Disclaimers: I don't know why I keep trying to disclaim these folks – goodness knows I've chatted with them/about them enough. So, I'll just say that all names, places, people, and situations I write about are fictional. They are not based on anyone or any place. Although Amanda would disagree, I do own these characters – so please, no stealing :)
If you have anything to tell me, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also get the scuttlebutt on my website, www.CarrieLCarr.com . Drop by and say hello.
Big time thank you: To my chat group at Carrie's Crossing, who keeps me motivated. And to my awesome beta reader, Kelly – thanks for keeping me on the right track!
Dedication: This story is dedicated to the love of my life, my beautiful Jan. She's the reason for everything I do. Forever and always, my love.
Angst warning: I normally don't disclaim this sort of thing, but these first few chapters are heavy in the angst/sadness department. It does get better, I promise.
The duplex's windows rattled as the door slammed behind the two women. The slammer, slight of frame with streaked, brown hair, dropped a navy blue backpack on the floor. “That's the last time I let you pick our vacation spot,” she muttered. She removed her heavy coat and haphazardly hung it in the entry closet. “I still can't feel my toes.”
“It wasn't that bad,” the muscular blonde argued. She placed her dark green backpack beside the other one, took off her coat and handed it to her partner.
“Not that bad?” Eleanor Gordon placed the coat next to her own and shut the closet door with more force than was necessary. “Our tent collapsed from snow.” She poked her lover in the chest with her index finger. “ Snow , Kyle. I'm from southern California. The only snow I was familiar with was from television and movies.”
They left Somerville on Christmas Eve for two weeks of hiking in Big Bend National Park. Kyle had always been an avid hiker, and over the year that they had been together, she had shown her partner how much fun it could be. Kyle brushed her hand over her crew cut and grinned. “It never snows there. How was I supposed to know? Besides, it wasn't that much snow. At least we were prepared for the cold, right?” The double sleeping bag kept them both warm, and also gave opportunities for more than sleeping.
Ellie sighed. No matter how hard she tried, it was impossible to stay mad at Kyle. The mischievous gleam in those sparkling, hazel eyes always made her smile. “That's true.”
“Let's not worry about unpacking right now. I could use a hot shower.” Kyle put her hands on Ellie's hips. “And maybe some beautiful woman to scrub my back?”
Heat filled Ellie's face. Although they had been living together for over three months, she still couldn't figure out what Kyle saw in her. She considered herself plain: brown hair, brown eyes and no figure to speak of, there had to be other women that should have caught the mechanic's eye. But for some reason, Kyle only had eyes for her. “Let me check my voicemail for anything important, then I'll be right there.” She kissed Kyle lightly on the lips.
“The messages can wait.” Kyle tugged on Ellie's belt. “That reminds me. Tomorrow, we need to get you a new cell phone. Who knew they didn't bounce?”
Ellie laughed and hugged her. “I doubt anything would bounce from that height. It was my fault, anyway. You told me to leave it in my backpack. I was just curious if there'd be a signal that high up.” She unbuckled Kyle's belt. “Maybe I'll be like you, and not carry a cell.”
“No way.” Kyle unbuttoned Ellie's shirt as she was backed into the bedroom. “I worry about you enough as it is, driving that old clunker. I don't want you stranded somewhere without a way to call for help.”
The flannel shirt hit the floor, quickly followed by Kyle's denim top. Ellie playfully shoved her lover onto the bed and straddled her hips. “Enough about phones. So,” she opened the blonde's shorts and popped the elastic on the red satin bikinis, “how dirty are you?”
Kyle raised her hips as her cargo shorts were pulled down. “Guess you'll just have to find out.” She laughed when the shorts became tangled in her hiking boots. “Need some help?”
“No,” Ellie growled. She wrestled with the shorts, finally jerking them free of Kyle's boots with a victorious yell. “Ha!” Her grin faded as she toppled backward off the bed. “Aaaah!” A heavy thump came from the wood floor.
“Ellie?” Kyle sat up. “El?”
“Ugh.” Elle looked up at the ceiling, which seemed to be spinning. “Huh.”
Kyle rolled and peeked over the edge of the bed. Her lover was lying flat on her back, still holding the shorts. “Baby? Are you all right?”
“Ow.” Ellie blinked and tried to focus her eyes. “Not tonight, I've got a headache.” She tried to get up, but decided against it. “Kyle?”
“I don't feel so good.” Ellie put on hand on her head and closed her eyes.
Huddled in the chilly waiting room, Kyle rubbed her bare legs. “I should have changed into jeans. This place is an ice box.” She stood and walked to the window, peering at the late night, brightly-lit parking lot. “Stupid.” Her denim shirt was buttoned crookedly and as she hugged herself she wished she had remembered her jacket. She turned in time to see the disgusted look from the only other occupant in the area, a middle-aged woman wrapped in a heavy overcoat. “What?”
The woman lowered her gaze and ignored her.
“Whatever.” Kyle turned away from the windows and paced across the room. She looked up as a nurse came into the waiting area, but sighed as she stopped and spoke quietly to the other woman. “Damn.”
