone who can be my lab partner and my friend.”

“Watch where you’re going, Brian, I’m no geek.” Jim cautioned.

“No.” Brian broke into a falsetto. “You’re the most wonderful boy in the world.”

Jim turned bright red as Brian and Dan laughed heartily.

“I can imagine who said that,” Dan choked out.

Hearing laughter, Mart crawled out of the tent and headed over to the fire. “No way you’re sharing a joke without me,” he called out, right before tripping over the gear he’d left in front of the tent’s opening.

“Then there’s Mart.” Brian pointed over at his brother who was sprawled in the dirt. “Graceful, isn’t he? Class Clown. Human lexicon. Mart is ten times smarter than I, but he’s afraid to apply himself. He spends all his time eating, yeah, eating food and dictionaries, and fooling around; just so that he won’t be compared to me.”

“No one dares compare us, because you’d never measure up,” Mart added, sitting down between Dan and Brian. “And be careful who you call clown.” He hit his brother in the shoulder. “I’m not the clown who…”

Brian grabbed Mart’s fist and quickly twisted the smaller boy’s arm around his back. “Clown, Geek, just remember who’s bigger and stronger.” He quickly released his brother.

“I’m trying to have a serious conversation here with our friend.”

Friend? Dan sat up a bit straighter upon hearing the word. Was he really their friend? They’d asked him to join their club, but membership didn’t include true inclusion. Or true friendship. He’d been a member of the Cowhands. They’d certainly included him. But they were far from friends. They talked a lot about loyalty and support but those were only words. Hollow words. Dan poked at the fire and smiled. Yeah, friend.

“Geesh. Grow up you two.” It was Jim’s turn to admonish his friends.

“Do you think it’s time to put on the steaks?”

Jim shook his head, so the four sat, staring silently into the fire.

“You know, Dan.” Mart finally broke the silence. “I was just thinking that we’ve got a bunch of real squares sitting here. Brian just admitted he’s boring.” He ducked quickly to avoid the wad of aluminum foil Brian lobbed at him. “Jim’s Mr. Clean and Honorable. If I’m more intelligent than either one of them…” He failed to duck quickly enough to avoid the carrot Jim threw and it whacked him in the forehead. “Hey, I’m just repeating…”

He picked up the carrot, wiped it on his jeans and took a bite. “Mmm...good. Anyway, as I was TRYING to say, we’re a bunch of real squares. There’s only one real explanation as to why Dan would want to be with us. He paused dramatically, obviously pleased with himself. “There are four sides to a square. Four EQUAL sides. And, you, Mr. Mangan, complete the square.” He slapped Dan on the back and stood up. “Yeah, a perfect square. Now where are the steaks?”

Dan tossed the stick into the woodpile as he headed back to the cabin, reminding himself how great it was to be square.

March 17

Dan turned his face up into the warm spray while rubbing bar soap into his hair, wishing the warm water could rinse the past from his mind the same way it did sweat and dirt and even soap from his body. He wished that he was washing away the memories and nightmares that plagued him. He wished more than anything that he could make some decisions about his future.

He marveled that for the first time in months he’d slept through the night without waking. Not one horrific nightmare. No sweaty tangled sheets. No screams in the middle of the night to awaken neighbors. He was equally surprised that Mr. Maypenny had let him sleep away half the morning. He’d never slept past sunrise when living in the cabin. He offered a silent prayer for these small blessings as he turned off the water.

He grabbed a towel from the rack, and gently patted himself dry. He stepped out of the tub and wrapped the towel around his waste before examining the ugly scars that covered his torso. They were fading, but he knew they would never disappear entirely. He forced himself not to look at his once powerfully muscled legs. He knew that, with time and exercise, his strength would return, but the large red marks on his torso and left thigh would remain.

“Never liked wearing shorts, anyway,” he mumbled as he wiped the steam from the mirror. Peering at his reflection, he tried to imagine what his friends would see later that evening: the brooding young man they’d invited into their fold a decade ago, the quiet and insecure teenager who had been dubbed a “chick magnet” in high school, the young man who’d aged far too quickly over the past few months, or a very reluctant hero.

Scratching at the stubble on his chin, he decided that no matter what others might see, he wanted to be clean-shaven, so he grabbed some shaving cream from the cabinet.

“Dan, are you stealing my shampoo?” Mr. Maypenny called from the other room.

“No way! I don’t want to smell like apples!” Dan had searched earlier and the only shampoo in the cabinet had been some apple scented girlie stuff. He couldn’t wait to rib the reclusive older man about how that had gotten into his bathroom.

Dan finished shaving and hurried across the hall from the warm, steamy bathroom to put on the clothes he’d left in the bedroom.

“Welcome home.”

Dan jumped in surprise, almost dropping the damp towel that covered him. “Uncle Bill! “

Bill Regan stood up from the bed where he’d been waiting and started toward his nephew. “Oh my God, Dan! You didn’t say…Are those bruises? No! They’re scars!” Dan’s uncle had been aware of the extent of his recent injuries, but this was the first time he’d seen evidence of the battering Dan’s body had taken.

“Privacy, Uncle Bill. Privacy. Dammit.” He looked down at the scars. “They’re just... I’ll heal.” Now can I have some privacy?”

“I’ve seen you wearing a lot less. And it looks to me like you’ve been hiding something from me. I’m glad I did surprise you. Maybe you’ll tell me exactly what happened.”

Dan gripped the towel with one hand and tried to push his uncle out of the room with the other. “I’m not hiding anything.” He made one last shove and slammed the door behind Bill Regan.

“I saw the rental car and read your note and thought you might appreciate a ride back. Looks to me like you need more than just a ride.”

“I prefer to talk when I’m dressed.”

Bill Regan stood on the other side of the door, shaking his head. He knew the red marks on Dan’s body would heal, but would the other scars; the ones he couldn’t see?

Deciding what to wear that evening hadn’t presented much of a dilemma for Dan. His friends would expect him to be wearing jeans, boots and a black polo shirt and he would not disappoint. He’d outgrown the red cotton BWG jacket long ago, but with his recent weight loss, it might fit now. The arms would still be too short and he doubted he could button it, but it just might stretch across his shoulders without ripping. Pulling it out from the back of the closet, he noticed that the one arm was still red and irritated from the cast he’d worn until just hours earlier. He tossed the jacket on the bed and checked in the top dresser drawer for some lotion or cortisone cream.

