Winner of the Romance Writers of America RITA Award
This Time Forever

by Kathleen Eagle

NOTE:  No part of this material may be reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior permission of the copyright owner.

 

Prologue
 
THE OWL’S CALL stirred Cleve Black Horse toward the brink of
awareness. Above the crackling radio static and over the idling hum of the
pickup’s motor came the haunting, cool night echo. He eased his shoulders
up the vinyl backrest.
 
Somebody must have died.
 
The thought cracked his sleepy consciousness like a predawn glow. It
came from a store of visceral knowledge, which, as was his practice, he was
quick to reason away before it had him doing some crazy thing like turning
lights on to drive the ghosts away. Only old Indians and kids got spooked
by owls. But Cleve clicked off the radio and listened until the call came
again. The back of his neck felt prickly. Through the bug-spattered
windshield he saw treetops etched like ink blots against a sliding wisp of
bright clouds. The stringed tone of crickets cheered him. They were the
best night singers. Only a half-shot Indian would keep telling himself that,
somewhere in those trees, an owl waited, watching.
 
Don’t go out there, Sonny. The gigi man is out there.
 
Cleve rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. Gigi man. Christ,
where had that come from? A few beers and a couple of aspirin for his
wounded head, and he had ghosts dancing in his dreams.
He rubbed the back of his neck and took a look around the cab. This
wasn’t his pickup. This was a late model club cab Silverado with a super
deluxe interior and options and trim up the ozeki.
 
It must have been that damn owl that had him thinking like an Indian.
He was an Indian—he didn’t mind saying it—born and raised on Standing
Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, which straddled the North and South
Dakota state line. But Cleve hadn’t been a reservation Indian in years. He
didn’t talk Indian. He tried not to think Indian. But he’d only been back in
North Dakota for a few hours, and already he was thinking gigi and
ozeki—words he used as a joke, maybe, when a rodeo buddy called him
“Chief” or “Geronimo.”
 
He joked about it more easily now, but still on his own terms. In the
old days, it was nothing to joke about. Ever. His name was Black Horse,
and his skin was brown, and any redneck cowboy who wanted to make
something of it was likely to get his face bashed in. Making it big on the
rodeo circuit had changed a few things for Cleve, though. People talked to
him differently when he was up there winning. He’d driven some good
pickups, stayed in nice places, bought new boots whenever he’d felt like it.
Right now, of course, he wasn’t riding so high, and, like it or not, he
was driving an Indian pickup. He had to admit the blue Ford he’d left a few
miles back below the shoulder of I-94 was a pretty sorry outfit, especially
now that it had a blowout and a busted radiator.
 
So what the hell, his back wasn’t bothering him for a change, and his
arm would hold out if he taped it up good. He’d take first in saddle bronc
and bulls tomorrow and buy himself another pickup, and maybe a nice hat.
The one on the seat next to him belonged to a prefab farm building
salesman named Arnie Bertram. So did the pickup. Bertram had come
along and offered Cleve a ride after he’d slammed the old Ford into the
ditch. He’d been lucky. Hitching was still beneath his dignity, and it would
have been one hell of a long walk from just this side of Montana clear to
Mandan, which was in the south central part of the state.
 
At least he knew where he was. He was back in North Dakota.
 
But this ride was turning into a big social event with a bunch of duds.
Arnie Bertram talked too much. He was the kind of guy who liked to let
everybody know he was around. He’d insisted on stopping at every little
hole-in-the-wall along the way and telling the locals that he was giving the
Cleve Black Horse a lift to Mandan for the rodeo. Arnie was a longtime
rodeo fan, so he remembered the name. Most people didn’t. Actually, it had
been ten years since Cleve’s position in the standings meant anything to
anyone but him.
 
So now they’d stopped at a hole-in-the-ground next to the highway.
Cleve chuckled to himself. Two holes in the ground. A two-holer with
porch lights and signs. MEN and WOMEN.
 
It was a no-moon night. The pickup windows were down, and Cleve
was feeling the chill. He couldn’t complain too much about the delay, since
he remembered that he was the one who had asked Arnie to pull over. Jeez,
how long ago was that? He’d gone into the can first, and Arnie had followed
along a few minutes later with that hitchhiker, Ray Smith. They’d picked
Smith up along the highway after they’d left that first beer joint.
 