It had been over an hour since she had brought Ellie into the emergency room. Her lover had feebly argued as she bundled her up, but gave in when Kyle had to hold her while she threw up in the hedges by their garage. Now Kyle was left waiting for word about Ellie's condition. She had considered calling Ellie's cousin, Lex, but decided to wait until she had something definitive to tell her. Besides, the rancher intimidated the hell out of her. It wasn't only her height, but her complete demeanor. Although Lex was always friendly toward her, her quiet stare seemed to look completely through Kyle.
“Uh, ma'am?” A young woman came through the emergency doors and stopped a few feet away from Kyle. “Are you here for Miss Gordon?”
Kyle nodded. “Yes. Is she all right?”
“Are you family?”
“Yes,” Kyle answered without pause.
The nurse cocked her head and stared at her for a moment. “Follow me, please.” She led Kyle through the emergency doors and down a quiet hallway, before stopping by a partially-closed door. “Exam room four.”
“Thank you.” Kyle tapped lightly on the door and entered. Two women stood by the bed, one on each side. One wore green scrubs and a lab coat, while the other wore a pair of navy scrub pants and a brightly decorated top. “Excuse me? I was told—” Kyle paused when her eyes met those of her lover. “El?”
Ellie was propped up in bed, her eyes partially closed in pain. She did her best to glare at the physician. “I'm fine.”
“Now, Ellie,” the doctor admonished, “as a nurse yourself, you know how cautious we have to be with head injuries. A concussion is a serious matter.”
“I know, doctor. But I think I could rest just as well at home.” Ellie turned to Kyle, who moved quickly to the side of the bed. “Kyle, this is Dr. Borden. She's covered at Rodney's office in the past. Just my luck she was the doctor working the emergency room tonight.”
Kyle shook hands with the middle-aged woman. “Nice to meet you, doctor. What's the verdict?”
“As I was just telling Ellie, we'd like to keep her overnight for observation. It's standard procedure for a concussion.”
Ellie's expression darkened. “And as I was telling the good doctor, I'll be fine at home.”
Kyle put her hand on Ellie's shoulder. “I know you want to go home, but maybe you should listen to her. That's a pretty good-sized knot on the back of your head.”
“Whose side are you on?” Ellie grumbled.
“Yours, of course.” Kyle leaned closer and lowered her voice. “Baby, please do as the doc says. You scared the crap out of me tonight.” She took Ellie's hand in both of hers. “Do this for me, please?”
Ellie sighed. “You don't play fair.”
“Never have,” Kyle agreed happily. “Do you want me to run home and get you anything?”
“No, that's okay. I think I can survive one night here.” Ellie yawned. “Sorry.”
Dr. Borden turned to Kyle. “If you don't mind returning to the waiting area, I'll have a nurse come get you once we get her settled in a room.”
“Sure, doctor. Thank you.” Kyle shook the doctor's hand again and nodded to the nurse. “Thanks for taking care of her.”
Kyle walked into the waiting room and stared at the bank of pay phones on the far wall. It was after midnight and she warred with herself over calling her lover's family. “Damn it.” She dug in her pockets for change and headed for the phones.
Amanda, spooned against her wife, buried her head deeper into Lex's back when she heard the phone ring. “It's on your side,” she mumbled.
Lex groaned and picked up the receiver. “Walters. What?” She sat up and flicked on the bedside light. “Slow down, Kyle.”
“What is it?” Amanda asked as she sat up and rubbed her eyes.
“It's Kyle. Something about Ellie being in the hospital.” Lex climbed out of bed and reached for her jeans. “Where? All right. I'll be there as soon as I—what?” She stood in the middle of the bedroom. “Are you sure? Okay. I'll see you tomorrow. Thanks for letting us know.”
Amanda adjusted her nightgown and waited until Lex returned to bed. “Honey?”
Lex put the phone back on its base and dropped onto the bed. “After they got home this evening, Ellie fell. Kyle took her to the emergency room.”
“Oh, no. Is she okay?” Amanda rubbed Lex's back.
“She has a concussion, so they're keeping her overnight.” Lex braced her elbows on her knees and rested her face in her hands. “Damn.”
Amanda put her arms around her. “But she's going to be all right, isn't she?”
“Yeah. I figure I can go over tomorrow and see them.”
“ We will go over and see them,” Amanda corrected gently.
Lex turned and nodded. “Right.” She put her arms around her wife. “Never a dull moment, is there?”
“Not since I've met you,” Amanda agreed. She rolled onto her back and brought Lex with her. “Maybe I should explain the family curse to Kyle.”
“Curse?” Lex leaned over her wife. “What curse?”
Amanda ran her finger over the small scar that bisected Lex's right eyebrow. “The one where you always seem to have a bruise, cut, broken bone, or some other injury. And from what Martha tells me, it's been a lifelong thing with you.”
Lex snorted. “Martha exaggerates.”
“Right.” Amanda poked a bruise on Lex's arm, where a horse had recently nipped her.
“Exaggerates, huh?” Amanda's victorious grin disappeared when Lex pinned her hands over her head. “Umm, honey?”
Amanda squirmed as Lex took her time unbuttoning the front of her nightgown. “Umm…the door's open.”
