To Hold Forever
By Carrie Carr
Disclaimers – See Part One.
THE KNOCK ON the front door brought Jacob Cauble to the entry. He peered through the peephole and opened the door. "Well. To what do we owe this wonderful surprise?"
Amanda, carrying Lorrie, stepped into the house, followed by Martha, who carried the child’s bag. "Hi, Grandpa. I hope you don’t mind us invading you for a while."
"Of course not. You ladies are always welcome." He escorted them to the living room, and motioned for the three to sit. He noticed Amanda’s glum face. "What seems to be the matter, honey?"
Amanda was about to answer him when Anna Leigh breezed into the room. "Mandy, Martha. What a pleasure to see you." She scooped Lorrie out of Amanda’s arms and pulled her close, kissing the baby on the cheek. "My goodness. Look how much you’ve grown in just a weeks’ time." Anna Leigh proceeded to sit on a nearby chair and hold Lorrie on her lap. "Where’s Lexington?"
"That’s the question of the hour," Amanda grumbled. She crossed her arms over her chest and sank back against the sofa cushions.
Jacob raised his eyebrows at his granddaughter’s antics. "What’s that supposed to mean? Did you two have a fight?"
Martha decided to step in. "She and some of the hired hands are riding out with Charlie and his deputies, to try and find some escaped convicts."
"Surely she realizes how dangerous that could be." Anna Leigh allowed Lorrie to get off her lap.
The toddler raced over to Jacob and raised her arms. "Up." She giggled when he picked her up and raised her over his head.
Amanda brushed her hair out of her face. "Oh, she knows. She just has this idea in her head that she’s the only one who can help, and nothing I could say would change her mind."
"Honey, for once, I’ll have to agree with her reasoning." Martha patted Amanda’s leg. "She’s ridden that entire area her whole life. I think she knows every rock and tree."
"That’s no reason. She acted like she was almost excited at the prospect of playing posse. Doesn’t she realize she has a family to think of?"
Anna Leigh leaned forward in her chair. "Mandy, please. I’m sure that Lexington was thinking of her family. Why else would she go into that sort of situation?"
Amanda gave the question serious consideration. "Honestly? Lately she hasn’t been her usual self. It’s almost as if she’s not happy running the ranch, anymore."
"Maybe this is her way of trying something new," Martha added. "She’s almost thirty-four years old. And, if you remember, ranching wasn’t her first choice. It was pretty much thrust upon her."
"If she wanted a different job, she could have just said something. Not go traipsing around the woods, looking for men with guns."
Jacob bounced Lorrie on his knee, much to her delight. "Guns? You didn’t say anything about them being armed." He tried to keep his voice calm, so he wouldn’t frighten the little girl. "That does sound pretty irresponsible."
Martha fiddled with the diaper bag, until Amanda took it away from her. "I think what worries me the most, is that Lexie took a couple of guns with her. She’s not been comfortable with them for quite a few years. I don’t know the last time she used one." The fearful look on Amanda’s face caused her to amend her statement. "I shouldn’t have said that. Lexie has always been an excellent shot, and it’s not something she’s likely to forget."
"That well could be," Jacob admitted. He decided to change the subject. "How long can you stay? I was thinking about cooking up a batch of spaghetti this evening."
Amanda shifted in her seat. "If you don’t mind having us, I promised Lex we’d stay away from the ranch until those men are caught. She was worried about us being out there alone."
"We’d love for you to stay." Anna Leigh stood. "Mandy, why don’t I help you bring in your bags, and we can make up the guest rooms, while Martha and Jacob relax and chat? I’m sure he’ll enlist her in the dinner preparations."
Martha handed Jacob a small towel from Lorrie’s bag, since the little girl decided his wedding ring was perfect to teethe on. "That sounds wonderful. I’m sure we’ll do just fine together, won’t we, Jacob?"
"Of course, my dear. You’re always welcome in my kitchen." Jacob gladly took the towel and wiped the drool from the toddler’s chin. "We’ll let Mandy and Anna try to contain this one."
"That’s going to be a chore in itself," Amanda agreed, as she followed her grandmother out of the room. "I think they got the better end of the deal."