There, front and center in the drawer, was a small gray jeweler’s box. Dan smiled as he lifted it up and opened the box lid. Taking the gold and black onyx ring and slipping it on his right ring finger, he recalled the night he’d received it.

“This is really lame, you know,” Dan protested as Trixie Belden and Honey Wheeler each took an arm and dragged him towards the car where Diana Lynch waited. “It makes absolutely no sense to spend an entire week hauling and stacking a bunch of wood, just to set it on fire, and then stand around singing and chanting. Sounds like a stupid pagan ritual.”

“It is, sorta’,” Honey tried to explain. “I mean it’s not a pagan ritual, but it’s definitely a high school ritual. I mean not really a ritual, but it’s a tradition. And it’s your senior year and you’ve never been to these rituals or traditions or whatever. I mean you’ve been to school, and to football games and you play basketball, but this is Homecoming! You need to experience this ritual too. We’re all juniors and we’ve been to lots. Not rituals; bonfires. Well only a few bonfires, but you’ve never been to a single one! And you’re a senior!”

Dan laughed. “I think I know what you mean, Honey.” Honey opened the front passenger door and Dan climbed in the car. She and Trixie then got in the back seat.

“Where’s Mart?” Dan had expected his best friend to be waiting with Diana.

“He went early. The Joy Boys have a rocking chair they were placing on the very top of the pile and Mart didn’t want to miss it.” Diana spun gravel as she turned around and headed down the driveway towards Glen Road. As President of the Joy Boys Spirit Club, Mart would have the honor of climbing to the top with the chair before the fire was lit, but they wanted to surprise Dan by the sight.

Dan was surprised by how much fun he did have that evening. Yes, the idea of a Pep Rally, much less burning a huge pile of debris to instill something called “School Spirit” was mundane at best, but it was impossible not to enjoy a crisp fall evening with friends, celebrating being young, if nothing less.

Dan cheered louder than anyone when Mart reached the top of the wood pile, tied down the rocking chair, then and sat in it and waved the school banner while the marching band played the fight song. He chanted and stomped along with the cheerleaders when they vowed to “Roust the Raiders.” He sipped watery hot chocolate, and flirted with three different girls, each of them hinting that they were without a date for the upcoming dance. Dan was non-committal, but giving serious consideration to actually going with one of them.

“Still think it’s a waste of time?” Trixie tapped Dan on the arm and nodded towards the girl walking away. “She’s pretty. Are you taking her to the dance?”

Dan winked. “Just might ask her. It’s just the money.”

“Seniors get free tickets. And you guys get off easy, not having to buy a dress and all.”

“Yeah. I don’t have to wear a jacket, do I?” Suddenly, going to the dance wasn’t quite as desirable. Dan didn’t own a suit.

“Tie, but no jacket. Mart’s just wearing a good sweater. But you’d need to buy flowers.”

“I can manage that. Yeah, I might like going to the dance.”

Trixie laughed. While that hadn’t been the primary reason for the girls’ bringing Dan to the bonfire, she was glad he might leave with a date for the dance as well as…

“They’ve started the fire! Where’s Mart? Where’s Honey? Where’s Diana?” Trixie grabbed Dan’s arm and they took off to find their friends.

It took a half hour for the 50-foot tall structure to catch afire, but once it caught, the entire area was as bright as midday. Dan stood a distance from Trixie, Honey and Diana, watching them giggle and whisper and appreciating the joy they brought into his life, but he wasn’t curious about what amused them until Mart joined them. Then he decided to go over and see what was so humorous.

“Will you share the joke with me?” he asked when his friends stepped apart. “Or is the joke on me?”

“It’s no joke, Mangan. The girls had an ulterior motive when they invited you to the festivities this evening.”

“Ulterior motive?” Dan didn’t understand. “You’re not fixing me up with a date, are you?”

“You don’t need help finding dates, Dan.” Trixie went over and grabbed his right arm. “But we knew you needed a bit of help with something else.”

Honey reached into the pocket of her red jacket and pulled out a box. “I guess you know that juniors could order their rings last month?”

Dan nodded. He had found the girls’ long, serious discussions about stones and design amusing. The prior year, he had opted not to waste his hard earned wages on a class ring.

“Trixie, Diana and I ordered our rings, but since we’re juniors we won’t get ours until April. But if a senior orders one, they come in…OUCH! Trixie! “

Trixie tried to grab the small box. “Show him!” She began jumping up and down. “Show him!”

“We went ahead and got this for you.” Honey held out the box, but Dan stood there, unable to move, unable to believe what she was saying.

“Take it, Dan.” Mart shoved him closer to Honey.

Mart and the three girls watched as Dan took the box and opened it. He stared at what it held in disbelief. “You… you didn’t. I can’t.”

“You have to, Dan. It’s engraved.” Trixie poked his arm. “Those are your initials aren’t they?”

Dan lifted the ring from the box and looked at the engraving on the inside of the gold band. DRM. He rolled the ring around a bit, still not believing it was his.

“I wanted to get you an amethyst.” Diana offered. “Trixie wanted sapphire, and Honey wanted diamonds.” She paused. “But all we could afford was the onyx.”

“Black onyx.” Trixie added.

“Black is your signature color, isn’t it?” Honey asked.

“Signature what?” Dan choked up as he said the words.

“Just put it on, Mangan.” Mart was beginning to choke up, too.

Dan put the ring on his finger and turned his hand around to show his friends. He fought back the tears. “It’s…I can’t.”

“You do like it?” Trixie asked hesitantly. “Black onyx is okay, even if it’s not a precious stone?”

“Not precious, Trixie? Oh, no. It’s, it’s...” Dan grabbed each of the girls in a tight hug. “It’s more precious than diamonds.”

Dan wiped tears from his eyes as he looked at the ring on his finger. “Yes, more precious than diamonds,” he whispered as he grabbed the jacket and headed out to his important assignation.

