Ricky’s time was spent with the four most important people in his life. His grandma, Lydie, his girl, Liz, Jack and Preacher. Liz stayed in Virgin River for the ten days he was on leave and some afternoons, Jack took him fishing.
Standing out in the Virgin with Jack, watching the lines arc over their heads as they cast, Rick felt it was where he had always belonged. It was here, at the river, that all the important growing-up talks of his life had taken place, and always with Jack. It was here that Jack had that big talk with him about sex, for what good it did—Rick had still ended up getting his girl pregnant. What a tough time that had been. Later, while Rick was doing his best to stand by her like a man, it was Jack who encouraged him, coached him, tried to keep him on the right path to avoid even more disaster. And after the baby was stillborn, Jack and Preach held him up, helped him shoulder the pain.
“Thanks for everything you’ve done for me, Jack,” he said.
“I didn’t do anything. People tend to come out to celebrate their friends.”
“I wasn’t talking about this week—which, by the way, has been great. I was talking about the last few years. You were like my dad. I kind of always thought of you as my dad. I hope you don’t mind that too much.”
Jack felt his chest tighten up. “Mind? That would make me damn proud, Rick. If I could have another son, I would have it be you.”
“You gotta do something for me, Jack. If anything goes wrong over there—”
“Rick. We don’t like to talk that way.…”
“Jack! We know what it is over there. Now listen, if anything goes wrong over there, will you make sure my grandma and Lizzie get through it okay?”
Jack looked at him, at his profile, because Rick looked straight ahead. “You know you don’t have to ask that. We take care of each other’s families.”
“I know. And, Jack? I just don’t want to leave anything important unsaid. I love you, man. You’re my best friend ever. You got me grown up. Nothing would’ve turned out without you.”
Jack swallowed. When he spoke, his voice wasn’t real strong. “There’s still lots of fishing to do, Rick. I’m counting on that.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I love you, too, son.” But he was thinking, If you don’t come back, who’s going to get me through it?
“I want to tell you something I did. I know I’m only nineteen, Liz only seventeen—both of us still too young. But I bought her a necklace with a diamond in it—a nice-size one, too. I told her it was my promise to her, but I also told her it didn’t hold her to anything.”
Jack lifted an eyebrow. “Big step,” he said.
“Half a step, really,” Rick said. “Call it a first step. I love the girl, there’s no question about that. I’ve loved her since she was fourteen—it was my undoing. But there were so many complications for us, some real hurting times. If there’s a better guy for her, I won’t hold her back. But if there’s not a better guy…”
“Then what, Rick?”
“I’m driving her crazy, talking about school all the time. She’s gotta finish high school—that’s just one more year. And I’d really like her to get a little college—I asked her to at least try. When I’m done with this gig, I’m going to school. I’m not saying I’ll give up the Marine Corps—I don’t know about that yet—but I’m going to college. If it works out for us, if we get married, I want us to be smart, educated people. I want a family real bad—probably because of the one we lost, huh?”
“I guess that would set up a real strong desire, yeah,” Jack said.
“Well, if I get another chance at that, I’d like us to be smart enough to earn a decent living and have a couple of kids raised by educated parents.” He turned and grinned at Jack. “I think that kind of talk got her attention—she said she’d try to get good grades her senior year and she’d at least go to community college.” He sobered. “She said she’d do that so I’d be proud of her. Man, I’m already so proud of her—look how she holds up, huh? She buried her baby and said goodbye to me, and did she fall apart? She’s been solid. She’s been real brave, real strong.”
“You both have, Rick. A diamond, huh? How’d you save enough for a diamond?”
Ricky laughed. “I’m not doing that anymore, buying things like that with my per diem—I’ll save it for something a little more practical, like a down payment on a house or a car. But Liz deserved to have something beautiful that says I love her, that I couldn’t think more of her. Don’t you think?”
It made Jack smile. “You think she stood by you while you were gone?”
“Every day,” he said. “She gets real lonesome sometimes, and she misses all the stuff the girlfriends do—homecoming dance, prom, all that stuff. I told her to go—I could deal with that. But she said she couldn’t do that. It might lead someone on. She said if she’s still with me in the end, that stuff wouldn’t even be important. She writes me letters almost every day—longer ones when everyone but her is going to prom. Damn…There are a lot of times I wish I was more like you—totally free and not caring about any woman until I’ve had a chance to really live, see the world, experience the world—and then have Liz come along later, when I’m like thirty, or forty…”
Jack chuckled. “And there are a lot of times I wish I’d met Mel a long time before she’d hooked into that first husband, started our family when we were both a lot younger, before I started getting gray. I think if you’re lucky enough to find the right person at all, you don’t have a right to complain about when, how.” He put a hand on the kid’s shoulder and gave a squeeze. “I hope it works out for the two of you, son. You buried a baby together. It would be sweet if you could bring a couple of healthy and strong ones into your lives together. But I’ll say this—I think you’re smart to tell her to take her time on that commitment. Believe me, when you make those kinds of promises to a woman, you want her to be absolutely sure.”