THE ANGRY MAN threw the dirt bike to the ground. "Whose brilliant idea was it to use these damn motorcycles?" He kicked one of the tires and shifted the rifle that was slung across his back.
"How was I supposed to know they didn’t have much gas in them, Ed? You liked the idea just fine a few hours ago." Gary, the second convict, had already left his empty cycle behind, and his denim shirt and jeans were covered in mud. He was able to jump from where he rode on the back of Ed’s bike, before it was dropped.
Ed wiped his hands on his jeans, which were in similar shape. "I don’t think it was me who said we should go through these woods. We’d have already been several counties away if we’d have stuck to the roads."
The third man drove up on his bike. "What’s the holdup, fellas?" He noticed the bike lying in the wet leaves and mud. "That thing get tired of hauling your asses around?"
"No. It ran out of gas, too." Gary, whose greasy red hair was plastered to his head, tucked his hands into his back pockets, careful not to disturb the twin guns draped over his shoulders. "Yours probably won’t last much longer, either."
"Tough. I’ll ride it until it’s dry. You two will just have to hoof it." Mack, the leader of the group, flashed the two others a wicked grin. "Just follow my tracks." He spun the bike around, causing it to throw clumps of mud at his comrades. His two guns were in scabbards tied to the motorcycle, which gave him the freedom to race away.
"Asshole!" Ed spat. He wiped his face and started walking. "Maybe we should find the nearest road and take a car."
Gary followed him. "Yeah, like someone’s going to stop when they see us. Even if we weren’t filthy, we still have numbers stenciled on our shirts." He listened as the sound of the motorcycle got weaker. "I hope he crashes when he runs out of gas."
"Me, too." Ed slipped on some dead leaves. "At least it’s not raining."
A LOUD CLAP of thunder caused the horse Charlie was riding to dance sideways. "Whoa, there." He pulled on the reins to get the animal under control. "Lex, do you breed these things to be contrary?"
"Of course not." Lex was in the lead. She had suggested they check along the southern fence, near the highway. She reasoned if they could find where the men had crossed into the woods, it would be easier to track them. Charlie had cursed himself for not thinking of the idea first. Jeremy, and one of her men, Jack, followed several lengths behind them. The others were paired off in groups of three, and were all taking positions further back. "Do you know any particulars about these guys? What exactly are we up against?"
"All I know is that the three of them are career criminals. Robbery, assault, you name it. I believe they were all in the same gang when they were younger." Charlie shifted in the saddle. His rear was already sore, even though they had only been out a few hours.
"City guys, then?" Lex adjusted the collar on her duster as it began to rain.
Charlie buttoned up his coat. "Yeah. Why do you ask?"
"Well, if they’re guys who have lived in the city all their lives, being out here in the boonies will really unsettle them. That should give us an edge."
He wasn’t surprised at her keen understanding of the situation. "You’re right. Now, tell me why you’re not wearing a uniform? Because you’ve got more common sense than about half my men."
"It’s not like it’s something I haven’t thought about before. You were always my hero when I was growing up, and following in your footsteps was one of my career choices." Lex wiped the rain from her face. "Unfortunately, my father had other ideas."
"I didn’t know." The longer Charlie was around Lex, the less he understood her. "You never said anything."
Lex shrugged. "What good would it have done? My life was already plotted out for me. I made do with what I was given."
"But, are you happy?"
She turned in the saddle so that she could give him her undivided attention. "Of course I am. I have a wonderful partner, a beautiful daughter, and the best family I could ask for. That’s enough to make anyone happy."
Charlie would not be deterred. "I’m not doubting that for a moment, Lex. But is ranching all that you want out of life?"
"It used to be." Up ahead, she could see where several of the metal fence posts were bent inward, bringing a small section of the fence to the ground. Glad for the interruption, Lex nudged her horse ahead to investigate. "I think we found it."
Charlie brought his horse along side of hers. They both came to a stop a few yards before the intrusion, to keep from ruining the tracks. "Nice job, Lex."