In the end, he opted to carry his BWG jacket, and wear the thicker and warmer one he had brought with him. Dan walked out of the cabin zipping up his jacket as went, pausing on the porch to take in a deep breath of fresh air. It felt good to be able to fill his lungs up with fresh crisp air. The air had a faint scent of smoked meat in it. He walked down the steps and headed around the back of the cabin. It had begun to snow and his boots crunched the snow beneath his feet. As he rounded the cabin, he spotted Regan watching Mr. Maypenny roasting two rabbits on a spit. His mouth watered when he thought of the meal that would come from the succulent meat.

The smell brought him back to the summer after he and Mart had graduated from high school and had gone on a post graduation trip to Idaho and Yellowstone Park with Knut and Cap Belden. The four of them had gone hiking in Yellowstone Park and spend several days there exploring.

Dan had been excited to go to a place he hadn’t visited before, and curious about the mysterious Belden brothers. He had only heard about Cap and Knut from their sister Hallie, and Hallie’s impressions of her brothers were more skewed than Trixie’s. Dan had been half expecting to meet to guys who wore clothes that made Mr. Maypenny’s look new and stylish, and who literally, ate off of the land.

What he found instead, were two young men who were very interested in the environment and enjoyed roughing it while camping, yet realistic in balancing development with conservation.

They left Idaho and headed south to Yellowstone. Cap was driving the loaded-down extended cab pick-up truck and Mart was riding shotgun leaving, Dan and Knut in the back seat. It didn’t take too long to make it to Yellowstone. Dan was surprised by the amount of snow that was still in the upper elevations of the park even though it was June and the calendar said it was summer.

They found their campsite near Steamboat Geyser and set up camp. They were going to sleep in the back of the truck under the topper. They would have preferred the tent but because of the grizzly bears it wasn’t recommended. They pitched their tents and then set out to find firewood to make a campfire. They had a small camp stove but they all preferred to cook over the campfire if they could. Dan and Mart began to prepare the meal. They folded aluminum foil into packets, placing potatoes, onions and seasoning inside. Cap found some long green sticks for roasting hot dogs over the fire, while Mart placed the potato packets in the coals and a kettle full of water in the coals as well. Dinner was ready very quickly, and after they had their fill they sat back and started to talk about different things.

The conversation started with what each of them wanted to make sure they saw while in the park. Mart wanted to hike down to Yellowstone Falls. Knut really wasn’t into seeing Old Faithful erupt as he had seen it several times, but he recommended going walking through the other geysers. There were some that were much more impressive. Dan had hoped to see a bear but he wasn’t going to looking for one. He knew bears could be dangerous and a tourist chasing one was just asking for trouble. Cap said he would be fine just going with the flow.

“So what are you guys going to do with the rest of your summer?” Cap asked.

Mart leaned back and said. “We always work as counselors at a summer camp for inner city boys. It’s only a couple of weeks but it’s lots of fun. Brian and I have been doing it for about four years and Dan and Jim have joined us the last three years. In fact there’s a sister camp for girls that Honey, Di and Trixie are going to work at. There are a couple of boys that have been back every year that have really grown on us.”

“Besides that I’ve got to earn some money to help with school expenses. I got a scholarship but there’s still books and living expenses that I have to help with,” Dan said. “I’ve been wondering if I should just take a year off and work since I’m really not sure what I want to study.”

“I thought Hallie said you were interested in law enforcement,” Knut said. “She said you were all set to go to Niagara University for Criminal Justice.”

“Well, I applied there and got accepted, but I decided to also apply to Cornell University. I’ve really enjoyed living out in the woods with Mr. Maypenny and am thinking about maybe going into forestry or resource conservation. My interests are so varied,” Dan explained with an embarrassed shrug.

“I keep telling you to not worry about declaring a major the first year. You can take a variety of classes that fulfill your general ed requirements. It won’t put you behind, and you don’t want to lose your scholarship or your health insurance, Mart said.

“I know you’re right,” Dan agreed, his face creasing in a frown. “I just feel at loose ends. Jim knows he wants to teach and start a school; you want to go into agriculture; Brian’s applying to med school this year. Even Trixie and Honey are dead set on being detectives. I just feel like I should know what I want to do when I grow up.”

Cap threw some more wood on the fire, staring into the flames for a few minutes. “Who says you have to grow up?”

Mart snickered.

“Hear me out,” Cap said defensively. “I’m not saying you should be immature, but sometimes I think there’s too much pressure to know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life when you’re only eighteen. Yes, you have to do something to support yourself but you shouldn’t be freaking out if you aren’t sure.”

Knut nodded in agreement. “It took me until second semester of my sophomore year to realize I wanted to go into agricultural engineering. I decided I wanted to work developing plants that are weed tolerant but won’t require as much fertilizer and nutrients. There’s going to be a lot of trouble in the next few years with so much fertilizer run off. The water supplies are going to be affected.”

“I won’t forget the day he made the decision,” Cap said.

“Everyone in town knew he had. He practically shouted it from the rooftop. The Telegraph should have covered it as their lead story.”

Knut punched his brother but nodded in sheepish agreement. They talked for a few more minutes before deciding to call it a night. As they all worked to put all of the food away and secured in the cab of the truck, a forest ranger stopped by their site to check in with them.

“How’s it going tonight?” he asked.

“We’re just trying to get the fire out before we hit the hay, or I guess you could say the metal,” Dan said.

“Make sure all of the embers are put out. It’s getting pretty dry around here. If we don’t get rain soon we’ll have to enforce a burn ban. We don’t want to have any fires like we had in 1988.”

“That was something,” said Cap. “I remember my dad talking about how heavy the air was most of the summer. The damage was phenomenal. Over thirty six percent of the park was affected by the wildfires.”

Dan continued the conversation with the ranger. “I don’t ever remember hearing about that fire,” he said. “Of course I grew up in New York City and was only three years old when it happened.”

Ranger Stuart, according to his name badge, replied, “I had just started with the forest service. I was assigned to Grand Teton National Park at the time but every spare body was sent to fight the fire. It burned for most of the summer and at one point the park was shut down and only emergency personnel were allowed in. It was the first time in history that had ever happened.”

