The trip home from the west had been uneventful and easy, and the late spring nights were as peaceful as any Bradley could remember. Without Tad there to carry on all night, the sleep had come fast and sound.
Even so, when Bradley set camp just over the West Virginia border at sunset on Thursday, the weight of homecoming pressed on him like a bag of stolen gold.
He carried with him enough riches to make Momma’s remaining days carefree and happy, but also the sort of bad news that would drop her to her knees. He prayed it wouldn’t kill her on the spot.
As he gnawed on a hunk of jerky and watched the campfire dance against the starry sky, memories of his dead brother swam across Bradley’s drowsy vision like paintings from the past. He fell into a fitful slumber punctuated by nightmares and the sound of woodlands coming alive for the season.
And something else, something he hadn’t heard in weeks — Tad’s ragged, uneven breathing tearing into his dreams, pulling him in and out of slumber. Bradley wasn’t sure what was real and what was illusion, but he finally snapped full awake, convinced Tad was there beside him.
“Stop snoring!” Bradley barked, rolling toward the sound of Tad’s wheezing. His hand landed on the stock of his rifle.
The campsite was empty, except for his old horse … and except for the jaguar slinking up on them, yellow eyes glinting in the dying firelight.
In one move, Bradley pulled the gun to his shoulder, aimed into the darkness, and squeezed off a shot. The big cat roared and tore off into the night. The horse screamed in terror.
And Bradley wiped away tears with his flannel sleeve, warmth filling his chest. Tad was still watching over him.