Lex grinned. “Then you'll have to be extra quiet then, won't you?”
“You know damned good and well how loud I—” Amanda's mouth slammed shut as she felt gentle lips work their way down her throat, stopping in a very sensitive place. “Oooh.”
The next morning, Ellie was grateful for her lover's arm that was hooked around her waist, as they moved from the car to the duplex. Her head was killing her. The nausea was a little better, but the dizziness made it hard for her to walk. She leaned heavily against Kyle, thankful for her sturdy strength.
Kyle unlocked their door. “Almost there, baby.”
“Thanks.” Ellie stumbled against the door frame. “Damnit.” Her head spun for another reason when she was scooped into Kyle's arms. “Put me down before you hurt yourself.”
“Give me a break. I've carried heavier car parts than you.” Kyle kicked the door closed and took her precious cargo to the bedroom, gently placing Ellie on the bed. “See? Nothing to it.” She removed her lover's shoes and tugged on the sweatpants she had brought Ellie to change into at the hospital. “What about these?”
Ellie struggled to open her eyes. “Leave ‘em. I can't seem to get warm.” She couldn't help but smile as Kyle slowly took off her coat and tucked her under the covers. “Thanks.”
“What's that smile for?”
“You're really sweet,” Ellie murmured as she closed her eyes. “I love you.”
Kyle sat on the bed beside her and stroked Ellie's face. “I love you too, El. Get some rest, okay?”
“Mmm.” Ellie leaned into the touch as she drifted off to sleep.
With her hand tucked around Lex's arm, Amanda snuggled close as they walked toward the duplex. “How exactly did Ellie hurt her head?”
“Kyle didn't say.” Lex stopped at the front door. “I'd also like to know why Ellie never returned any of my calls. It's not like her.”
“I'm sure she has a perfectly good explanation.” Amanda pushed the doorbell. “You did call and tell them we were coming, didn't you?”
Lex shook her head. “I thought you did.”
“No, I didn't. I was busy getting Eddie over to Martha's, remember? Maybe we should come back later.”
“Hell, it's almost noon. I'm sure—”
The door opened and a bleary-eyed Kyle poked her head out. “Hey.” Her shirt was wrinkled and her shorts were zipped, but not buttoned. She rubbed the top of her head. “What time is it?” It was more than apparent that she had just woken up.
“We're sorry about just dropping in, but I thought Lex called, and she thought I had. Go back to bed, and we'll stop by later.”
“No, no. That's all right.” Kyle opened the door wider. “Come on in. I must have dozed off while I was keeping an eye on El.” She led them into the living room. “Can I get y'all anything?”
Lex sat beside her wife on the sofa. “We're fine, right, sweetheart?”
“Yes.” Amanda leaned against Lex without thinking, as a long arm stretched across her shoulders. “How's Ellie?”
Kyle played with a button that was coming off one of the pockets of her cargo shorts. “The doctor said she'd be fine. She's been resting since we got home from the hospital this morning. She was able to eat some toast, but threatened to throw the scrambled eggs at me.”
Amanda laughed. “Don't feel bad, it's hereditary.” She poked Lex. “Right, honey?”
“I don't know what you're talking about.” Lex took Amanda's hand and lightly stroked her knuckles. “So, what time did y'all get in?”
“Just before nine, last night.” Kyle scooted forward in her chair until she was on the edge. “We would have called to let you know, but I was afraid the kids were already asleep.”
Amanda squeezed Lex's hand before pulling hers away. “Would it be okay if I checked on Ellie? I won't bother her.”
“Sure. She's in the bedroom.” Kyle checked the digital display on the cable box. “As a matter of fact, could you wake her so she can take her meds? She's a little overdue.”
“Of course.” After standing, Amanda patted Lex's arm. “Be back in a few.”
Once Amanda was out of the room, Lex turned to the mechanic. “Did Ellie not check her messages on her phone while you were gone? Or were you not able to get a signal down there?”
“Yeah, well, that's kind of a funny story,” Kyle started, with a chuckle. At the serious stare she received, her smile faded. “What? You act like someone died.”
Lex's face looked stricken.
“Lex?” Kyle shook her head. “What?”
Kyle leaned toward Lex who sat silently on the sofa. “What's going on?”
“I'm sorry.” Lex slowly rubbed her hands on her jeans before answering and gazed sadly at Kyle. “The day after Christmas, Amanda's grandfather, Jacob, passed away.” She took a deep breath and released it slowly. “It's been a little rough since then.”
“Oh, my god. I'm so sorry, Lex. Ellie's going to be devastated. She considered Jacob another grandfather.” Kyle joined Lex on the sofa and put her hand on Lex's knee. “I had no idea. We were climbing on Christmas morning, and Ellie's phone fell about two hundred feet.” When she realized where her hand was, she quickly moved it away. “Uh, anyway, it's my fault. I should have gone to the park office and checked in every day, but I honestly didn't think about it. I'm sorry.”
Lex shook her head. “No, I'm the one who's sorry. I should have contacted the park and had a message delivered, but it never dawned on me. It's over and done. Not much we can do about it now.” She slapped her thighs. “How about we get some coffee? I think we all could use some.”
