When I think of family, I think of the Compass Brothers series. So…in keeping with the theme of We are Family, I thought I’d give you a peek at the Compton clan in Southern Comfort.
Seth Compton let his horse run free across the dry earth, enjoying the cloud of dust stirring around them. He and his brothers raced over the mountain ridge, heading to their favorite camping spot. Summer was just kicking in, but given the heat and lack of rain, it promised to be a brutally dry one.
Though the heat and humidity were unusual for Wyoming, they certainly didn’t bother him. He loved hard earth and the loud clomping of his horse’s hooves as they beat out a tempo that proclaimed his freedom. He was connected to the land, to the animals, to the fresh mountain air and even the unusually brutal sun. All of it made him feel alive and he whooped, grinning at his brothers.
The ride to the campsite went a long way to easing the ache in his chest that had started at dinner, when his older brother, Silas, broke the news he was moving away. It had shocked Seth, stunned him. Silas was the most like their pop, JD, and he was the one brother Seth never thought would leave the ranch. He figured like every ancestor who’d come before them, Silas would lay down deep, solid roots in Compton Pass. He belonged to this place, to their home, and Seth simply couldn’t imagine living here without him.
While Silas was made for Compass Ranch, Seth knew his greener pastures lay elsewhere. He longed to leave, to head south and work in Texas. While attending a livestock show with his pop a few months ago, he’d met Thomas Kirkland. Kirkland lived outside San Antonio and owned one of the biggest working ranches in the state. Seth had spent most of one afternoon picking Thomas’s brain about the workings on a real Texas ranch. He must have impressed the man because Thomas had sent him a letter last week, inviting him to come down after graduation to work for him. Seth kept the offer a secret from his pop and brothers. He wasn’t sure why, but the time to tell them his plans had never felt right.
The setting sun drew patterns on the ground, and Seth let the images wander through his mind. Some people looked for pictures in the clouds, but Seth found them on the earth. The shadows of the trees as they neared the mountain ridge looked like an army of soldiers, standing at attention, all waiting for his command. His destiny was at hand. He could feel it. One more year of damn high school and then he would be free.
He looked back at Silas once more, worried about the deep lines carved in his brother’s face. Something had happened, Seth could sense it deep in his soul, but he knew his brother. Silas would never tell him why he was really leaving. Glancing forward, he watched the backs of the twins as they rode side by side, always together. Unlike most identical twins, there was no mistaking who was Sam and who was Sawyer. The two were as alike as mud and soap. Sawyer possessed a recklessness that didn’t seem to reside in the refined Sam.
They hadn’t discussed their plans for the evening, but the second Silas had made his announcement to the family, he and his brothers looked around the dining table and nodded. Seth saw Silas’s pain and knew he’d support his brother no matter what he did. Hell, there was a selfish part of him that was actually glad his brother was leaving. It would pave the way for his departure next summer. Make it easier. Christ, his self-seeking thought made him sick.
Tonight was about Silas, about helping his brother. Besides, Seth felt a pain grip him low in his gut. When would the four of them all be together like this again? The idea cut through him like a knife and as he slowed his horse, a piece of his childhood died.
Tonight. Tonight would be their last time together and the heaviness that accompanied that realization threatened to stop him in his tracks.
Tonight wasn’t their usual laid-back escape from chores and hard work and school. It wasn’t a hunting trip or the beginning of a summer vacation or a winter retreat to test their wilderness survival skills.
Tonight wasn’t about playing or bonding or just being guys. It was about saying goodbye to Silas, and in part, to his youth.
They slowed as they approached their destination and ducked beneath the shelter of the mountain cypresses. The uneven terrain forced them to walk their mounts. They knew better than to risk injuring their animals.
Seth shoved his concerns to the back of his mind. Hell, it was that or fall on his knees and beg his brother not to leave. He wasn’t ready to be the oldest brother, to take on more responsibility, serve as a role model for the twins. Those traits had rested easily on Silas’s shoulders and Seth suddenly realized there was a freedom in being the second oldest. He got away with more, didn’t have to toe the straight and narrow line that Silas seemed to walk so easily.
