James cowered in the corner of the parlor, while his grown brothers yipped like a pack of dogs fighting over the Thanksgiving carcass.
"When's the old buzzard gonna croak?" Ben, the second-born growled. "It's been weeks now."
"I'm tired of waiting for my cut," John put in. "Where's the will?"
"Perkins has it. I phoned him to come immediately. I want this settled the moment the old man meets Saint Peter ó or the devil."
Harsh laughter bounced off the rich, mahogany paneling. "The devil, for sure," Charles snorted.
James turned his weak eyes to the oversized bay window. If he squinted just so, he could make out the forms of the blooded horses grazing in the park. How he loved Father's horses.
Moments later, twin Dobermans announced the lawyer's arrival. Mr. Perkins entered the room with flushed face and heaving chest.
"Gentlemen," he began. "This is most irregular."
"Shut up," Ben snapped. "Don't try to impress us with fake decency. You don't care about Father any more than we do. You've made your money off him, now it's our turn. Sit down and read the will. Now."
Mr. Perkins peered into Ben's reddened face, looking like a thundercloud waiting to unload its liquid cargo. His shaking fingers lifted the ornate seal. The parchment whispered death's song in its unfolding.
"'I, William Beaufort, being of sound mind, and knowing full well how my sons feel about me, set forth the following challenge....'"
"What?" Gasps and scowls rippled about the room.
"'The will is located in the lock box in my desk,'" Mr. Perkins continued. "'You have exactly one hour to find the key. Itís not in my bedroom, but is on the estate. Whoever finds it will inherit the estate, in its entirety. However, if after one hour, the key has not been found, the entire estate is bequeathed as a permanent home for the mentally handicapped and for breeding horses. All the particulars are written in a separate document, already in the possession of Mr. Samuel Perkins, Esq. I leave you with one clue for your search: Follow the gold. May the most worthy son win.'"
The brothers burst from the room. James pushed his heavily-braced legs to a standing position. He passed Ben in the dining room, pawing through priceless Belleek china and Wedgwood glassware.
"Well, well. Fatherís idiot son," Ben sneered. James swerved to avoid a kick. "Guess we don't have to worry about you winning, do we?"
James shambled down the back steps and into the pasture, making slow progress over velvety grass. Golden Boy ambled over to nuzzle his cheek. He threw his arms around the horse, giving and receiving primal love. Only Father's horses understood his grunts.
He swiped the back of his hand against omnipresent drool. His father's words came to him. James ran gentle fingers from Boy's forelock to his soft muzzle, pondering, puzzling. "Follow the gold."
His hands moved to Golden Boyís halter. His fingers found a raised area on one strapís underside. Boy nodded, warm, brown eyes fixed on the drooling, grown man. James located the pocketknife Father had given him and carefully slid it into the fine leather. Soon a key lay in his hand.
Golden Boy nickered, nuzzled his ear and pushed him toward the house. James returned with the same unhurried pace of 40 years, passing Charles in their father's office. An avalanche of papers drifted against his booted feet as he rooted and tossed, desperate to win it all.
"Get lost, simpleton."
James shuffled on to his father's bedside, his feet sinking deep into the plush carpet. Father's frail body lay swallowed in billowy softness. One hand lay flung over the edge of the bed, as though he had already begun throwing off mortality.
He watched the blood throbbing through that frail hand, veins crisscrossing like blue serpents, under the paper-thin skin.
In a flash, his father's eyes flew open.
Their gazes locked. One question blazed between them.
Father opened his mouth.
"Do it, son," Father said. "It is my will."
Slowly James dropped the key onto his fatherís tongue. The dying man worked his jaws, maneuvering the metal to the back of his throat. With great effort, he swallowed.
Moments later, the frustrated sons burst into the room.
Man and hour had expired together.
They circled the bed and gaped at his chilled, smiling lips.
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