If those two were still in there, Cleve figured he must have dozed off
just for a minute. He reached under the steering wheel and shut off the
engine. The smell of the exhaust was making him sick. He felt as though
he’d been kicked in the head by a bull. Thinking about the spider web crack
his head had left in the windshield of his pickup, he realized he probably
had a concussion, which had to be the cause of his problem. The fuzz was
on his brain instead of his tongue, so it wasn’t the beer. Cleve was a cowboy.
He could hold his beer.
 
Cleve stared at the sign that said MEN. Come on, for Chrissake. They
may have been doing something weird in there, in which case he wished
they’d just hurry it up. He didn’t care what other people did in the john as
long as they weren’t bothering him, but he wanted to get to Mandan
sometime tonight. Tomorrow—or today, whichever it was—would be the
Fourth of July, and Cleve had two events going in one show. Probably rip
his arm all to hell, but he’d been in worse shape and come through okay.
 
You can do it, Sonny. You’re a cowboy.
 
The ultimate endorsement for an Indian kid was always, “You’re a
cowboy.” It meant you didn’t balk or complain or cry or ask too many
questions. The old man, his grandfather, had heaped that expectation on
him before he was out of plastic pants, and he’d been a cowboy ever since.
The old man should have lived to see how Cleve had stuck it out.
Thirty-seven years was a long time to keep dusting off your ass and
climbing back into the saddle.
 
And however long he’d been sitting out there was too long for two
guys to be taking a leak. Cleve wasn’t too eager to go back inside, but he
didn’t want to spend the rest of the night at some damn rest stop, either. If
his head hadn’t been ripe for busting open, he’d have taken his gear out and
started walking. Hell, if he’d had a few more beers, he wouldn’t think twice
about taking the pickup and leaving those two to set up housekeeping in the
john.
 
There was a phone booth here. Maybe he’d call somebody.
Who would he call? He didn’t have any phone numbers. Most people
he knew didn’t have phones. The old lady never had one, never would.
He’d offered to pay the deposit and hookup fee, which was a considerable
chunk of change, but she’d told him to save his money. The phone
company would just be taking it out once people started coming over and
running up her bill. That was why he hadn’t been in touch with her in God
knew how long. You couldn’t call somebody who lived in a godforsaken
sinkhole and didn’t have a phone. He hoped she hadn’t gone and died on
him in the meantime.
 
She hadn’t, though. Cleve set his jaw as he watched the men’s room
door. No chance. The tribe would have tracked him down if his
grandmother had died. Indians always made damn sure everybody was
there for a funeral. She was still okay.
 
Hooo. Hoo—oo—ooo.
 
Somebody must have died.
 
The hell. Cleve flung open the pickup door, hopped past the running
board, and slammed it shut again. He wanted to give that damn owl a scare
more than anything, but he figured he’d let the two jerks in the john know
he was coming. And then he was leaving, with or without them.
 
He squinted against the shock of bright light and started to announce
his presence. Then he saw the man on the floor. His first thought was that
Arnie looked like an overgrown kid curled up under the sink with his back
to the door. Then he saw the wine-red puddle on the gray floor. Nearby lay
a black leather billfold.
 
Jesus Christ!
 
Cleve pushed against the metal door on the toilet stall. The water ran
noisily inside a faulty tank, but of course, the stall was empty. It was the only
hiding place in the room. The hitchhiker was gone, and poor old Arnie had
gotten himself beaten up and rolled.
 
“Arnie?” Cleve knelt beside him and pulled the short, stocky man over
by his shoulder. Arnie’s head flopped back like the lid on a cigar box and
presented Cleve with a fresh dribble of blood and a fish-eyed stare. His
throat had been cut.
 
Only the owl gave an answer.
 
***

He's condemned to prison for a murder he didn't commit.  She serves on the jury that conviscts him.  What will he do when she desperately needs his help?

THIS TIME FOREVER

Original edition Avon Books, 1992

Bell Bridge Books 2012 editions in trade paperback, e-book, Audible Audio 

ASIN: B00AV95HIU    ISBN: 978-1611942439

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This Time Forever - Kathleen Eagle