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like,” said Knut. “You still hear people talk about all of the damage. Didn’t the fire burn for several months?”

“It didn’t start as one fire but several of them. It had been a dry summer, and the policy back then was to let natural fires burn themselves out. They didn’t start really fighting the fires until mid-July and they didn’t all get extinguished until the rains started in late autumn,” Ranger Stuart explained. “I worked a lot of overtime hours.”

“I can’t imagine the amount of damage that was done,” Mart commented.

“Actually there was relatively little structural damage and no fire fighters lost their lives. Considering all of the helicopters and air planes making water and fire retardant drops as well as dropping smoke jumpers it’s quite amazing.”

“What are smoke jumpers?” Dan asked.

“They’re members of the US Forest Service who are trained to parachute into remote areas and try to stop the fires before they get out of hand. When it’s the off-season or they’re not fighting fires they’re doing other projects for the Forest Service. There’s a unit stationed in West Yellowstone,” Ranger Stuart shared.

“That fire sounds really interesting,” Dan noted.

“If you stop by the Museum of the National Park Ranger, they have a great exhibit about the fire and the people who fought it.” Ranger Stuart had to continue on his patrols but he promised that he’d try to find time to stop back later in the week and answer any other questions they might have.

“Dan, are going to stay for dinner?” Mr. Maypenny asked, bringing Dan back to the present.

He cleared his head and then replied. “Not tonight. I’m due in White Plains in an hour, and then I’m meeting the other Bob-Whites at Wimpy’s for dinner. It’s been too long since we’ve all been together. My mouth is watering, though. I’ll be around for several days and I intend to have at least one meal of roasted rabbit. Uncle Bill? Is the offer of a ride still good?”

“You bet.” Regan clapped Mr. Maypenny on the shoulder and murmured a quick, “Thanks.”

Dan chose to ignore the exchange. He slowly made his way to the beat up four-wheel drive truck that his uncle drove. As he turned toward Regan’s truck, his leg started to give a little. He had been standing in one place for too long and his leg had started to cramp up. Both Regan and Mr. Maypenny moved to assist him, but were stopped by Dan’s terse, “I’m fine. Through gritted teeth, Dan explained, “Just a muscle cramp.” He rubbed his leg to release the tension then gingerly made his way to the truck.

Regan said nothing as he slid behind the wheel and started the engine. It was several minutes after they were in the truck and heading back to the stables before either man said anything.

“You’re planning to spend a few more days here?” Regan asked, his eyes trained on the path in front of him.

“Well, it’s been quite some time since I’ve been back. I’ve got several people I want to see,” Dan replied. His eyes remained on the path as well, but they weren’t really seeing anything. “I hope there’s room at your house for a couple more days. It’s much easier to get to and from than the cabin.”

“You know there’s always room for you at my place,” Regan told him. “Have you made any decisions about what you’re going to do?”

Dan sighed. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’m running over to White Plains. Hopefully I’ll have some news later.”

“Really?” Regan asked. “Care to share?”

“Not quite yet,” Dan replied. “I don’t want to jinx anything. The minute I know something you’ll be among the first to know.”

They had pulled up to the stables and both stepped out of the truck. Dan grabbed his duffle bag, and the two headed over to the rental car. They stood for a few more minutes until Dan’s hip started to ache, and his leg cramped up again. He rubbed it firmly, brushing off Regan’s concern with a brusque, “I’m fine, Uncle Bill. Really. I’ll see you later.” Regan didn’t look pleased, but he stepped back and headed off to the stables.

Dan waited until his uncle was out of sight, but once Regan had disappeared, he eased himself down onto the driver's seat of the car and unzipped the main zipper of his duffle bag. After rummaging for a few minutes he came up with a bottle of pain pills. He hated to use them, but had learned early on in his recovery to let them just do their work. He was tempted to down them without water but knew his stomach wouldn’t be able to tolerate that. For a brief moment he was tempted to go back to the cabin and have a bowl of hunter stew to protect his stomach from the painkiller. Instead, he found a partially open bag of cheese balls in the side pocket of the duffle. He reluctantly ate them knowing his fingers and part of his shirt would probably become permanently orange. Pills swallowed, he backed the car out and headed down Glen Road. He was due at Wimpy’s at six. He wanted to complete his errand in White Plains and get back in time to drive around town to check out some of his old stomping grounds.

His errand completed, Dan was feeling nostalgic on his trip back through Sleepyside. He turned onto the old familiar road, relieved to see that Mr. Lytell’s store was still open. The exterior looked like it could use a new coat of paint, but then the last time he had been home he had thought the same thing. Dan started to chuckle. I wonder if he still carries strawberry pop? Trixie was the only one who would touch the stuff, and Mr. Lytell had only stocked it to thank Trixie for keeping Laura Ramsey from stealing his life savings. Dan thought, I wonder if he’s still repaying that debt? He was tempted to stop and visit with the old man but one glance at his watch told him that would have to wait for another day.

Turning around, Dan headed back the other way. The Glen Road Inn came into view, and he was going to drive past it, but something drove him to stop. The last time he had been there he had been tied up, literally, for several days. After parking the car, Dan slowly got out and started up the stairs. Even if he hadn’t been injured he knew that he would have approached with caution. He was surprised when he realized he was nervous about entering the inn. Opening the door he noticed a fire had been lit in the lobby fireplace, and the doorway had been hung with shamrock streamers in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Dan heard boisterous laughter coming from the bar and chuckled. It might not be an Irish Pub but someone was celebrating. He thought back to the previous St. Patrick’s Day. Traditionally, it was celebrated with all of the Bob-Whites but he had been unable to make it back to New York.

Dan was sitting in his studio apartment nursing a beer and feeling a little sorry for himself. It had been a hectic month trying to wrap up an investigation that involved a bunch of hoodlums trying to show how important they were. Several times he had been tempted to pick up the phone to talk to Trixie and Honey. It was an important case that would not allow him to take any time off.