"Thanks." She swung down from the saddle and let the reins drop to the ground. Well trained, Thunder wouldn’t leave. Lex stood near the churned up ground. She turned to Charlie, who had tied up his horse and joined her. "Well, this explains why the fence was so messed up. It looks like they’re on motorcycles."
"That’s all we need. They’ll have a good lead on us." Charlie rubbed the back of his neck, where water dripped from the edge of his western hat. He used his radio to notify the rest of the searchers, ordering them to take up positions to the east and west of their location.
Lex went back to her horse. "True, but at least they’ll leave an easy trail to follow. Cycles aren’t ridden on this part of the ranch, so theirs will be the only tracks." She waited until he was back in the saddle, and nudged Thunder in the direction of the obvious trail.
They rode along in silence for several miles, stopping ever so often to make sure they didn’t lose the tracks. Charlie had taken the lead, and now pulled up under a dense group of trees. "We might as well take a break. It’ll be a decent shelter out of the rain."
The other three followed his advice, and they were all soon standing next to the horses, pulling sandwiches from their packs and munching on them. Lex brought out her phone. "If you guys will excuse me for a minute, I’m going to be over there." She pointed to a more secluded spot.
"Tell Amanda hello for me," Charlie teased.
"I will." She leaned against one of the trees and hit a number for speed dial. The connection was picked up immediately on the other end. "Hi."
"Hi, yourself." Amanda had obviously been sitting next to the phone, waiting for her to call. "How’s it going?"
"Pretty good. We just picked up their trail, and we’re taking a break for dinner." Lex looked around to make certain she was fairly alone. "I miss you."
"I miss you, too. Is it raining there, like it is here?"
Lex wiped the water out of her eyes. "A little," she fibbed. "Is everyone doing okay there?"
"You’re asking about us? We’re not the ones out looking for three armed men. We’ve been watching the news. They keep going on about how dangerous those men are. Why didn’t you tell us?"
"Because I didn’t know until we got out on the trail. Listen, sweetheart, I’m going to have to go. Everyone is ready to head out." Lex hated knowing she was the cause of the anxious tone in Amanda’s voice. "Don’t worry. I’m with Charlie and Jeremy. They won’t let anything happen to us."
"I hate this. Please be extra careful. Lorrie and I miss you terribly."
"I will." Lex started back toward the others. "I love you."
"I love you, too. Be safe."
Lex disconnected the call and placed the phone back on her belt. She hoped she could keep her promise.
AMANDA PLACED THE handset down and looked at the concerned faces around her. "They’ve found tracks."
"That’s good, isn’t it?" Anna Leigh played with her necklace. "It means they’re closer to catching these men."
Amanda sat beside her. "Yes, but it also means they could be riding into danger, soon." She tried to steady her hands, which rested in her lap. "I don’t know whether to be relieved, or scared."
"Charlie’s good at what he does. He won’t let anything happen to the people who are depending on him." Martha, who sat in a chair opposite of them, did her best to sound calm. "Everything will be fine."
"I wish I had your faith. This whole thing terrifies me. She has no business being out there." Amanda stood and began to pace. "Lex has responsibilities at home. She shouldn’t be traipsing around the woods playing cops and robbers."
As she passed, Anna Leigh grabbed Amanda’s arm and made her sit. "I think she realizes it’s more serious than that. Didn’t you two discuss this?"
"Not really." Amanda fell back against the cushions of the sofa. "She already had her mind made up before she told me about it."
"Are you more upset that she’s out there, or that she didn’t confer with you, first?" Anna Leigh asked. She knew how her granddaughter’s mind worked.
"We’ve been partners for nearly four years. I think I deserve to have a say in a decision this important."
Martha understood Amanda well, too. "It’s aggravating when she does that, isn’t it? But you have to remember, Lexie is an adult. She’s pretty good about thinking things all the way through, even when it doesn’t seem like it."
"I know. But it doesn’t mean I have to agree with her." Amanda stood again. "I think I’ll go up and check on Lorrie, to make sure she’s sleeping okay."
Anna Leigh reached out and squeezed her hand. "That’s a wonderful idea. While you’re there, why don’t you lie with her for a while? It’s going to be a long night, and a little rest wouldn’t hurt."
