remembered Lorabeth holding it as though it might break or vanish in her grasp. She’d seemed happier than a pup with a new bone to join them today. He thought back to the first times he’d participated in family dinners and activities with the Chaneys and how out of place he’d felt. Lorabeth’s hesitation hadn’t seemed to be because she didn’t feel like she belonged, but more as though she was tiptoeing to make sure she didn’t wake herself up. That was an odd thought, but it fit his observations. Her presence here was going to make the difference for Ellie getting the rest she needed. The fact that Lorabeth triggered his interest and piqued his curiosity was a distraction he could ignore. And intended to.
Chapter Four L ater that week, Benjamin stood on his back porch in the yawning silence of the evening and studied the last fading streaks of orange in the darkening sky. A battalion of fireflies had flickered to life to dot the alfalfa field behind the barn. It was the last day of September and, while the crisp air felt good on his face, it reminded him that a long winter was in store. The wide wooden stairs creaked beneath his weight, and he headed for the rows of stacked boxlike cages with chicken-wire doors that lined the side of the barn. A three-legged cat meowed, and he opened the door to scratch her ear. “Don’t be gettin’ used to chicken livers and cream,” he told the accident-prone feline called Lazarus by his owners. “Few more days and you’ll be back to catchin’ mice at the Fredericks’s place.” The cat meowed a reply, and he hooked the door shut. He stopped at the end of the row of cages where he’d been keeping an owl isolated and peeled a gunnysack curtain away. “Well, Hoot, it’s your big night. Time for you to go back to your kin and your favorite knothole.” The enormous bird blinked at him and waddled sideways away from his touch. Ben urged the heavy bird onto his forearm and lifted him out. Three weeks ago, the Stoker kids had told him about the injured owl, and Ben found the creature on the bank of a creek, its wing broken. It appeared to have been there for some time, exposed to the elements and hungry, and Ben hadn’t been sure if the animal would live. Carrying the owl to the front of the barn, he raised his arm. “Go on. Go home.” The bird didn’t need any encouragement. It flapped its wings, slapping Ben in the face as it pushed away from his arm. The owl perched on the corner of the barn roof for a full minute, head swiveling as though getting its bearings. A moment later it flew into the darkened sky and soared overhead before disappearing into the night. Closing his eyes, Ben listened and imagined he could hear the sound of wings in the distance. The heartfelt sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that always accompanied an animal’s healing and recovery cleansed Benjamin’s soul and set his world to right. He got too close, too attached, took it too personally when, in that occasional instance, an animal died in his care. He valued the life of all creatures. He lived to heal and care for them. He’d killed a man. Whenever the night was heavy with stars and loneliness rolled over him like a dark wave, Ben pondered loopholes in that “thou shalt not kill” commandment. The incident had been years ago. He’d been young, and the law had deemed it a defensive act. That commandment was pretty cut-and-dried, but if God was Who the Missionary Baptists and the First Episcopals and the United Congregationalists said He was, then He’d known what kind of man Winston Parker was anyhow. If he closed his eyes he could see that night all over again, just as vividly as if it had been yesterday. He’d been seventeen and had only recently come to live with Caleb and Ellie. Caleb had been called away that night and Ben had been attacked when he’d gone down to the darkened kitchen. He’d recognized the man. Knew he was the same man who’d haunted his