“Sounds like a good idea.”
Amanda pushed the bedroom door open and stepped inside. There was enough light coming in through the window blinds to see, but not enough to disturb the woman snuggled in bed. She stepped lightly on the wood floor and was surprised when Ellie turned toward her. “Hi,” she whispered. “How are you feeling?”
“Ugh.” Ellie struggled to sit up. “Amanda? What are you doing here?”
“We came by to check on you.” Amanda sat on the edge of the bed and touched Ellie's arm. “If I hadn't thought you were related to Lex before, getting a concussion at home is a sure way to prove it.”
Ellie chuckled and winced. “Ow. Don't make me laugh, it hurts.”
“How did you manage to hurt yourself, anyway? Did you slip in the shower?”
Amanda watched as Ellie's face turned a deep red. “What?”
Ellie covered her face. “Oh, god.”
“Oh, come on, it can't be that bad. It's not like you and Kyle were,” Amanda stopped. “You're kidding me! How can you get a concussion doing that?”
“I wanna die,” Ellie muttered.
Unable to help herself, Amanda began to giggle. “Really? What happened? Come on, you've got to tell me, or I'll be thinking of all sorts of kinky things.”
“Geez.” The dark-haired woman picked up a pillow and put it over her head. “I'm not here.”
Amanda tugged at the pillow until she got it away from Ellie. “Let's hear it, sunshine. How did you hurt yourself?”
“You're going to laugh.”
“Probably,” Amanda agreed. “Tell.”
“IwashelpingKylewithhershortsandIfellbackwardsoffthebed,” Ellie rushed out in a single breath.
Although she only caught about every third word, Amanda understood. “Ouch.” She reached for Ellie's head. “I'm glad you weren't more seriously hurt.”
“You're not going to tell Lex, are you? She'll never let me live it down.”
Amanda got off the bed. “Like I can keep a secret from her? I'm sorry, Ellie. But I'll tell her not to pick on you…too much.” She picked up a pill bottle from the nightstand. “I'm supposed to get you to take your medication.”
Ellie took the pill and drank deeply from the glass of water from her side of the bed. “Thanks.” She sat back against the headboard and closed her eyes. “So, did you and Lex survive the kids over the Christmas break? Or were you ready to kill them?”
“Uh.” Amanda covered her mouth with her hand. “Something happened the day after Christmas, Ellie.”
When she saw the tears in Amanda's eyes, Ellie leaned forward. “Oh, no. Are the kids—”
Amanda shook her head. “No, the children are all right. But, my grandfather,” her voice broke, “Grandpa Jake passed away.”
“What? No!” The grief overwhelmed Ellie and she fell into Amanda's arms, as they both cried.
On the other side of town, another woman thought about Jacob. Anna Leigh removed a shirt from the closet she had shared with her husband. She brought the soft fabric to her nose, unable to detect even the slightest scent of him. She carefully folded the shirt and placed it on top of the others on her bed. “I may never forgive you, Jacob.” She shook her head. “No, that's not true. I could never stay angry with you, love.”
She removed a pair of slacks from the closet. “Perhaps I should have allowed Lois to help, after all. This is so much more difficult than I had imagined.”
The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs caused her to turn and face the doorway. For a moment, she allowed herself the fantasy of Jacob returning from his shop. A smile crept onto her face as she anxiously watched the doorway.
“Mom? Are you up here?” Michael poked his head around the doorway. “Oh. There you are. I knocked on the door for five minutes when you didn't answer the doorbell.”
Anna Leigh's face fell, but she covered up her disappointment by folding the slacks and adding them to the stack. “Your father was supposed to fix that.” She turned away from him so that he wouldn't see the tears in her eyes. “What brings you by today?”
“I was on my way to lunch and thought I'd see how you're doing.” He stopped when he saw the stack of clothes on the bed. “What's going on?”
“I'm gathering your father's clothes to donate.” She placed another folded pair of pants on the bed. “Reverend Hampton is sending someone over to pick them up this afternoon.”
Michael grabbed her arm. “Mom, wait. You don't have to do this now.”
“Of course I do. There are several needy families right here in Somerville who could use these things.” She pulled her arm away and turned toward the closet. “Since you're here, would you mind clearing out Jacob's shop? I promised the high school that I would donate his woodworking tools and inventory.”
“Have you lost your mind? Do you have any idea how much that stuff is worth?”
Anna Leigh glared at him. “I'm not a feeble old woman, Michael. Of course I know.”
“Then how can you do that?” He gestured to the clothes stacked neatly on the bed. “How can you do this? It's like you're trying to get rid of anything that reminds you of Dad. Next thing you'll be telling me is that you want to sell the house.”
“Well, not immediately, but—”
He tossed his hands into the air. “What the hell?” At her look, he shook his head. “Mom, please. Think about this. You don't have to clear everything out this very minute. When it's time, I can help you.”
“I believe I just asked you to help.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Michael, I'm perfectly capable of making these decisions. Hanging onto Jacob's things won't bring him back. But I can help other people by donating what I don't need. Don't you understand?”