So here he sat on his tattered sofa bed on St. Patrick’s Day and didn’t even have a green beer to drink. It was barely eight o’clock and he was just about ready to call it a night when his cell phone rang. Glancing down at the caller I.D. he smiled when he saw who was on the other end.

“So Mr. Honorable what are you doing calling me so late on a weeknight?” he said into the phone.

“Well, there’s a bevy of birds sitting around a table celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and your anniversary. Unfortunately the guest of honor was nowhere to be seen,” replied Jim. “I suppose you’re sitting in a bar surrounded by beautiful women.”

Not wanting his friend to know that he was wallowing in self-pity, he lied. “Yeah, I’m out with some work buddies tossing down a few green beers.” In a juvenile move that would have made Trixie proud he crossed his fingers.

“Well, if you can’t join us, I’m glad you’re not sitting home alone,” Jim said. Dan could hear the girls giggling in the background.

“Where are you guys celebrating?” Dan asked hesitantly. He hoped it wasn’t Wimpy’s, where they usually met to celebrate the holiday.

“Diana decided that if her favorite Irishman couldn’t make it, we needed to find an Irish pub to celebrate. So we all met in the city and went to O’Malley’s,” Jim explained.

“Boy you must have a great cell phone. I can’t hear any background noise,” Dan commented.

“Well, we’re back at the penthouse. We thought about calling from the pub, but figured we’d never be able to hear you.” Dan could hear the girls in the background demanding that they have their turn. Jim shushed them.

“You’d better put one of them on,” Dan replied. “If you don’t you might not see tomorrow.”

“If you can hear well enough, I’ll put you on speaker, then we can all talk.

Pretty soon Dan could hear chaotic voices greeting him. Suddenly, he heard a sharp whistle.

“One at a time,” he heard Brian say.

“Ever the peacemaker, aren’t you?” Dan teased.

“Danny Boy,” Honey said. She sounded a little tipsy but Dan knew she hardly ever drank. “I hope you’re having a great St. Patrick’s Day.”

Dan tried to instill some enthusiasm into his reply. “It’s been great. Just out with some of the guys.”

“Well, we’ve been celebrating for you. Someone had to drink the green beer and I volunteered,” Honey explained.

Dan chuckled. He just couldn’t picture Honey Wheeler drinking beer at all, much less green beer. “Is your tongue green?”

“You should’ve seen it,” Trixie broke in, “we even got her to slam one.”

He could hear Honey giggling in the background. “It’s the only way I could get it down,” she said.

“It’s a good thing Mr. Honorable had decided to be the designated driver,” Diana chimed in.

“Well, I didn’t think it would be a good idea to have Tom drive Dad’s limo into the city on a night like tonight,” Jim defended himself. “Besides I’ve got to be up early tomorrow morning. I don’t need a hangover.”

“We really missed you tonight,” Mart chimed in. “I was stuck defending the honor of the girls from lecherous drunks.”

“We could have taken care of ourselves,” Trixie insisted.

“Yeah, right,” Brian teased. “Then why did you give me the eye when that slobbering drunk tried to strike up a conversation with you?”

“Because I wanted to stroke you guys’ egos,” Trixie replied.

For several more minutes, the banter between the six Bob-Whites in New York continued. They didn’t seem to notice that Dan hardly said a word. He didn’t mind. He had missed their camaraderie. In fact, he’d just plain missed his friends.

“Are you still there?” Mart asked.

“Yeah, I’m still here. I just can’t seem to get a word in edgewise,” Dan replied. He took a sip of the beer he was drinking, trying to wash down the loneliness he suddenly felt.

“Hey, Dan,” Diana said. “Bet you can’t guess what we wore to the pub?”

“Well, if it’s St. Patrick’s Day and you’re heading to an Irish Pub, I would guess you’d all wear green.”

“Wrong,” said Honey. “We wore…”

“Wait,” Trixie said. “Instead of telling them, let’s show him. Hang on, Dan, and we’ll send you the picture we had someone take in the bar.”

It took a few minutes before Jim managed to get the picture sent through cyberspace. When it finally arrived on Dan’s phone he hesitated, not knowing if he really wanted to see his friends having a good time without him.

When he opened the photo he didn’t know if he should laugh or cry. All six of his friends had their red B.W.G jackets on and surprisingly they all still fit everyone, including Mart. Trixie and Diana were holding a headshot of Dan that had been attached to what appeared to be a paint stick. It looked like someone--probably Honey--had made a miniature red jacket for him.

It took a couple of minutes for Dan to compose himself.

“Are you still there?” Brian asked.

Dan cleared his throat. “Yeah, I’m here. I can’t believe you had the nerve to wear red into an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day and then dragged me into the bar as well.”

“Well, we did get some weird looks,” Mart replied. “Someone thought we were wannabe gang members.”

Dan chuckled at the thought of his friends as gang members. “I bet you had them all fooled.”

“Well, one look at Mart and they knew it couldn’t be the case,” Trixie teased. “That crew cut just wouldn’t cut it for a gang member.”

“Hey,” Honey said. “Why don’t you have someone take a picture of you and your friends and send it to us? It will almost be like we’re all together.”

Dan panicked for a second. He didn’t want to let them know he had been sitting in his apartment by himself. “I don’t have any idea how to operate the camera on my phone much less send it,” Dan lied.

“You really need to join the twenty-first century,” Trixie teased. “It’s not that hard to do.”

They joked around for a few more minutes. Then Brian got serious. “I know this is the first time in nine years we haven’t been together to celebrate your joining the Bob-Whites. We wanted to let you know how much we’re glad you did.”

“Who else could have kept the girls in line when Brian and Jim went all Mr. Responsible on them?” Mart said.

“You’ve always been the one who best understood what I went through, and I never had to explain,” Jim stated.

“I learned not to judge people prematurely,” Trixie chimed in.

“You were always available to help when we needed you,” Diana contributed.

“I don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t met you,” Honey said.

“Happy Anniversary!” the six friends exclaimed. Then Dan heard one of his most favorite sounds, the whistled “Bob, bob-white.”

Dan had to fight to keep control of his voice. “Thank you. You’ve made my night.”