They dismounted, and Seth helped Sawyer tie the horses to some low hanging branches. Sam gathered kindling for their bonfire, while Silas patched the pit they’d left from prior visits. Silas withdrew some hot dogs from his pack and grinned. They’d just eaten dinner, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to turn down a dog cooked black from a campfire. Manna from heaven.
“Si, you’re bleeding.” Sawyer’s comment distracted Seth from his stomach.
“It’s nothing.” Silas tried to hide his injury, but their youngest brother was relentless.
“It is something.” Sawyer moved behind Silas to get a closer look. Sawyer’s next comment clued Seth in to exactly what he was looking at. “It’s too uniform to be a cut.”
“Did you do it?” Seth tipped his hat away from his face and glared at his older brother. Damn him. They’d talked for years of getting tattoos when they were old enough. Swore they’d go together. When Silas didn’t answer, he stomped over, determined to see his brother’s betrayal for himself. “Holy shit. You did. You got a freaking tattoo. Without me? Without us? You asshole!”
Silas dodged Seth’s half-hearted punch toward the sore spot between his shoulder blades. While he was pissed as shit, his heart couldn’t let go of the idea that Silas was leaving in the morning. He couldn’t let tonight end in a fight.
Silas shrugged. “I had a hard enough time convincing Snake to ink me. If I’d brought you guys with me he never would have caved. He only did it because I’m eighteen now.”
Besides, if Silas had told Seth, they wouldn’t have been able to stop Sam and Sawyer from tagging along too. Their kid brothers shadowed their every move. Sometimes it was flattering as hell, but most of the time, it was just fucking annoying.
“Well, I suppose that’s true. Plus he’s probably afraid JD’ll kill him if he finds out,” Sawyer said, ever the peacekeeper.
Seth rolled his eyes at his baby brother’s words. Kid thought their pop walked on water. Of course, Seth had to admit, around here, the guy did. As head of Compass Ranch—the center of Compton Pass, Wyoming—JD Compton wielded a power most men could only dream of. However, while Seth’s father’s money opened doors, his personality made him a born leader. When JD spoke, people listened.
Silas nodded. “Yeah, that’s why I took the bandages off. Didn’t want him to notice.”
Sawyer persisted. “But you gotta let us see it at least.”
“Sure.” Silas dropped a wedge of wood on the fire and stood. Seth moved to his brother’s back, standing next to the twins, as Silas tugged his grey T-shirt over his head. He caught a slight hitch in his brother’s actions and realized the tattoo must hurt like hell. None of them made a sound as they studied the artwork inked on his brother’s back.
The sudden silence seemed to unnerve Silas, and he began to offer unneeded explanations. “It’s swollen and stuff—”
“Whoa.” Seth murmured, not needing any explanation.
“It’s awesome.” Sam laid his palm to the right of the emblem, careful not to touch the raw skin.
“Sweet,” Sawyer agreed then added his hand, on the left side of Silas’s back.
“Does it hurt?” Seth couldn’t resist the urge to join in, touching the area below the design.
“So bad,” Silas confirmed.
“I’m still doing it. Next year. The minute I turn eighteen.” Seth had never spoken truer words. He wanted this pattern. Bad. It was perfect. “Exactly like this.”
“Me too,” Sam chimed in. “The compass design is fucking great. And the ranch brand is perfect. It matches the one we use.”
“I didn’t know Snake had this kind of shit in him. The shading is so cool. It looks 3D.” Sawyer’s hand shook on Silas’s back. “I want one now. Like yours. But without the fancy N.”
“You’re only fifteen,” Silas barked. “Wait a while and make sure it’s what you really want.”
“I know what I want.”
“Things don’t always happen like you expect, Sawyer.” Silas sighed and Seth wondered what had altered in his brother’s life. Then, he considered the adjustments facing him in the immediate future. The difference was, while Seth was a bit anxious about the move, he embraced the idea, excited by the prospect. Silas didn’t seem to feel the same joy in venturing out of Compton Pass.