“No, not really.” He held up his hands in front of him. “I can't, Mom. Don't ask me to go through his shop. I don't think he would agree to what you're doing.”
She spun away from the closet and pinned him with a vicious glare. “How dare you!”
“How dare you stand there and tell me what my own husband would say, or do. I believe I know Jacob better than you ever will.” She stepped closer and poked him in the chest. “For your information, he told me years ago that he wanted his workshop donated to the high school. But you didn't bother to ask. You just assumed I was doing it out of some misplaced grief.” She glanced at the neat piles of clothing on the bed. “As a matter of fact, it's all spelled out in his will.”
Michael leaned against the doorframe and sighed. “He had a will? Who's the executor?”
“We both have wills. And our lawyer is the executor. I thought you knew that.”
“No, Dad never said anything to me.” He pushed off the doorframe and flipped through the stacks of clothes. “Are you getting rid of all of his things?”
Anna Leigh sighed. “Of course not. Only the excess. Why? Is there anything you would like to have?”
He shrugged, looking much like the little boy she and her husband had raised. “I dunno.”
“Michael.” When he didn't respond, she softened her voice. “Dearest, please. This is a horrible time for us all.” Anna Leigh touched his forearm, grasping it when he didn't pull away. “As much as I love you, I cannot tolerate you trying to take over for me. I'm a grown woman who is fully in control of her facilities. Just because I'm grieving over the loss of your father, doesn't mean I need you to handle things.”
“I know, Mom.” Michael rubbed his eyes. “But I'm trying to help you.”
She put her arm around his waist and hugged him. “If I ask, it's help. If you bulldoze in and take over, it's annoying and unnecessary.”
Michael laughed. “Yeah, I know. Lois tells me the same thing.” He kissed the side of her head. “As much as I want to, I don't know if I can go into his shop. The memories are just too strong.”
“As are mine, dearest. But don't worry, I'll see if Lexington can help me. She never spent much time in the shop, so perhaps it won't be as bad for her. But I'd really like to get the tools and things to the high school before they let out for summer.”
“I understand.” Michael put both arms around her and held her close. “I love you, Mom. Don't worry, we'll get through this.”
She rested her check against his chest, holding back a sob. As much as she wanted to believe him, Anna Leigh knew deep in her heart that she'd never get over her loss.
Cold wind rattled the barn door, causing two of the horses to whinny and snort. Lorrie looked up from the halter she was working on and frowned. “Ugh. I hate winter.” Although it was the beginning of February, the ranch had been barraged by sleet and cold rain for the last month. On one hand, the precipitation was welcome, due to the drought of the previous year. On the other, softball practices had been postponed indefinitely.
Lorrie spent a lot of time alone, either in her room or the barns. Everything made her mad lately, and she got tired of getting into trouble for her attitude. Melanie seemed to look for ways to aggravate her, at least in her mind. She kicked her heels against the bale of hay she sat on. “Stupid Mel.” She tightened a strap on the halter. “Come here, Snow.”
“Maaaa.” The goat stood in the middle of the barn.
“Snow, I mean it. Come here.” Lorrie stood and held out her empty hand. “Come on.”
The goat trotted close and sniffed her fingers.
Lorrie carefully put the red halter over the goat's head. It began to back up. “Stop it.” She checked the fit and scratched the goat behind the ear. “See? That's not so bad.”
The barn door opened, blowing a chill inside. Shelby stopped just inside and took off her cowboy hat. “Hey, Lorrie.”
“Hi, Miz Shelby.” Lorrie led Snow to the stall that was hers and put her inside. “Behave yourself, Snow. I'll be back in the morning, okay?” She rubbed the kid's nose before she closed the stall door. When she turned around, she saw Shelby take off her coat. “Whatcha doing?”
“I'm going to check all the horse's hooves to see how many need new shoes. Would you like to help?” The farrier was due out in a week, and she had volunteered to handle the count.
Lorrie brightened. “Can I? What do I have to do?”
Shelby laughed and tugged her leather gloves from her rear pocket. “Would you mind writing the name of the horse and the condition of the shoes?” she took a small notebook out of her shirt pocket and tossed it to Lorrie. “It would sure save me a mess of time.”
“Thanks.” Shelby opened the first stall. “Hello there, Stormy.” She slowly ran her hand down the front left leg and leaned into the horse. “Come on, you stubborn old thing.” Once the pony realized what she was doing, Stormy patiently allowed Shelby to check all four hooves. She patted Stormy on the shoulder before leaving the stall. “Looks like her right rear hoof could use a new shoe.”
Lorrie nodded and wrote the information in the notebook. “Can I ask you something, Miz Shelby?”
Shelby entered Mine's stall. “Sure. What's up?” She checked the mare's hooves carefully.
“Umm, well. Do you like doing this?”
“This?” Shelby's hand ran across the bottom of a shoe. “Counting horseshoes?”
“No, not that.” Lorrie leaned against the stall and rested her chin on a board. “Working on a ranch.”
Shelby shrugged. “It's a living. Why?”
“I dunno. Just wonderin'.” Lorrie turned away and leaned her back against the stall. “Did you always want to be a cowgirl?”