Dan shook off the melancholy of that night and slowly glanced again around the inn. Its inviting warmth made it difficult to resist going to sit down for a few minutes and have one of the advertised mugs of green beer. Unfortunately he knew that if he sat down in the inviting overstuffed chairs with a mug, he would need help getting up –especially considering the second dose of pills he had taken less than an hour before. He turned around and headed back out the door.

As he approached town he decided to drive around the square before parking the car and heading to the diner. Once again he felt the calm of being home as he glanced up at Hoppy, the grasshopper weather vane that adorned the top of the Town Hall. Even though he remained in the car, Dan looked around to make sure that no one would see him. Then he waved at the grasshopper and whispered, “Hi, Hoppy.” He put the car in gear and continued down the street. Crimpers Department Store, the Cameo movie theatre, even the high school, with each landmark the sense of being home increased so by the time he was at Wimpy’s he felt like he had never left this wonderful town.

As Dan opened the door of the diner, he was struck by the familiar aroma of grilled burgers and golden French fries. His stomach growled in instant appreciation, and he found himself looking forward to the meal even more than he had anticipated. Scanning the room quickly, he was unsurprised to discover that none of the rest of his party had arrived. Since most of the others were coming from work, he had expected to be the first arrival.

“Dan!” A familiar voice called to him, rousing him from his thoughts. Mike’s friendly smile brought an unexpected stab of the feeling of homecoming. “There’s a booth in the back waiting for you.”

Dan nodded his thanks and returned the counterman’s smile before making his way through the crowded restaurant. The popularity of Wimpy’s hamburgers had apparently not diminished, and the room was filled with teenagers and families. Dan slid into the rounded booth, keeping his back to the wall and his eye on the door. He smiled as he remembered how he had always requested the back booth, even when he wasn’t there with a group. Most of his dates had appreciated the relative privacy, too. He ran his hand over the cracked faux-leather upholstery, remembering how easy it had been to slide close to his date. Before he could delve too deeply into the past, Mike was delivering a frosty milkshake.

“You look like you could use a little something,” Mike told him. “Want an order of fries while you wait for the rest of your gang?”

Dan licked his lips at the thought of the greasy goodness. “Thanks, but I’ll wait until the others arrive,” he said.

Mike raised an eyebrow, and Dan laughed. “Well, maybe just a few. Mart will probably snitch all my fries once he gets here.”

“Hey! I resemble that remark!”

Dan’s face relaxed into an easy grin when he looked over Mike’s shoulder and saw the object of his conversation. “Better make it two orders,” he told Mike. Mike grinned and clapped his favorite customer on his back. “Good to see you, Mart! You want the usual?”

Mart licked his lips dramatically. “There’s nothing better than someone knowing my usual. Bring it on, Mike.” As Mike left them to return to the kitchen, Dan started to rise from the booth. He was stopped, however, by a sharp twinge of pain in his hip. “Geez, Mangan. You’re getting old,” Mart ribbed him. “Or is the rehab going worse than you let on?”

Dan waved his hand dismissively. “I’m healing. It just takes time,” he said shortly.

Mart narrowed his eyes but let the subject drop. Dropping into the booth beside his friend, he stretched out his legs underneath the table. “The others should be here soon,” he said. “Well, depending on how you define ‘soon’. You know how the girls are.”

Dan chuckled, thinking of the female Bob-Whites. Honey and Di were generally late for typically female reasons—spending extra time on their appearance. Trixie was always late because… well, because she was Trixie. It wasn’t a Bob-White gathering unless she came skidding into the room at the very last minute.

Mart, however, was never late for a meal, and Dan wasn’t surprised that he was early. “Man, do you remember all the times we came here after a basketball game?” Mart asked.

Dan’s face brightened at the memory. “The burgers always tasted so good after a win,” he remembered.

“And the chicks really dug us,” Mart reminded him, grinning.

Dan snorted. “They dug me. They put up with you because you were my friend.”

Clutching at his chest, Mart pretended to be offended. “You wound me.”

“Just trying to keep your memory accurate,” Dan told him, his dark eyes sparkling with mischief. “Wouldn’t want you to be living in some fantasy past…” he joked.

Mart’s expression turned nostalgic. “It was kind of a fantasy, wasn’t it? Every kid’s dream.”

Dan raised an eyebrow.

“The Bob-Whites, I mean. What kid wouldn’t want to be in a club like ours? It gave us some pretty good teen years.”

Dan refrained from mentioning that his early teen years had been anything but idyllic, but Mart knew him well enough to hear what he wasn’t saying.

“That’s why today is so important,” Mart said, his expression unusually serious. “The Bob-Whites wouldn’t have been the same without you, Dan. The day you joined us was a lucky one for all of us.”

Dan felt an uncomfortable lump form in his throat. He’d always considered himself to be lucky. Lucky to have had the love of both his parents. Lucky to have escaped the Cowhands. Lucky to have found a long-lost relative. Lucky to have found a surrogate father. It had never occurred to him that anyone could consider themselves lucky just from having him in their life.

“Hey! Look what the cat dragged in!” Jim’s clear voice greeted them. “And already eating, I see.” The red-head shook his head and snitched one of Mart’s fries.

“Mike forced me!” Mart protested.

Jim rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Sergeant Molinson gets a lot of complaints about patrons being forced to consume copious amounts of greasy foods against their will.”

Mart scowled around his mouthful. “I’d take offense, but you used the word ‘copious’.” He slid over to make room for Jim in the booth. “Pass the ketchup, please. And where’s my brother? I thought he’d be arriving with you.”

“I’m here.” Brian’s rich baritone voice heralded his arrival. “I stopped to get a cup of coffee at the counter.”

“See?” Mart demanded. “I’m not the only one who couldn’t wait.”

Brian helped himself to a fry and washed it down with truly terrible diner coffee. “I’m starved,” he complained. “I hope the girls get here soon.”

“They’re probably still getting gussied up,” Mart guessed.

“I had no idea that Wimpy’s had a dress code,” Dan joked, pretending to be worried. “I’m starting to feel under-dressed.”

Jim shook his head. “Today’s a special day, Dan. If they’re dressing up, it’s because they want to celebrate your anniversary of joining the club, not because of the restaurant.”

