Prologue - The Man Above the Barn

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I was eight years old when John Kessler first barreled into my life in his dirty old pickup truck, gravel crunching underneath his tires and Eric Clapton blaring through his stereo. I watched curiously from the porch swing as he climbed out of the truck, trying to make out his features underneath the bill of a Rangers baseball cap. He was tall and lean, and his face seemed young... perhaps the same age as my cousin, who'd just finished his last year of high school.

I didn't have time to investigate further. He made a straight line for the barn and, for a fraction of a moment, found himself out of my line of sight. I followed after him with the haste and the stealth of a bouncy and overzealous child.

I didn't think he'd noticed me with my gap-toothed smile and my skinned knees, but if he did he didn't say anything.

That's the thing about John; in the few years that I knew him, I don't think I ever heard him speak a full sentence to anyone, not even me.

I ended up hiding in an empty horse stall, wedged between the wood paneling and a bale of hay, watching silently as John reached my father and shook his hand. My dad was well above average height and broad-shouldered, the build of a man who'd spent his whole life on a cattle ranch. It was so strange to see him have to look up to meet someone's eye.

"You here for the ranch hand position?" my dad asked gruffly.

"Yes sir I am," John replied with a nod. "I'm John... Kessler," he introduced himself, looking a little uncertain of what he should say or do next as my father went back to his job of mucking out the horse stalls.

"You ever worked on a ranch before?" my dad barked.

"No sir I haven't, but I'm a fast learner," John said steadily, as though he'd rehearsed the words a hundred times before. "I worked in a garage for a couple years in high school, so I'm pretty good at fixin' things."

My dad continued to shovel manure into a wheelbarrow and John shuffled his booted feet, looking mighty uncomfortable.

"You'll work from sun up 'til sun down... Payday's every other Friday, $489 a week... Room and board's free; you'll be stayin' in the loft," my dad went on to say, his back turned to John. He made his way towards the next stall, further down the walkway, forcing me to crane my neck so that I could keep them in my line of vision. "There's no kitchen so you'll have to eat at the main house – dinner's usually around seven... you can keep a mini fridge in the loft if you wanna... microwave as well... the missus ain't gonna let you at the table if you look like you've been workin' all day, so shower first..."

As they continued to speak about the ranch hand job – clearly it was none of my business and I shouldn't have been eavesdropping – I tried to discretely wriggle myself free so that I could go back to the swing, but all I managed to do was knock over a pitch fork and startle the chestnut mare in the opposite stall.

"Easy girl," my father said to the horse before turning his attention to me. "What are you doin' hidin' in there?" he asked me with a low chuckle.

Feeling the blood rush to my cheeks, I didn't say a word. John was looking at me now too, his brown eyes shadowed by his baseball cap and his mouth expressionless. I giggled and spun around on my heels, bolting out of the barn as fast as my feet would let me.

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