"I don’t know how much rest I can get, until Lex is safely home." Amanda brushed her hands down her blouse, although it was hopelessly wrinkled. "I think I’ll just take a quick shower and change."
"You do that, dear. We’ll come get you the moment we hear something." Anna Leigh watched Amanda leave the room, before turning her attention to Martha. "She’s going to be a handful, isn’t she?"
Martha gave her a knowing smile. "She always is."
IT HAD BEEN a couple of hours since the last motorcycle had run out of gas, and now all three men were slogging through the dense trees and shrubs. The rain still fell steadily, which made the saturated ground even harder to maneuver. Gary stopped and sat on a fallen log. "I’ve got to take a break. My feet are killing me."
"All you’ve done is complain. I don’t know why we didn’t just leave your sorry ass behind." Ed snapped off a dead tree branch and threw it at his associate. "Get up."
"Why? We’re obviously lost, there’s no one around for miles, and it’s got to be close to midnight. How long are we going to go?"
Mack trudged to the log and kicked Gary. "We’re going to keep going until we find some transportation. There’s got to be another road around here somewhere."
"It’s cold, dark, and I’ve got blisters on my feet. I’m staying right here." Being the youngest of the three, Gary was beginning to rethink his part in the escape.
"Like hell you are." Ed grabbed him by his collar and yanked him to his feet. "We stick together. I don’t trust you not to go running back to the cops."
Gary wrestled his way out of the angry man’s grip. "Let go. I’m not going anywhere." He blocked Ed’s attempt at hitting him in the face. "Hey."
"That’s enough." Mack got between the two and separated them. He shook his arms to get the worst of the rainwater out of his clothes. Since it was still raining, it didn’t do much good. "I hate rain."
"Why don’t we make some sort of shelter, and wait it out? It’s not like we’re on a timetable, here." Gary gestured to the trees before he sat again. "We’re surrounded by material, let’s make the most of it."
Ed slapped him on the back of the head. "Dumbass. The longer we stay still, the easier it’ll be for them to find us."
"Ouch. We don’t even know anyone’s out here looking for us. They’d have to be crazy to be out in this mess."
Mack sat beside Gary. "I hate to admit it, but the kid’s right. It’s the middle of the night, raining like hell, and we’ve been going all day. I think we need to make camp and get some rest." The area where they stopped was surrounded on three sides by heavy brush. It was about as safe as they’d find.
"I don’t like it. The law’s not going to give up on us. We need to get as far away from here as we can. Sitting around on our asses is only going to get us caught." Ed kicked the large log the other two sat on. "But I’ll be damned if I go running off by myself."
Gary brushed the hair out of his eyes and grinned. "Scared?"
Ed slapped him again. "No, you stupid little shit. I just don’t trust you to not point out where I went, if you got caught."
"Asshole." Gary rubbed his head and glared at Ed. "I still say you’re a chicken," he mumbled under his breath.
LEX FOUGHT BACK another yawn. The rocking motion of being in the saddle made her sleepy. The last thing she wanted to do was fall off her horse in front of Charlie and the other two men. She ducked as she rode under a low hanging branch. Thunder stumbled in the mud, causing her to pull up on the reins. "Charlie, hold on. I need to make sure my horse is all right."
"Go ahead. We’ll stop here for a while and give all our mounts a rest." He slid from the saddle and loosened the cinch strap. Charlie waved to Jeremy and Jack. "Take a break, fellas."
Satisfied that Thunder was okay, Lex rummaged in her saddlebag for a sandwich. She hadn’t eaten when the rest had, and her stomach was reminding her that it was empty, and not happy with the situation. While resting against Thunder’s shoulder, she noticed something lying among the trees to the left of them.
Lodged in some thick bushes was a mud-covered motorcycle, perfectly suited for off-roading. It didn’t appear to be wrecked, but had obviously been dumped recently. Lex placed her empty sandwich bag in her pocket and walked over to kneel beside it. She touched the motor, not surprised to find it cold. "It’s been here for a while," she told Charlie, who had stepped up beside her.
"Any idea how long?"
Although she wasn’t a tracker, Lex did know enough to make an educated guess. "Probably a couple of hours ago. It looks like at least one of them is on foot."
