"So he was living in the car dump all this time?"
"Looks like it," said Maurice, "Pigeons and chicken eggs."
Lady Gertrude strolled across the paddock and pressed her great velvet muzzle against Kate's ear. Kate pushed her back and dug an apple out of her pocket. Samson's long, low body squirmed into the space between Maurice's boots, safe from the massive lady's hooves.
"William Osborne," Kate said, shaking her head, "I haven't thought about him in years. We were friends as kids - he used to come here to play. When we were teenagers he had a crush on me and I liked him, but he was a little rough around the edges. He'd come swimming and show off on the diving board."
Sheep drifted towards them, sensing treats, the two in sweaters at the edge of the group, still skittish from their ordeal. They jostled around Maurice and Kate, leaning and shoving, their thick, spongy fleece hiding an unexpected amount of strength; it was rather like standing in a muscular cloud. Kate pulled a fistful of grain from her pocket and held it out to the greedy beasts.
"You recognize him last night?" asked Maurice.
"I didn't see him. Leo found him and Joe had everything taken care of before anyone inside even knew there was a problem. He was wearing dogtags - that's how they identified him at the hospital."
"He'd been in Iraq. Sent him over the edge. We won't press charges, poor thing. He broke his back. He'll be in the VA hospital for a long, long time.
The big white gate that divided uphill from down swung across to the paddock fence with Maya smiling happily and clinging to the slats. Sheep scattered every which way. A second mule, gray and soft, ambled out of the stall and crossed to Kate, nosing gently at her pocket. Lady Gertrude shoved him away. Maurice raised an eyebrow in surprise and looked quizzically at Kate.
"Did you get a new horse?" Maya asked.
Kate's eyes brightened, "Not exactly. He was here in the paddock when I came down this morning. His name's Buster."
"Hi Buster," said Maya reaching out to pat his nose.
"Looks like Stanley Early's mule," commented Maurice.
"It is," said Kate, "I called Grace this morning and sure enough, Buster was gone."
"How d'you think he got in here?"
"Maybe the Gray Man brought him," offered Maya.
Maurice and Kate stiffened and exchanged glances. Kate steadied herself and looked carefully at Maya, "Who is the Gray Man, Maya?
"He looks like a bear and he has yellow teeth." She cocked her head at Kate, " He catches birds. I think he lives in your house except sometimes he comes out of the barn and sometimes he's by the pool when I'm in my bed. He's scary."
"Did you tell anyone about the Gray Man?" Kate asked.
Maya looked worried, "I thought you knew. I thought it was that Mad Tom."
Kate looked at Maurice, "I guess in a way it was Mad Tom."
"Maya," she said turning back to the little girl, "you don't have to be afraid any more. He was a sick man who needed help and he's in a place now where he can get better. Mad Tom is just a story."
Maya looked skeptical.
"Okay," she said, making the gate swing.
"So how did that mule get in?" asked Maurice again. Kate smiled.
"When they got home from the party, Stanley went out to put Buster in for the night. Grace said he was gone a long time and he was a little..." she glanced at Maya, "...he'd been a bit intemperate with the refreshments. She thinks Stanley must have walked him all the way up here and put him in our paddock instead of his own then gone on home to bed!"
Maurice's big face collapsed with quiet laughter.
"Did he eat too many cupcakes?" Maya asked, perplexed.
"Something like that," said Kate.
Maya jumped down from the gate and wandered off towards the picnic grove, her big yellow boots scuffing against the pavement. Maurice and Kate watched her go.
"Would you go out to the dump and collect our things once the police are through?" asked Kate.
"Thought I would," replied Maurice.
"Thanks," said Kate, "Then I guess that's that." She headed towards the water tub, sheep drifting in her wake.
"That's that," repeated Maurice. A single pigeon flew down from the eaves and landed on the gatepost, its soft gray feathers iridescent in the sun. It cocked its head at him curiously. Maybe he'd wait awhile before he took care of those nests in the barn. One way or another, it seemed to Maurice, everyone needed a place to tuck up their feet and call home. The bright, cold Sunday was a lazy promise in his big, calloused hand. He reached for the gate and the pigeon flew away.
"Home Samson," he said to his little dog, "Let's you and me go home."
Thanks for reading Mad Tom Winter: Gray Man. Please vote if you enjoyed it. This book is the first in a series of four -- the next is titled Mad Tom Spring: Those People, coming in June 2018!
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Mad Tom Winter: Gray ManGeneral Fiction
Maurice Diggersby, the handyman at Mad Tom Farm, likes to see that things are done right, and keeping things up and running on an estate that houses four generations of one eccentric family is no small task. When odd things go missing and mysterious...