Nina sat down at the edge of Stewart’s bed, watching him sleep. In her lap she held a letter to Gerald, a letter to Stewart’s legal representative, and a letter to her daughter, Victoria. For weeks, now, she’d poured her thoughts onto page after page, crumpling each one in sweaty distress before tossing them in the waste can beside her desk. Finally, she had written without thought and sealed the letters.
What more could she say, after all? She’d organized Stewart’s kidnapping for his own well-being and had him tucked away in her corner of the world. It was done, already, and Stewart had come through. Did this make her a criminal? She didn’t know, yet.
Chaos charged every hour of the day, it seemed, thanks to her good intention. Nina’s eyes felt hot and tired as she looked at the boy, finally at ease with slumber while she stood at odds with the world in his defense. He’d managed his rescue and that was right, and good; she had yet to secure freedom for herself, however.. Feeling frantic, wondering at all the ways things might go wrong once the letters went out, her knee started to bounce.
Nina stood. She had to calm down. Quietly, she slipped Stewart’s door closed to half, holding the door as she slowed her breath. From across the front room, Dennis watched, waiting to let her know he’d come up to take the night shift with Stewart. Nina noticed him, and smiled wanly. She pointed toward the back door, and he nodded.
The evening air always greeted her fragrantly.
Too many unexpected demands had interrupted Nina’s plans to join Stewart in the immediate days following his transfer, and the numerous changes in caregivers interrupted the regular order of business at the Feldman ranch significantly. Nina tended the disruption by phone as best she could, but being there, herself, was the only, stable solution and she knew it.
Still, she hadn’t arrived soon enough to help Stewart transition into waking, as promised. He’d come to life with a start one afternoon, on his own, screaming and coughing (as often happened). But his nurse was outdoors enjoying the summer afternoon, drowsing in a hammock. The medication used to calm Stewart had been forgotten, remembered but not administered, then forgotten again by the girl who frankly hated syringes. Had Nina’s head man not come up to the house for afternoon coffee, Stewart’s heart might have gone into arrest.
Yes, it might have.
But Dennis had a way with finding calm in small animals, administering veterinary care, and he’d moved swiftly when hearing Stewart’s cries, for Stewart was no different from any small animal in distress. The acrid smell of Stewart’s distressed body stung the man’s nostrils immediately, and he’d knowingly grabbed the syringe as he braced himself against the boy’s shudders, slipping the needle deftly in and out, then pulled the boy firmly to his chest to more carefully sit with the spasms while they slowed, then ended. Tense muscles softened in the warmth of Dennis hold. Stewart’s eyes opened in wonder. He felt giddy.
A giant cowboy had lunged at the dragon wrapped tightly around Stewart; in his hand, a silver arrow. He’d poisoned the dragon with the arrow, Stewart thought, distantly, and the dragon’s grip! Looser, looser, looser. He, so awake, so awake but not hurting! Stewart laughed, somewhere in his mind, glad for the adventure.
Surprised and unwilling to be anything less than awake, now, Stewart stared at The Cowboy with glassy awe.
“You killed the dragon,” Stewart croaked awkwardly.
Dennis, pale but steady, looked at the little boy and smiled. Hoisting his knee against the window sill to readjust the tangle of quilt holding the boy, he said, “You survived his grip, buddy.” With practiced ability, Dennis re-bundled Stewart’s bones, then let go a sudden, piercing whistle. A moment later, Clara appeared, flushed and openly frightened to see the head man holding Stewart in his arms. Oh, what trouble she faced, now, she thought. The boy was awake, and she’d forgotten his injection.
As her foot hit the back step, Dennis’ form filled the door frame of the screened, porch entry; in his hand, a coat. Clara looked up just as the coat hit her face, knocking her backward. She teetered wildly, catching only enough balance to land squarely on her bum. Flushed, Dennis stared at the young girl, grinding every word he wanted to say into his jaw.
Glaring back, Clara tried to speak, but Dennis just pointed to the road and gave her the thumb. He didn’t give a shit what kind of setup the little ditz had going, but he did care about that kid, and the crap he was tired of putting up with. Pulling the screen door closed along with him, Dennis effectively dismissed Clara and crossed the kitchen threshold with new determination. Mrs. A might pay his wage, but he didn’t have to like what he saw, or put up with it. He scooped Stewart from out of porch swing and into the crook of his arm with as much ease as he cared for any struggling critter, smiling as he moved. The Cowboy who’d killed the dragon wasn’t done cleaning up. He’d watched enough circus acts to recognize the difference between farce and more farce; this kid, for all his purported worth, wasn’t being tended. Molars rolled against molars as Dennis felt his offense, his disgust about something that was none of his business. Yeah. ‘Til now. Now, this kid’s life was Dennis’ business, and Mrs. A could like it, or not. He knew he was right in standing up to her.
Order and consistency. It had to be, and it had to stay in place. A low, animal growl rumbled in the back of his chest.
Stewart felt the difference in The Cowboy’s certainty, felt the firmness of his hold and continued to marvel, silently. If The Cowboy whistled, and it seemed he did now, Stewart decided it was a special whistle only dragons heard. He certainly didn’t hear it. He didn’t have to, he guessed sleepily. Much to his surprise, he yawned as well. And that hurt.
Undisturbed, The Cowboy moved about the house with Stewart, looking at charts and medicine bottles carefully. Stewart closed his eyes to the dizzying amount of movement.
He felt The Cowboy’s thunder when Dennis called Nina.
He liked the deep hum in the back of his voice. Yes, he did. Even as things moved fast, then slowed, the hum kept Stewart’s attention, now; he adjusted to its sound, and felt steady.
As he slipped into natural slumber, a smile twitched his cheek muscle before relaxing into a soft snore.
“Do you hear that, Nina? The kid’s snoring. Listen.” Dennis held the mouthpiece close to Stewart’s face for just a moment. On the other end of the line, Nina’s cheek twitched with a like smile. Shaking hard, unable to find a solid breath, Nina gave Dennis a return-call time and assured him of his right decisions. Then she hung up. Quickly.
Dennis put the phone in its cradle and looked at the boy in his, cradled arms. Bones, he thought, lightly bouncing him to guess his weight. His chest tightened, registering shock. Stewart pushed against him, waking uneasily, but Dennis forced a long yawn into the tension.
Stewart’s eyes opened, then closed in on The Cowboy. He felt the steadiness of the man’s long, deep breaths, rising like waves, lulling him easily. Heavy sleep drifted among the waves, steadily overcoming Stewart, now.
“You’re just a little sack of bones, buddy…” he sang tunelessly above Stewart’s head. “But that’s gonna change with me.”
Stewart’s eyes widened, but relaxed. The Cowboy, a natural ecstatic when it came to young life, smiled at him, rocking him lightly with the gentle rise and fall of his knee. Feeling ease in the rhythm, the very long night of nights came to an end for Stewart.
From the edge of his quilt, Stewart viewed his grandmother’s home for the first time, not knowing where he was, but not minding, either.