Twelve-year-old Cole Dillon gave his closing address to the court with characteristic passion. "So, I ask you, what kind of woman marries a man she has only known for ten days? A desperate one, obviously. But what was her motive in this crime? Was it greed? The victim, Ty Dillon, is indeed a rich cattleman. Or was her motive lust? The victim is, as the waitresses at The Hanging Tree Cafe have been known to testify, 'one desirable hunk.'"
Cole lowered his voice, peered over the top of his sunglasses, and said, "And there is always the possibility that it is something much more sinister. This woman, this artist, may be merely toying with the victim's affections in order to find a new subject for her art. She could be out for fame at the victim's expense. Has anyone considered that it was the only way she could get him to pose nude for her? Immortalizing nude cowboys." He sneered. "Disgusting."
"Ah, Mr. Prosecutor, have you considered the possibility of love at first sight?" the judge asked.
"Love is a highly overrated motive for crime." Cole paused. "Love is highly overrated in general."
Seventeen-year-old Leah Dillon, the judge, nodded. "Can't argue with you there. Miss Defense Attorney, what have you got to say for your client?"
Five-year-old Rachel giggled and blew bubbles through the straw that led to the bottom of a Pepsi can.
"I object," Cole said. "Given the circumstances, Ms. Dillon is just too happy."
Leah rapped the kitchen tabletop with her hairbrush. "You're out of order 'cause you told me once that you can't object to a closing argument." She sighed. "But, hell, I'll sustain it anyway."
Cole took off his glasses and gave Leah a practiced, weary look. "Your Honor—owing to the fact that the school buses are on their way—we're running out of time, and I move for a hasty verdict in this case."
Leah ran the brush through her long, blond hair while she considered. "Yeah, okay," she said at last. "The twit is guilty of criminal marrying, as charged. Slimy motive unknown."
Cole's eyes lit up with satisfaction. "And the sentence?"
"We make her life a living hell, of course."
Their Australian Shepherd, Wigglebutt, the sole audience to the hearing, barked happily and—since she had no tail—wiggled her butt.
Cole slipped his sunglasses back on, shrugged into his jacket, smiled his most charming smile, and said, "God, how I love to win."
His sisters threw on their coats and followed him out into the bright, cold morning.
"So now Daddy's got a new wife, what will Momma say when she comes home?" Rachel asked as they trudged across the newly fallen blanket of snow.
Leah shook her head. "Momma's not coming home."
"Cole says she is," Rachel said.
Leah looked at her brother and sister with frustration. "Cole's wrong."
Rachel stopped dead in her tracks and hung her head. Glancing back, Cole was the first to notice her dripping tears. The salt water did an instant rust job on his cocky armor and he sighed, turned, and gathered her into his arms. "Don't cry. It'll be okay." Rachel exploded into heaving sobs and Cole held her closer, hoping to still both her pain and the ache that was rising in his own chest. "We'll drive her away and that'll clear the way so Momma can come home."
"Dammit, Cole! Will you stop putting foolish hopes into her head." Leah kicked at the snow. "It's been five years. When are you going to accept that she found someone she loves more than Dad and us? When a person leaves without saying a word—and then never even checks back once to see if you're dead or alive—you can be pretty sure they're gone for good."
"You shut up!" Cole felt his own tears sneaking up on him and groaned. "Now look what you've done," he whispered.
Cole disentangled himself from Rachel and ran away before they could see his evidence of weakness and doubt. He raced to the barn where he slipped a bridle on his horse, Shiloh. Mounting her bareback, he set off blindly with no particular direction in mind.
How could his dad marry someone just like that? What was so special about Denver that kept making people fall in love there and do crazy things? Five years ago at Denver's annual Western Stock Show and Rodeo, his mother had met the lawyer with whom, later that year and six months after Rachel was born, she ran away. She divorced Ty and never returned. Now this year, at the same event, his dad had met and married an artist and—according to the phone call that morning—he was bringing her home to live with them. Didn't the rest of the family have anything to say about it? Why were kids always helpless pawns in the games their parents played?
"Life sucks," he muttered.
His wet face chafed in the wind, and he used the sleeve of his coat to try to dry it. Insistent tears kept falling, sabotaging his efforts.
Incredible loneliness for his mother surged. For the first time ever, it occurred to him that maybe the reason she had never contacted them was because she was dead. That had to be it. She loved them—he was sure of it. He had to know the truth once and for all. Her parents certainly knew the facts of the case, and although they had refused to talk to any of the Dillons since she left, Cole felt a renewed resolve to force their hand. He would stand on their porch and not budge until they told him what he wanted to know. He was good at cross-examination, and besides, nobody wanted to be responsible for a kid freezing to death on their front porch.
Cole pulled Shiloh up short while he tried to get a fix on his location. They were on the shore of Deer Lake, the lake's frozen surface looming gray before him in the early morning light. His grandparents lived in Johnstown, which was across the lake and beyond by ten miles. He remembered their house from family gatherings prior to his mother's disappearance and was sure he could find it again because Johnstown was a small town. He decided that braving the bitter weather was a small price to pay if the journey finally closed the case.
Cole and Shiloh were near the river that fed the lake, and he could see the bridge which crossed it. As he urged Shiloh to turn in that direction, the sharp sound of splitting ice ripped the air. Horrified, Cole realized that he had misjudged the lake's shoreline—the recent snowfall and wind-driven drifts had completely changed the landscape. Shiloh reared up in fear and caught Cole off guard. The horse bucked, Cole flew off, and he hit the split ice with such force that he crashed straight through to the freezing water below. Before he had time to react, a fierce undertow from the river captured and swept him away from the hole, deeper into the lake. Through the transparent sheet of ice that imprisoned him he could see where his sunglasses had landed, and beyond them he saw Shiloh trotting off in the direction from which they had come.
The freezing water caused little electric shocks to shoot through his eyes, but he found he couldn't close them. His lungs screamed for air and he clawed uselessly at the thick ice in an effort to return to the hole. Finally, his movement was halted when his pant leg snagged on something rising up from the lake bed. He yanked hard, but couldn't free himself. With a startled gasp, his lungs inhaled the frigid water which he now knew would be his grave.
I'm going to die, he thought with more amazement than fear.
He wondered what came next.
His discomfort passed, and the ringing in his ears stopped. He felt detached and distant to himself, then casually floated away from his body, up toward the sky. While he rose, he thought about his life. It hadn't been too bad, all things considered, but he suddenly wished he had been nicer to Dawn Bearpaw and not ridiculed her for her handicap.
The light from the sun grew brighter, and it felt warm and comforting. He looked up into it and was surprised to see a vaguely familiar figure floating toward him. When they drew closer to each other Cole felt the power this being commanded, and a sense of awe filled him. For some reason, he remembered a character from Star Trek.
"Are you Q?" Cole asked.
The entity smiled and extended a welcoming hand. "Let's fly together through the wormhole," its mind said to Cole's.
"Cool," Cole responded.
"There's a mission I want you to do that may save the lives of many other children, but it's your choice. There is always the issue of free will to consider."
That was right before the sky split in half, and they were catapulted into the starry abyss beyond.