By the time the train pulled into the station in Heppner, Percy was anxious for fresh air and hoped the cooling temperatures would help clear his dark thoughts.
He hurried off the train to purchase a ticket on the stage. The stage was full, but a freighter headed through Hardman agreed to give him a ride if he helped load the man’s lumber wagon.
Percy removed his coat and hat, rolled up his sleeves, and jumped into the work. In no time at all, they finished the job. Percy donned his outerwear, climbed on the wagon, and watched the landscape roll by from his perch on the high wooden seat.
The freighter didn’t seem inclined to talk, but he did nod his head in gratitude when Percy offered him one of the thick ham sandwiches Tia had sent along. Percy shared sour cream cookies and an apple before he tucked the empty food basket into the back of the wagon next to his valise and set the hat he hated to wear inside it.
“You know people in Hardman?” the freighter asked as they jostled along the well-traveled road. Dust rose in brown puffs from the hooves of the horses as the team pulled the heavy wagon.
Percy nodded then drew in a lungful of the clean air, savoring the scents of sagebrush and juniper that lingered on the slight breeze.
Thick clouds dotted the sky that was such a pale variety of blue it appeared as though someone had drained away the rich, vibrant hues of summer. He watched a flock of blackbirds stir from a tree in the distance and rise into the clouds before swooping beyond his vision.
He’d missed the open sky and rolling hills, the smells and the sounds that seemed unique to this part of the country. Five antelope lifted their heads and stared at them from a safe distance away. Percy wished they could stop so he could capture their image with his camera, but the wagon rolled onward.
The closer they drew to Hardman, the more familiar things felt, and the more the knot in his stomach tightened. Would people still welcome him to the town he’d essentially abandoned? Would they shun him the way he’d shunned the community for so many years?