Dan shifted uncomfortably. As much as he loved the fact that the Bob-Whites had chosen to celebrate him joining the Bob-Whites on St. Patrick’s Day each year, it still made him self-conscious.

Brian noted Dan’s stiff posture. “You okay, Dan? Hip bothering you? Arm?”

The table went quiet.

“I’m fine,” Dan said firmly. “The doc says everything is healing, just like it should. No problems.”

“You know, you could have let us do more for you,” Mart said quietly. “We wanted to.”

“I know, guys, and I appreciate it. This was just something that I had to do on my own.” Dan looked down at the table, uncomfortable talking about what he had been through. “I needed time to sort things out in my head.”

The three men nodded seriously. “And you’ve figured it out?” Jim asked.

Dan thought about his day. “I think I’m starting to,” he said.


The serious topic of conversation was abandoned as three young and beautiful women swept into the restaurant. Every eye in Wimpy’s turned to the excited, vibrant girls as they hurried to the booth at the back. Mart, Brian, and Jim found themselves pushed out of the way as Trixie, Honey, and Diana each attempted to give Dan a hug at the same time.

“You look so much better than the last time I saw you!” Trixie gushed, throwing her arms around him.

Dan winced at the contact, but didn’t pull away. “I’m feeling better, too,” he said.

Trixie caught the pain in his voice. “I hurt you!” she gasped. “I’m so sorry, Dan!”

“It’s nothing.” Dan shook his head and hugged her back, being careful not to put too much pressure on his ribs.

“Stop hogging him,” Honey demanded. She placed a soft kiss on Dan’s cheek after Trixie reluctantly made room for her.

“It’s good to see you, Dan,” Diana said, running her hand along Dan’s good shoulder.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Trixie demanded. “Really sure?”

“Really, really sure,” Dan assured her. “In fact, I think I’m better than I have been in a while.”

Trixie nodded soberly as the rest of the Bob-Whites jockeyed for position in the booth. “Good. You scared us.” She had to swallow hard before she could continue. “I promised I wouldn’t cry,” she said, “but it’s just so good to be sitting here, all of us together, celebrating you joining the Bob-Whites.”

The other Bob-Whites echoed their agreement, and Dan felt the lump in his throat that had never really disappeared grow larger.

“There’s nowhere else I would rather be,” he told them. “Nowhere.

The plates of hamburgers, fries and token salads had been summarily demolished and cleared. Remnants of milkshake clung to the sides on nearly-drained glasses, while cups of coffee in seven shades from straight black to nearly white with cream and sugar, sat steaming in front of the sated diners.


With that tiny word, Trixie turned the tide of the conversation.

Dan looked into the sapphire depths of Trixie’s eyes, and knew that, ready or not, he owed his friends a story. The story. With a silent sigh, he sipped from his coffee cup, searching his mind for the correct place to start his story. “If I promise to tell you everything, can we go somewhere a little less…?” He waved his hand in the direction of the crowded diner.

“We can go to the Manor House,” Honey volunteered. “Mother and Daddy are in Canada, so the house is empty. I can make us some hot chocolate, and we can build a fire and just talk. How’s that?”

“Perfectly perfect,” he replied, giving her a smile that belied his reluctance. “I have a rental car. How did the rest of you get here?” He leaned back against the seat as his friends all spoke at once, organizing the caravan that would take them all back to Manor House.

And now, here they were, cozied up in Matthew Wheeler’s study, flames dancing merrily in the stone fireplace, hot chocolate and cookies well within reach. Dan could stall no longer.

“Normally,” he began, “the peak season for fires is May through August or September. That’s why I almost never missed being back for Di’s anniversary, even in the years when I missed the Bob-White celebration in August. This last year was an anomaly. We didn’t have much action all season, just two or three little flares. I had a lot of down time, which is why I was able to get here for the fifteenth, and come back for Di’s anniversary on Halloween. I was planning on coming back for Thanksgiving, too.” Dan grinned. “I swear, I could taste Mrs. Belden’s lemon meringue pie, I was that close. And then the North Cascades caught fire.” Dan closed his eyes for a moment before continuing. “November fires are rare; usually the rainfall is enough to keep everything damped down, but it had been an unusually dry autumn, and when the first fire started, it just kept jumping. That’s when they called us up and sent us in.”

He took a slow drink from his steaming hot chocolate, aware of six pairs of entranced and slightly anxious eyes. “We were over the drop zone. Our job was to drop in, dig a break, put out what we could, and clear the way for aerial dousing. Pretty routine… until my parachute caught on the static line during my jump.” Dan shook his head in disbelief, reliving the experience as he spoke. “I’ve made more than two hundred jumps, and I’d never even heard of that happening. It was a total fluke, a one in a million chance, and I pulled the number.” He shrugged. “So, the chute snagged, and was pretty much ripped off my body. When I deployed my reserve, it got caught in the debris. I was able to free it, but it was too late to slow me down as much as it should have. I hit the tree line, some ten miles off course; ten miles closer to the blaze.”

“Dan.” Honey placed her hand over his, and he realized that he was shaking with the memory. “Dan,” she repeated, “As much as I want to know what happened, I don’t want you to hurt yourself in the telling. You can stop. It’s okay.”

Dan looked into her hazel eyes, brimming with love, support and understanding. He forced a smile. “It is okay, Honey, for the first time in a long time. I’m okay, too, and I want you to know.” He took a deep breath, and continued his tale. “I hit hard, and let me tell you, impact with a tree at more than forty miles an hour hurts. It hurts a lot. They think that’s when I dislocated my hip and shoulder, but the arm breaks happened when I hit the ground. I think I was unconscious for a little while, because the next thing I knew, I was choking on smoke and hearing the fire. It makes noise, you know? Like a train, or thunder. It’s so loud.” His eyes clouded. “I could barely move, but somehow I managed to crawl out of the trees and into a clear area, a ditch, really. I was fighting against time and my own body. I was able, by the grace of God, to climb into my shelter just before the fire was on me.” He looked up then, at each of the six souls who had, at one time or another, played a part in saving his. All three girls were openly crying, and Mart’s eyes were suspiciously damp as well. “I don’t remember much after that; just trying to hang on in the dark and the heat, knowing that I was going to die, and realizing that the last time I saw all of you, I was wearing vampire teeth, and I couldn’t remember if I had ever told you how very much I love you.”