“Is that why you’re leaving?” The high pitch of Sam’s question told Seth his younger brothers were taking Silas’s departure hard as well.
“Yeah.” Seth knew that was the only answer his older brother would give them.
“Well, some people might flip flop around. Not me. Not going to change my mind.” Sawyer’s words were strong, self-assured. He’d always been the most determined to prove himself despite being the baby of the group. Maybe because of it. “I’m joining the Coast Guard. Gonna see the world.”
“What!” Silas pivoted to stare at their kid brother, and Seth wondered at the vehemence in his tone. “You’ve been watching too many freaking commercials. Your place is here, on the ranch.”
“No, it isn’t,” the teenager whispered.
Seth nodded in agreement. Sawyer was right to dream of the world beyond their property line. They’d lived like crown princes for all of their young lives, regarded with a fair bit of jealousy and even a bit of awe by their neighbors and the other kids in school. JD Compton was the uncrowned ruler of the area. In addition to owning a fair bit of the land in Compton Pass, the town was named for Seth’s great-great grandfather and JD served as chairman on the town council. Very few decisions were made in this area that didn’t have JD’s seal of approval. Problem was, Seth knew there was a hell of a lot more to this world than Compass Ranch and he was aching to strike out and make a stand, build a life with his own hands, rather than riding in the shade provided by his father’s very large shadow.
“You’re not planning to stay?” Silas’s forehead creased with disbelief. “None of you?”
The look of outright betrayal on his brother’s face tweaked Seth’s already stretched nerves. “Don’t look at us like that! I figured you’d understand. I need to get the hell out of here. Find my own place. Same as you.” His secret desire fell from his lips, and he was helpless to hold back. “Not Alaska though, I hate winter. You’re crazy to take on all that snow. Somewhere warm. Maybe I’ll head down south.” He withheld the information regarding Kirkland’s invitation. He remembered Silas’s tattoo and the image of his future became clear. “Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. A fancy S instead of an N on my compass, bro.”
“What? No!” Silas threw his arms up in frustration. “It’s not like that. I mean—”
“We understand, Si.” Sam smiled and nodded. “I’d like to go to college. Earn a degree. Find a real job. Something where I don’t have to dirty my hands to rake in cash. I’m going to have fancy clothes, a slick apartment and a kickass car. I’ll party every night with the hottest girls in the city.”
Seth grinned. He wasn’t the only one with dreams bigger than Compton Pass. His brothers understood. They yearned for the same things.
Silas turned to Sawyer and Seth read the unspoken question, the lingering concern on his lips. Who would stay at Compass Ranch? A slight pang of guilt penetrated Seth’s conscience, but he batted it away.
“Oh, no.” Sawyer shook his head as he kicked a rock when Silas turned to him. “Don’t give me that look. I told you, I’m not getting stuck here. Fuck that. You think someone should hang around, then stay put. It ain’t too late to cancel your plane ticket.”
“I-I can’t,” Silas said.
Seth understood his brother’s feeling. Some undeniable lure was tearing them away from this place, something stronger than all of them.
“And neither can we.” Seth hated the look of desolation on his older brother’s face. He slugged Silas’s shoulder, hoping to lighten the atmosphere. He didn’t want Silas’s last night to be weighted down with such heavy discussion. There was plenty of time to figure out what would come next. Seth still had a year until graduation, and the twins were only fifteen. Three years was a long time for a young man to change his mind. Maybe one or both of their little brothers would come to realize they didn’t have to leave. Regardless of that, they didn’t need to worry about any of that right now. He chuckled as he thought of a surefire way to make them all smile. “Come on, start the dogs. I’m starving. Jake slipped me a couple Playboys for doing his chores last weekend so he could bang Missy Trelane.”
“Nice! Me first.” Sam squeaked a head start for Seth’s backpack as Sawyer launched himself after his twin.
Seth laughed as he watched them wrestle and call each other names. Yep, he thought, there’s still plenty of time.
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