“That’s what I think.”
A large fish jumped across the river and they were silent; he was huge. “King,” Rick finally said. “I haven’t seen one that size in a long time.”
“He must be lost,” Jack said, casting in that direction.
Rick took a few paces downstream, changed out his fly and threw a line. They played with him a while, then Rick hooked him and yelled, “Woo-hoo!”
“Lead him, let him take out line, tire him out before you—”
Rick laughed. “I know how to catch a fish.”
“Don’t screw around, get too anxious and lose him,” Jack said.
“You milking this cow?” Ricky asked him.
For the better part of an hour Rick played him, letting out line, letting him run, pulling him back, walking up and down in the shallow part of the river when the fish ran, and all the while he had Jack in his ear. “That son of a bitch is big. Let out more line. Don’t spoil him, he’s a fighter. He’s getting too far from your control, reel him back.” And on and on and on.
Rick finally brought him in, a great big Chinook, over thirty pounds. And that was more than enough fishing; Rick’s ears were ringing from Jack’s mother-henning.
When they got back to the bar, Preacher whistled in admiration and loaded the fish on the scale. “Thirty-seven point four. You catch him all by yourself, Rick?”
Rick made a face at Jack. “Not exactly.”
When Jack took Rick to Garberville, they sat in the truck for a minute, waiting for the bus to board. “Got any last-minute advice?” Rick asked him.
“Yeah. Trust your gut. Follow your orders, but trust your instincts.”
“I want you to know that I’m not afraid of it. I’m not. In fact, I might be a little excited. It was the right thing to do, Jack. For me.”
“I believe you.”
“You take good care of Mel and the kids, huh?”
“You bet I will. I’ll write every week,” Jack said. “Nothing will happen in Virgin River that you won’t hear about.”
“Whoopee,” he said, and laughed. Jack went to tousle his hair the way he used to, but it was shaved down so short, he knuckled his scalp instead. “I’m going now,” Rick said.
Jack got out of the truck and met him around the front. He gave him a robust hug. “Take care, son. Be safe.”
“I will. Now you get outta here. Don’t hang around and stare at the bus, like you did last time.”
Jack couldn’t stop himself—he grabbed him and hugged him again. “This time next year, Rick. I’ll get the boys to come. You bring your friends.”
“Sure,” he said. Then he turned and walked to the bus, straight and tall, his duffel over his shoulder. He never turned around to look back.
June grew old and hot. Small fires dotted a mountainous landscape that had remained dry and dangerous, while in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Utah several big fires had threatened to run out of control and, it being early in the season, this didn’t bode well. Northern California had escaped the big ones so far, but it was a frightening prospect as the rains continued to elude them. Cal Fire and Department of Forestry was patrolling campgrounds like crazy, making sure fires were only lit in designated areas and with permits, in many cases prohibiting fires of any kind.
Mel was keeping a very close eye on her husband. The first days after Ricky left found Jack a little on the quiet side, but he was coming around. He talked about the young man a lot, read the newspapers and had a satellite TV installed in the bar so he and Preacher could keep up on CNN reports of the war. He had the Chinook mounted, taking down his big, ugly sturgeon and replacing it with Rick’s fish. He had also written about a dozen letters already, and let her read over some of them while they were in progress. “Jack,” she had said, laughing. “Do you really think Ricky cares what Preacher made for dinner, or how many temper tantrums Davie threw today?”
“I think he wants to hear everything. I remember.”
Of course he did, she thought. He remembered every long night he spent in battle zones, often in the same landscape, the same country where Rick served this very minute. He remembered every face of a young marine, every wounded man, every letter from home. For Jack to have been through it himself and let Rick go with such pride and confidence made him, in Mel’s mind, the strongest man alive.
“I have an idea,” she told him. “Go ask your sister and brother-in-law if they know any news that should be sent Rick’s way.”
Jack’s eyes briefly widened, then he walked briskly out the back door of the bar, across the yard to that RV, and banged on the door. Mel watched from the window as Brie stepped outside. A short conversation ensued and then she could hear her husband’s loud whoop of excitement just as he lifted his sister off her feet and swung her around and around. Then he was back, lifting Mel off her feet, bringing her face up to his. He covered her mouth in a searing, demanding kiss—but she found herself laughing against his lips. “Jack, she’s pregnant, not me!”
“It’s almost as good,” he said. “They want a baby so much. This is wonderful news.” Then he scowled a little bit and said, “Did you just leak some confidential medical information?”
“No,” she said. “Brie said I could tell you.”
“Then why didn’t you just tell me?”
“This was much more fun. Are you done kissing me already?”
“Baby, I want to way more than kiss you. I’ll be very careful. How about it?”