After she put Mine's foot down, Shelby stepped out of the stall. “To tell you the truth, I never thought about it, one way or the other. I was born into the rodeo life and it was all I knew. I'm pretty good around animals, so it's a good job.” She followed Lorrie across the barn, where they both sat on bales of hay. “Do you like it here?”
Lorrie looked at her scuffed boots. “I love my parents. And Mada and Pawpaw.” She picked at the hay. “But I don't know if I want to live here all my life.”
“Well,” Shelby drawled slowly, “you ain't about to graduate or anything, are you?”
The comment made Lorrie laugh. “No.”
Shelby nodded. “Then I reckon you don't have to worry none about it right now.” She stretched her legs out and crossed her ankles. “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“Not this.” Lorrie sighed. “But Momma will probably want me to take over the ranch.” She mimicked Shelby's posture and crossed her feet the same way. “I want to be a professional softball player. I think I could be good enough.”
“From the way your Mom talks, I think you could, too. Anything else?”
Lorrie took a piece of hay and chewed on the end. “I thought about being a vet, like Uncle Ronnie. But I don't know if I want to go to school for that long.” She turned and looked at Shelby. “Did you like school?”
“I'm ashamed to say I didn't get a chance to like it. If it weren't for Rebecca, I wouldn't even have my GED. I gave my aunt a hard time and didn't finish school.”
“Oh.” Lorrie considered that for a moment. “How come? Did your parents not help you?”
Shelby took off her gloves and placed them on the hay beside her. “My parents were rodeo bums, Lorrie. My mom left when I was a kid, and my dad was killed while he rode a bull. I got sent to live with my aunt, and gave her a load of hell. I ran off as soon as I could and rejoined the rodeo, ‘cause I didn't have enough sense to do anything else.”
“Wow. That's bad. Are you sorry you did?”
“Yeah.” Shelby removed her hat and twisted it around in her hands. “Listen, kid. You can do whatever you put your mind to. But do your parents a favor, and talk to them. Don't let all these bad feelings fester up inside until it ruins you.” She stood and put her hat on. “But if you ever need to try it out on someone first, I'll be glad to listen.”
Lorrie threw the hay stalk down and got up. “Thanks, Miz Shelby.”
Shelby nodded. “How about you just call me Shelby? I reckon you're old enough.”
“Really?” Lorrie walked over to her and held out her hand, like she'd seen Lex do to seal a deal. “Thanks, Shelby.” For the first time in several months, everything felt right in Lorrie's world.
The sleet stuck to the windshield of the Jeep and the condensation gathered inside, making it almost impossible to see the muddy road. Lex used the sleeve of her coat to wipe the glass in front of her. “A week ago, it was almost seventy degrees,” she grumbled. “What's up with this damned weather?”
Roy was busy wiping the window on his side. “Your guess is as good as mine, Lex. All I know is that the trees are so heavily iced that they keep falling and destroying the fence. I brought in four guys just to help with repairs.”
“Yeah, and yet we're still out here.” She put both hands on the wheel as the vehicle started to slide off the road. “Damn it.” Once it was under control she glanced at Roy. “Are you in as much trouble as I am, for going out in this?”
“More.” He pointed to a break in the trees ahead. “There's the marker that Jack left. He's on the west perimeter with Chet, repairing the fence by the highway.”
Lex nodded and cut through the trees. “So we get to play around near the creek, instead.”
As the Jeep cleared the trees, Lex groaned at the sight that greeted them. At least twenty feet of fence was crushed beneath fallen trees. She parked as close to the fence as possible. “This is gonna take all day.” She stepped out of the jeep and adjusted her hat so that her face was as protected as possible.
Roy followed suit and was soon standing beside her, surveying the damage. “You know, we'll probably be able to salvage most of the fencing.”
“I was thinking the same thing. All we have to do is set new posts and attach the fence to them. But clearing the damn trees off will take most of the day.”
“You want the chainsaw or the ax?” Roy asked, as he opened the back hatch of the jeep.
Lex joined him. “Your choice. We can switch off later.”
He handed her the chainsaw. “I'll check the other side and make sure we don't have any cattle around the creek.”
“Chicken.” Lex followed him to the downed fence. “Watch your step, Roy. I don't want to be fishing you out of the creek. It's too damn cold to be swimming.”
Roy waved at her and carefully navigated over the fallen fence. He headed away from the fence and down the slope toward the creek.
Lex shook her head and pulled on the chainsaw's cord three times before it started. She meticulously cut the first fallen tree into manageable pieces, using well-placed kicks to move the limbs out of her way. She shut off the chainsaw and looked around, not seeing her foreman. “Roy? Where are you?” With her ears still ringing from the loud saw, she set it on the tree stump. “Hey, Roy! I'm not going to do this all by myself,” she yelled.
Her only answer was the sound of sleet hitting her hat and the ground around her. “Damn it. I'd like to get this finished before nightfall,” she grumbled, as she followed his footprints toward the creek. “Roy?” she yelled.
Lex stopped just short of the swiftly running creek. “Where?” She squinted against the sleet and rain as she scanned along the creek bank. “Roy?”