There were tears in his own eyes, too, Dan realized, as well as in his voice. He set down his mug, and placed his hands flat against his chair, trying to regain his composure. While the nightmare of that November day was still painful, there was relief in the sharing. He could feel his heart opening, releasing the negative emotions he had been carrying for months. “Somehow, I survived. My team hiked in after me to recover my body. They thought I’d be dead, and from what I hear, I should’ve been. They were surprised to find me still breathing, so they called in the helicopter for med-evac. You’d have to ask Dr. Belden over there how bad it was, though, because I really don’t remember anything until I woke up in the Harbor View ICU, in traction, with Mart and Trixie staring down at me.”

Brian took up the story. “Dan had a dislocated hip, a fractured femur, critical bruising from six broken ribs, his left shoulder was dislocated, and his left arm was shattered. When you add in the smoke damage to his lungs and the second degree burns on his back and calves, it really is amazing that he survived.”

“Why did you send us away?” Trixie asked, wiping away her tears. “We just wanted to be there for you.”

“I know.” Dan whispered, dropping his eyes. “I’d like to say it was the drugs talking, Trix, I really would. But I knew what I was saying.” He stared into the flames, remembering the dark days. “I couldn’t move, and everything hurt so badly,” he explained. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to wind up paralyzed, or if I would be able to walk again. When the doctors talked with me, they were so vague; they kept mentioning surgery, and complications, and percentages, and I just… I wanted you to go back to your lives and not waste time on me. I just didn’t want you there to watch me break apart.”

“Why didn’t you ask me?” Brian inquired, “I could have interpreted the charts for you, Dan. I wouldn’t have soft-soaped it, either.”

“Because I would have had to ask, Brian,” Dan said simply. “I was scared. The last thing I wanted to be was a drain, a burden on my friends. I wanted to be able to meet you again as your equal.” Diana made a squeaking sound deep in her throat, and Dan held up his hand. “I know, Di. I know. I was an idiot. I needed you more than ever, all of you.” He let his eyes skim over each one of his friends. “I did it, you know. I’m walking again, and the surgery I had on my arm in January seems to have worked, because I have feeling and movement again. But each of you was with me, every step of the way. The letters I got every week from you girls. Every stupid joke that Mart e-mailed to me, and all of the articles Brian sent to me about exercise and positive thinking. And those Sunday evening telephone calls from Jim. All of those things kept me going, kept me pushing myself. I had to do it on my own, but believe me, I never could have done it without you. Because of you, of your love and support, I’ve come through the fire forged stronger than I was before.”

“That sounds like Honeyspeak to me,” Jim quipped, the catch in his voice revealing his emotions.

“Stop it,” Honey scolded her brother, “I understood him perfectly.”

“Me, too,” Diana agreed, wiping delicately at her eyes. “I still wish you’d have let us help you physically, but I guess I can accept your reasons.”

Trixie nodded her agreement with the other two girls, but then, in typical Trixie fashion, blurted out, “So, now what?”

“Trix…” Mart admonished, but Dan cut him off.

“I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately, Trix. I can’t go back to smoke jumping. Even if I manage to make a full recovery – and it’s looking pretty positive-- I’ll never be able to regain and maintain the level of physical fitness that the job requires, so…” He looked around the room again, at the faces so dear to him, and smiled. “I’ve been looking around, and I’ve had two offers. Yesterday, I went out to the prison to see my old… acquaintance… Luke. He offered me leadership of the Cowhands – an offer I have chosen to refuse.” He grinned as the others laughed. Continuing, he said, “Today, I followed a lead from Spider, and went into White Plains to see Tad. There’s an opening coming up in June for a fire investigator. If I can pass the physical, I’ve got a good shot at it. I’d have to pass the certification test, but with my training and experience, he doesn’t think it will be a problem.”

“Does that mean what I think it means?” Trixie asked, her eyes dancing. “Are you moving back to Sleepyside?”

“Surprise!” Dan told her, resisting the urge to cover his ears as she squealed in delight. The other Bob-Whites joined in the congratulations, and Dan found himself gently pulled from his chair and surrounded by a ring of friends. Through the tears in his eyes, he basked in a heat much warmer than any flame or fire: The warmth that comes from home.


Author’s Notes

Working on this story was a truly challenging, stimulating, inspiring, and enjoyable experience. The challenge was in coordinating the busy schedules of four women scattered across 3,000 miles and four time zones. The stimulus (for me at least) was to my very rusty and reluctant muses. The joy was in the respite it offered from day-to-day chaos and stress into Dan’s life and mind—and with others who made it that way. The inspiration was from three very talented and tolerant authors. Ronda, Ryl and Wendy will never know how much I appreciate that.

As I always say about any story I’ve written, whether alone or with talented co-conspirators:

I sincerely hope the reader enjoys this story as much as I did helping create it.

Pat K


I had a wonderful time writing this story with Pat, Ryl and Wendy. Writing with other people is always presents challenges. We had a lot of fun plotting and planning and trying to include all ten of the JiXanny elements. At the risk of sounding like I’m bragging, I think we did a good job of merging our strengths and styles. I hope you enjoyed our story; we enjoyed writing it for you. Happy 10th Anniversary, Jixemitri!



Happy JiXanny! Group stories are a great way to celebrate Jix because they require teamwork and respect, just like the Bob-Whites of the Glen, and just like Jix. It was a real treat and a privilege to work with Ronda, Pat, and Wendy on this story.

Ryl :)


Writing this story has been great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed working with PatK, Ronda and Ryl on this project. They are all terrific authors. I learned so much from them about plotting, continuity and editing.



Team Dan would like to thank StephH for her turbo-fast edit. Any errors are the sole responsibility of the authors.

The words in this story that appear the dark orange are taken verbatim from Trixie #8 Black Jacket, and used for our own purposes. Team Dan salutes you!

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. The authors of this story are making no profit from their use.
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