"Well, so much for our break. I want to gain some more ground on them while it’s dark." Charlie brought out his radio and notified the others. After getting verification on where each team was located, he waved to Jeremy and Jack. "You two head a little west of here, and we’ll keep on this trail."
"Will do, Sheriff. We’ll let you know if we see anything." Jeremy set his horse off in a canter, with Jack not far behind.
Lex watched them leave and turned to Charlie. "Now, what?"
"Let’s see if we can pick up their tracks on the other side of these trees."
They remounted, and steered the horses through the thicket, oblivious to the continuing rain.
AMANDA LAY NEXT to the sleeping toddler. It was almost three o’clock in the morning, and she hadn’t heard from Lex in hours. She didn’t know if it was a good or bad thing. When Lorrie stirred, she rubbed her tummy until she settled again. "That’s it, sweetie. Everything’s going to be okay." She hoped her whispered words were true. A light knock on the open door caused her to look up. "Hi."
"Hello, dear. I saw the light on, and wanted to see if you needed anything." Anna Leigh sat next to her. She brushed her hand through Amanda’s hair in a tender gesture. "You really should be trying to rest."
"I can’t. I keep thinking of Lex, out there in the rain, heading into who knows what. It’s scaring me to death."
Anna Leigh felt helpless. Her heart ached at the bleak look in her granddaughter’s face. "We have to keep positive thoughts."
About that time, Lorrie stirred and opened her eyes. She saw Amanda and reached out to her. "Manny."
"Ssh, baby. It’s all right." Amanda picked her up and snuggled Lorrie against her.
Lorrie tangled her hands in Amanda’s shirt and whimpered. "Wes?"
Amanda felt like crying, herself. "No, honey. She’s not here right now." She looked over Lorrie’s head into her grandmother’s eyes. "Has there been any word?"
"I’m afraid not. Perhaps they are afraid of disturbing us this late."
As Lorrie settled and went back to sleep, Amanda stroked her dark hair. "I hope you’re right. This waiting around is killing me." She sent a silent prayer to her lover, while she continued to rock the resting child.
CHARLIE STOPPED HIS horse. Lex was so tired, she almost allowed Thunder to run into the back of the other animal. She rubbed her face, hoping to wake herself up. "What’s up?"
He stepped down from the saddle. "Looks like we’ve found the last of the bikes." They had run across the second one earlier, and continued to follow the last one’s trail.
"Good. That means we’ll be able to catch up with them faster." Although used to long hours in the saddle, even Lex had a breaking point, and she was closing in on it.
"I hope so. My butt is killing me." Charlie gingerly walked back to his horse. "It doesn’t look like they tried to conceal their tracks too much." He watched as Lex slumped in the saddle. "Let’s take a break until sunup. I’d feel a lot better if we’re fresher when we find them."
Lex wasn’t going to argue with his logic. She knew she wouldn’t be any good to anyone, the way she was feeling now. Following his lead, she slid gracelessly from the saddle and led Thunder to a clear spot under the trees. She loosened the saddle and tied off the reins on a small branch. As Charlie did the same, Lex took an apple from her pack and cut it in half, giving part of it to her horse.
"You spoil that animal." Charlie gave his horse a piece of his, too. "But they deserve a treat, considering how long they’ve been hauling us around, right?"
"Yep." Lex brushed her hands on her jeans before sitting a few steps away. She rested against the tree, glad for the break. Seeing the slump to Charlie’s shoulders, she realized he was more exhausted than he let on. "I’ll keep watch for a while, so you can get a quick nap."
Charlie almost argued, but the chance to close his eyes for a moment stopped him. "All right. But wake me in an hour, and I’ll do the same for you." He mirrored her posture and was asleep before she could answer him.
Lex looked on fondly. She would do anything for him, including staying awake so that he could nap. "Rest well, Charlie."
The hour passed slowly, at least to Lex. She thought about letting him sleep longer, but before she could decide, Charlie stretched and yawned.
"I guess my internal alarm clock still works." He stood and walked around. "I’m going to go over to that stand of trees, and check in with everyone else. Close your eyes, and I’ll wake you in a while."