“Down here,” he yelled.
She looked toward the sound of his voice, finally spotting him about twenty yards downstream from her position.
Thigh-deep in the cold water, Roy had his arms around the neck of a calf, trying to keep its head above water. His back was against a pile of debris that consisted of trash and brush, but he looked as if he was losing the battle with the water.
Lex cursed under her breath and ran toward him, sliding as her boots hit patches of slick mud. “Get out of there, you idiot,” she yelled from the bank.
“I'm already drenched,” he argued. “Are you gonna stand up there and yell at me, or help?”
“Can you hang on long enough for me to get a rope?” When he nodded, Lex wasted no time racing up the rise. She stumbled several times, but climbed to her feet and continued as quickly as possible.
At the Jeep, she removed her hat and duster and left them on the seat, then gathered both of their ropes. “Amanda's going to kick my ass for sure.” She steeled herself against the cold rain and hurried back to the creek.
Roy slipped beneath the water as the calf struggled to break free. The calf kicked its legs as it thrashed around. Roy felt a sharp pain in his right leg as he broke the surface of the freezing water. “Stay still, you stupid thing. I'm trying to help you!”
The calf reared and squalled, taking Roy under the water again. He felt a strong grip under his arms and was pulled free of the swirling water. Gasping for breath, he coughed. “Thanks.”
Lex held him against her chest. “Have you lost your damned mind? No calf is worth you drowning over,” she yelled over the sound of the sleet and water. When she saw Roy go beneath the water, she tossed the ropes on the creek bank and jumped in, heedless of the cold.
“I know that. But I don't have a lot of choice at the moment. My damned leg is hung on something. Probably the same thing the calf is caught on.”
“Crap. All right, let me see if I can get you loose.” Lex took a deep breath and dropped to her knees. Her head dipped beneath the water and she almost inhaled at the frigid shock.
She kept her eyes closed against the muddy water and ran her hands down Roy's legs. Near the bottom of the creek, she felt his boot wedged in a tangle of tree branches. She tugged on his leg as hard as she could, but couldn't pull him free. As her lungs began to burn, she popped her head above the water. “Damn it!”
Lex coughed and shook her head. “Hang in there. I'll get it next time.” She inhaled and exhaled several times and ducked beneath the water again. Using he hands, she followed the same path and began to tug on his boot. The calf continued to struggle and suddenly Lex felt Roy's hand grab her shirt and pull her up. She broke the surface and gagged on the muddy water. “What the hell did you do that for? I almost had it.”
Roy had his face buried against the neck of the calf. He raised his head. “S…s…sorry,” he gasped. “I felt it,” he swallowed hard, “grind together.”
“I think my leg's broken,” he finally choked out. “Hurts something fierce.”
Lex frowned. “Where?”
“Right below my knee.”
“Fuck!” Lex wiped the hair out of her eyes. “Let go of the calf, Roy. It's not worth it.”
He shook his head. “I can't. The blasted thing's the only reason I'm still upright.”
“All right. I'm going to try and get it loose first. Maybe it'll help pull you free.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “It's gonna hurt like hell.”
“I know.” He tightened his grip on the calf and lowered his head. “Go ahead.”
Lex patted his back and ducked beneath the water again. With renewed energy, she found where the calf's leg was caught in a small strand of barbed wire. Her hands were nearly numb from the cold water as she worked to pull the animal free.
With a final, painful tug, the calf's rear leg slipped from the wire. In its haste to get away, the calf kicked with its front feet, knocking Lex away.
In shock, Lex sucked in a mouthful of muddy water. She stood on shaky legs and held her right arm as she coughed.
Roy released his hold on the calf and watched as it swam toward the shore. “Crazy thing.” He grimaced as he saw Lex's arm hanging limply. “What happened?”
“I think,” Lex coughed and spit into the water, “the damned thing kicked a nerve, or something. I can't feel much or move it.” With her good hand, she removed her knife from the leather holster on her belt. “I'll try not to get you, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut your boot off.”
His eyes widened before he nodded. “Better than staying here all day.” He watched as she tried to open the knife with one hand. “Let me help.”
Lex handed him the knife. “Thanks.” She took it back after it was opened. “Good thing I'm left-handed, huh?”
“Yeah.” Roy gritted his teeth to keep them from chattering. “At this point, I wouldn't care if you cut my foot off.”
“I'll try not to do that.” Lex took a deep breath and disappeared underwater.
As he felt his leg being pulled, Roy bit his lip to keep from screaming. The grinding of the bones made him nauseous and he began to see dark spots swimming across his vision. Another powerful tug on his lower leg and he felt it come free.
Lex popped up out of the water, her knife in her teeth. She put her good arm around Roy to keep him from falling.
“Thanks.” With a shaky hand, he took the knife out of her mouth. “Thank god the water's not that deep.”
“Yeah.” She spit off to the side. “Think you'll be okay if I drag you to shore?”
“Don't have much choice.”
Lex put her good arm under his and across his chest. “Try to let your leg just float, if you can.” She slowly walked backward toward the creek bank and tried to ignore Roy's pained groans. “Sorry.”
