Voice full of sarcasm, Evan said, “Sounds like a good burden for a guilty man to carry.”
Tony didn’t deny that charge. “I am guilty, guilty of arrogantly believing I could fix an animal that was clearly dangerous. Guilty of letting my confidence blind me to what I should have seen. Your daughter paid the price for that mistake, and I will carry that truth with me for the rest of my life. Words could never express how sorry I am for what I did.”
Suddenly unsteady on his feet, Evan sank into the chair near his desk. His face went white, and Tony took a concerned step toward him, then stopped. “Should I leave?”
With a harsh shake of his head, Evan looked down for a moment. “I’ve spent a good many years hating you, Carlton.”
“For good reason, sir.”
“I waited for you to pick yourself up and try to rebuild your career. I wanted to destroy you as you’d almost done me.” Evan looked up, referencing the office around him. “I used to care about all of this. I built a business and a reputation from practically nothing. What people thought of me used to matter, but I would have thrown that all away just to take you down.” He gripped the arm of his chair. “My men told me you were drinking yourself to death and hiding up in Fort Mavis. Sounds like you made your own prison.”
Tony met his eyes again and said, “I couldn’t live with the guilt, but I suppose I was too much of a coward to take my own life.”
The old man shook his head sadly. “Dying’s easy. It’s living that takes courage.”
“I haven’t done either particularly well,” Tony said quietly.
Pushing himself to stand again, Evan approached Tony and searched his face with sharp eyes. Finally he said, “Not many people do. I need you to be guilty, Carlton, or I have to face that Kimberly’s death was likely my fault.”
Tony started to speak, but Evan made a sound deep in his throat and waved a hand to silence him. He picked up another photo of her from his desk, one when she was just a toddler. “Kim was our only child, and she came to my wife and me long after we’d given up thinking we could have children. She was our miracle. I never said no to her. I should have, but I never did. Spoiling a child feels good at first, but you reap what you sow, and Kimberly was impossible to deny when she wanted something. People tried to tell me about that horse’s history and his reputation, but Kimberly wanted him. Hell, I fired the only man who tried to talk me out of buying him. Told him that if he didn’t have what it took to break that horse, I’d find someone who could. Looking back, Harmon was the only one brave enough to stand up to me when he disagreed with me.”
David Harmon? His manager? Was it possible that David had worked for the Statens and never said a word?
“The man I replaced him with hired you. So you see, I carry my own guilt.”
Normally a man of few words, Tony felt that Evan needed to hear something. “Someone recently told me that there are no winners in a tragedy, only people struggling to survive the aftermath.”
“Can’t say I’ve ever heard truer words spoken.” Evan nodded sadly and rubbed his hands roughly over his face. When he looked at Tony, he looked older, sadder. “Have you said all you came to say, Mr. Carlton?”
“Yes, sir,” Tony said, understanding the dismissal for what it was. He turned and opened the door, feeling there was more he wanted to say, but not knowing for sure what it was. When he closed the door, he saw Evan still looking down at the photo of his daughter and the sight touched his heart.
I wish to God I knew how to ease his pain.
Instead of immediately driving back to his ranch, Tony found himself pulling into a cemetery he’d considered visiting many times but never had. He knew exactly where Kimberly was buried. He’d always known.
With his hat in his hand, he stood before her stone and softly spoke aloud. “I’m not a praying man and I don’t know if you can hear me, but there has to be more than this. It can’t all be about what we’ve done wrong and those we’ve let down. Your dad says he gave you everything, Kimberly. Give me something for him.”
There was no sudden breeze. No light from above. Tony replaced his hat and shook his head. What did I expect? If there’s anyone up there, why the hell would they listen to me? He returned to his truck and headed home.
On the way, he thought about David and what it meant if he’d been fired by the Statens and then come to the Double C after Kimberly’s death. What had he said? He’d come to slap me with reality and had expected to find me celebrating my not-guilty verdict. Instead he found me drunk and sinking fast. It wasn’t easy for Tony to look back at that dark time and how close he’d come to ending his own life.
I wouldn’t be alive today if David hadn’t come to find me.
He tried to save Kimberly and failed.
So he saved me.
A random thought followed and almost made Tony smile. I hope I pay him.
A few hours later, Tony avoided David and his ranch hands and took off for a long ride on the horse he’d ridden the day he and Sarah had raced. He remembered what Sarah had said about feeling free when she galloped on her horse. Tony urged his palomino on until he felt the same exhilaration. For just a moment, he was far away from his past and somehow closer to the woman he’d let walk away.
He stopped his horse on the highest point of his land and admitted a truth that he could no longer deny.
I miss her.
The next few days dragged by without event. Tony returned to working with the horses and his ranch hands went back to pretty much avoiding him. On the surface, things had returned to how they were before Sarah, but Tony was beginning to understand they never could.
He didn’t want to eat alone anymore. He didn’t want people to look away when he approached and rush to return to work. He knew their names now and for the first time he watched them work the horses. They were good at what they did, really good. So was David. It was humbling to realize how little credit he’d given any of them for the quality of the final product they sold.
Tony was in his kitchen drinking a glass of water when Melanie walked in and said, “There’s a man on the phone for you, Tony. I know you say you don’t want to be bothered with calls, but David told me to get you for this one.”
Who would David think I’d want to talk to?
Evan? Does he even know I met with him?
Charles? That’s a conversation with a low likelihood of being pleasant.