"Sounds good to me." Lex tilted her hat forward so that she could rest her head against the tree. She didn’t even realize when she fell asleep.
BRIGHT BEAMS OF sunlight covered Amanda’s face, causing her to squint as she opened her eyes. She glanced at her watch, seeing it was almost seven in the morning. She turned her head and saw that Lorrie wasn’t with her. Alarmed, she jumped from the bed and hurried down the stairs. The sound of Martha’s voice led her to the kitchen.
Martha had Lorrie in the high chair that was kept at the house for just that reason. She placed another small spoonful of scrambled eggs on Lorrie’s plate, and looked up when she heard footsteps in the hall. "Good morning, dear. I hope you don’t mind that I brought this angel downstairs. I was afraid she’d wake you."
"No, that’s fine." Amanda brushed her hands through her hair before going to the refrigerator and pouring herself a glass of orange juice. "Where’s everyone else?"
"I believe they’re in the living room, watching the news. Why don’t you join Lorrie and me for breakfast? There’s plenty here on the table."
Amanda kissed the little girl on the head before she sat next to Martha. "I’m not very hungry." She took a sip of the juice, and moaned as the cold drink traveled down her parched throat.
"You need to eat. It takes a lot of energy to chase this one around the house. I don’t want you passing out on us." Martha picked up a plate and filled it with scrambled eggs, bacon and toast. She sat it in front of Amanda. "Dig in."
Knowing it was useless to argue, Amanda picked up a fork and began to nibble on the food. She had just taken a bite of the toast, when a spoonful of eggs hit her in the face.
"Mommy!" Lorrie demanded attention.
Amanda’s eyes widened. "Did she say what I thought she did?"
"Sure sounded like it. We were talking about you before you came down. She kept wanting to go back upstairs and wake you." Martha used a napkin to wipe the toddler’s face. "Cutie, you need to eat that food, not play with it."
Tears of joy welled in Amanda’s eyes. "We’d been trying to get her used to calling us that, but this is the first time she’s actually used it." She dropped her gaze to her plate. "I just wish Lex had been here to hear it."
"Wes?" Lorrie waved her spoon. "Wes!"
"No, honey. Momma Lex isn’t here right now." Amanda started to push her own plate away, but Martha stopped her.
"Oh, no you don’t. There’s not much on your plate, and I’d like to see it empty before you leave."
Amanda sighed, but did as she was told. "Were you always this stubborn with Lex?"
"You don’t know the half of it." Martha cleaned up Lorrie and released her from the high chair. She helped her down, and the toddler immediately raced around the table to where Amanda sat.
Amanda lifted her into her lap, and held her with one hand while she ate with the other. "We’re going to have to work on that, Lorrie. How about, up, please?"
Lorrie rocked back and forth. "Pease?"
"Yes, please. Do you think you can say that, sweetie?"
"Hmph." Lorrie reached for Amanda’s plate and came away with a handful of eggs. She crammed them into her mouth. "Yum."
Martha couldn’t help but laugh. "Looks like you’d better get more, so you can share."
When the little girl went back for seconds, Amanda caught her hand. "Lorrie, no. You have to ask nicely. Can you say please?"
Lorrie grunted and reached for the plate again. When her hand was grabbed, she pulled it free. "No!"
"Lorrie." Amanda drew out the word slowly. "Ask please."
The toddler frowned and poked out her lower lip. "Mine." The battle of wills was on.
Martha covered her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing out loud again. She couldn’t wait to see how this standoff would play out.
Lorrie reached for the plate again, which was slid out of her reach. "Mommy!"
"Be nice, Lorrie." Amanda was determined to make her point. "What do you say?"
Little hands slapped the table. "Mine!"
Amanda ignored the outburst. She gathered some eggs on her fork and put them in her mouth. After chewing, she placed the fork back on the table, away from Lorrie.
"Mommy!" Still being ignored, Lorrie slapped the table again. When she didn’t get a response, she pouted.
Not disturbed in the least, Amanda continued to eat.
With a smile on her face, Amanda gathered a small amount of eggs on her fork and fed them to Lorrie. "Good girl."
To be continued in part 4
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