“S'alright,” he gasped. The rushing water beat against his leg and the continued pain was too much for Roy to bear. He was unconscious before they arrived on the bank of the creek.
Once they were clear of the water, Lex fell back against the muddy bank. She panted and raised her face to the sky. With her mouth open, she caught as much of the icy rain as she could and spit several times. “God, that creek water's nasty. How're you doing, Roy?” When he didn't answer, she turned his head so that she could see his face. Blood ran down his chin from where he had bitten his lip to keep from crying out. “Damn.”
Now shivering violently from the cold, Lex wriggled until she was out from underneath Roy. She tried to use her right arm to pull herself away, but the sharp pain was too much. “We're a mess.” She dug her heels into the mud and used her legs to slip away from the unconscious man. She knelt beside him and patted his cheek. “Come on, Roy. I can't carry you up to the Jeep.”
Roy groaned and blinked his eyes open. “What—”
“We've got a problem.” Lex tried to lean over him and block the worst of the sleet.
She shook her head. “You can't walk like that, and there's no way I can get you up to the Jeep.”
He closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. “Leave me here and go get some help, then.”
“That's another part of the problem,” Lex said. Her right arm hung limply at her side. “I can't drive the Jeep with this arm.” The old standard-shift was hard enough to handle on a good day. Without her right arm to shift, there was no way Lex could drive.
Lex struggled to her feet. “Let me run get my phone out of my coat.” Her face paled as her injured arm swung away from her body. “Maybe I'll walk.”
Roy carefully rose to a sitting position. “You're not looking too good there.”
“No, I'm okay.” Lex swallowed the bile that rose in her throat and tried to keep from passing out. “Hang in there, and I'll be back as soon as I can.” She slowly headed for the Jeep, silently praying that she wouldn't pass out before she called for help.
It seemed like forever, but Lex reached the Jeep within fifteen minutes. She opened the door and tried to pick up her duster with her right hand. “Fuck!” Her head spun and she thought she was going to pass out. Instead, she turned away from the Jeep and threw up, which brought more pain to her injured arm. She rested her forehead against the top of the vehicle and struggled to take deep, calming breaths.
When she was fairly certain she would remain standing, Lex grabbed her coat, the blanket they kept in the back for emergencies and headed back to Roy. As she walked, she flipped open her phone and hit the speed dial.
The familiar voice was like a balm to her nerves. “Rocking W Ranch, Martha speaking.”
“Martha? Where's Amanda?” Lex asked, as she tried very hard not to slip down the bank of the creek.
“Hello, Lexie. Nice to talk to you, too,” Martha quipped.
Lex stumbled but kept on her feet. “Sorry. Do you know if any of the guys have made it back, yet?”
“Not that I'm aware of, honey. Do you really need to speak to Amanda? She's giving Eddie a bath.”
“Uh, I guess not. Damn it!” Lex stumbled over an ice-covered clump of weeds and fell to one knee. She dropped her coat and the blanket and grasped her injured arm. “Fuck!”
“Lexington Marie!” Martha scolded. She paused, but didn't get the expected apology. “What's going on? Where are you?”
Lying back in the mud, Lex closed her eyes against the sleet that continued to fall. “Could you please send someone to the north trail that heads to the creek? Roy and I need some help getting back to the house.”
“Lordy, girl. What have you done now?”
“Can I explain it later? It's freezing out here and I'd really like to get Roy back where it's warm.” Lex climbed to her knees, then to her feet. She had the blanket and coat over her shoulder. “If they're not sure where we're at, have them talk to Chet. He's the one that found the ruined fence.”
Martha could be heard on the radio. “Base to Chet, do you read?”
As she listened to Martha handle things, Lex knelt beside Roy, who had his eyes closed. “Hey, take off your coat and put mine on.”
Roy opened his eyes. “I can't take your coat,” he argued, while he struggled to unbutton his soaked barn jacket.
“I sure as hell can't put it on. Not with this damned arm.”
“Yeah, I didn't think of that.” He gratefully accepted her heavy coat. “Thanks.”
Lex sat next to him and held her phone closer to her ear. “I'm sorry, Martha. What was that?”
“I couldn't reach Chet, but Charlie said he'd be glad to come.”
“We're going to need more than Charlie. I think Roy's got a broken leg, and we're down by the creek.” Lex braced herself for the explosion, and Martha didn't disappoint.
“A broken leg? I swear, you can find trouble in a church, Lexie.”
Lex sighed. “Yeah, I know. You can chew me out later, okay? But it's going to take more than me and Charlie to get Roy back to the house.”
“All right. I'll see who else I can scrounge up. You hang in there, honey.”
After she closed her phone, Lex tucked it into the front pocket of her jeans. “Martha's gathering the cavalry, Roy.” With his help, she was able to get the wet blanket around her shoulders. “Thanks.”
He patted the ground beside him. “Don't be shy, Boss. Maybe we can share your monster of a coat.”
Lex laughed at him and edged closer. “Best offer I've had all afternoon.” She put her good arm around his shoulder and leaned into him.
To be continued in Part 4
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