Disclaimers: See Part one.
Kicking her legs forward, Lorrie urged her swing higher. Her dark hair blew across her face and temporarily obscured her eyes. She did her best to ignore the girl next to her, who tried hard to catch up. The wooden swing set was comfortably situated beneath huge trees inside the picket fence.
“How do you do that?” Ally huffed. Only a few days older than her best friend, she was several pounds heavier and a couple of inches shorter. She shook her head to move her curly blonde hair away from her mouth. Her own swing wasn't half as high in the air. No matter how hard she kicked, she never got far from the ground.
“I dunno. Just goes like I want it to.” Lorrie grinned wildly when her toes touched the closest tree branch. “Yeah!” Her jubilance was short-lived when the back door of the house slammed closed, and two younger girls hurried down the steps. “Crud.”
Ally's sister, Penny, was the first to reach them. She was a year younger than Melanie, but they were as close as the older girls were to each other. “Hey, wanna know somethin'? We was playing dolls and I was a mommy.”
“That's nice,” Lorrie grumbled. She kept swinging, hoping they'd get the hint and leave her and Ally alone.
Melanie stood as close to the swings as was safe. Her small hands were on her hips and she looked eerily like Amanda. “Lorrie, we want to swing, too.”
“We were first.” Lorrie did her best to ignore her sister. “Come on, Al. Go higher,” she encouraged.
“Mommy says you're supposed to share,” Melanie reminded her. Freckles sat beside her and she scratched the dog on the top of the head.
Penny jumped and swatted at her sister. “Ally, please? You're not swinging so high anyway.”
“Stop it.” Ally kicked and slid from the swing, hitting the ground flat on her back. She became completely still and her eyes were closed.
Lorrie waited until her swing came to a low point and nimbly jumped. She dropped to her knees beside her best friend. “Al?” She fearfully shook Ally's shoulder. “Hey, are you okay?”
“She's dead,” Penny wailed.
“Hush.” Lorrie carefully shook Ally again. “Come on, Al. You're scaring the little kids.”
Ally's eyes and mouth opened, but she didn't make a sound. Her face took on a fearful grimace and her eyes grew wide.
“Hey.” Lorrie lifted Ally into a sitting position and patted her back, causing the other girl to inhale deeply. She held her as Ally coughed and cried. “You're all right. Just got the breath knocked out of you. The same thing happened to me when I fell off Mine last year.”
Melanie still had tears in her eyes. “I'm gonna go get Mommy.”
“No!” Lorrie was afraid they'd get into trouble, and she'd been in enough lately to last her a lifetime. “Everything's fine. Right, Al?”
“Y…yeah,” Ally huffed. She coughed a few more times and rubbed the tears from her face. “Ow.”
Lorrie helped Ally to her feet and brushed off her clothes. “Maybe we should go inside and find something else to do.”
“Like what?” Penny got on the other side of Ally and grasped her hand. Her spare hand ended up near her mouth and she began to nervously suck on her knuckles. “That was scary, Ally.”
“Yeah, it was,” Lorrie admitted. She tapped her leg and Freckles immediately jumped up on her. “You almost was a real angel, instead of just one for Halloween.”
Hearing about Halloween perked up the younger girls. Penny especially got excited. “I'm a princess.”
Ally rolled her eyes. “We know, Pen. And I'm an angel, Lorrie's a zombie, and Mel's gonna be Snow White.”
“Really?” Penny released her sister's hand and skipped over to Melanie. “I love Snow White. Is your dress yellow and blue?”
“Uh-huh. Come on, I'll show you.” Melanie started running for the house, the rest of the girls hurrying to catch up.
Four excitable children and one dog raced into the kitchen, startling Amanda and causing her to drop the spoon she was using to stir the pot of stew.
Melanie was the first to speak. “Mommy, can we try on our costumes? Ally hasn't seen me as Snow White.”
Penny tugged on Amanda's blouse. “Hey, wanna know something? I'm going to be a princess.”
“That's right,” Amanda agreed. She turned to look at the four children. “Lorrie, Ally, will you two help your sisters if they need it?”
Lorrie's smile grew. “Yes, ma'am.” She tugged on her little sister's arm. “Come on, Mel. Let's go get dressed up.” She led the little group from the room, breaking into a run as they hit the stairs. “Last one up's a rotten egg!” Freckles bounced along beside her, adding a bark every few steps.
“Wait for me,” Penny cried, her smaller legs having trouble navigating. She was quite a bit smaller than Melanie.
Melanie waited for her friend, taking the younger girl's hand. “We can get dressed in my room.” She led the way, moving slower in deference to Penny.
The two older girls had gone to the end of the hall to Lorrie's room and closed the door. She had shared a room with her sister until Melanie turned five. Lorrie had requested her own space and was given the guest room which she was allowed to decorate as she desired.
Melanie's room was across the hall from her parent's, and she redecorated as well. The dominant color in her room was pink. Her white, full-sized canopy bed was draped in the bright color, and her bedspread was white with pink polka dots. She had posters of her favorite cartoon characters, mostly princesses from fairy tales. Where her sister's room had books to read and sports paraphernalia, Melanie had shelves of coloring books and art supplies. In one corner stood a sturdy easel that was covered with a large pad of paper. Her completed “artwork” covered an entire wall.
She went to her closet to get her costume, while Penny took her own out of the small suitcase on the bed. They chatted and giggled while changing, leaving their clothes scattered on the floor.
A knock on the door caused both girls to become silent. Melanie had finished dressing and was spinning in a circle. “Come in,” she sang.
Lorrie and Ally joined the younger girls. Both were wearing their costumes. Ally was in her angel outfit, minus the wings and halo. Lorrie was dressed in torn, black clothing. Her zombie mask was still in her room. Freckles circled around Melanie, barking. “Mel, quit doing that.”
“Hey, wanna know something?” Penny asked Lorrie. She held out the edge of her dress, which was a smaller version of a shimmering yellow ball gown. “I'm a princess.”
“I know, Penny.” Lorrie had heard the same thing all afternoon.
Allison stared at Melanie, who had finally stopped spinning around the room. “Something doesn't look right with Mel, Lorrie.”
“What?” Lorrie looked at her little sister. She was wearing the same costume as she had last weekend. The dress had a blue top with red sleeves and cape, and a yellow skirt. “She looks okay to me.”
“Snow White had dark hair,” Allison explained. “Mel's hair is too light.”
Lorrie turned her head to one side as she studied the younger girl. She glanced at the poster over Melanie's bed. “You're right. We need to find something to make her hair look more like Snow White's.”
“My mommy uses a creamy stuff for color,” Penny offered. “She's always keeping boxes in her bathroom.”
“I don't think my moms use stuff like that.” Lorrie scrunched her face in thought. “Wait. I got an idea.” She left the room, coming back a minute later with Lex's boot shine kit.
Amanda was setting the table for dinner when the sound of little feet pounding into the room caused her to look up. “Hi, Penny.”
“Hey, wanna know something? Melly's looking just like Snow White,” the little girl proclaimed.
“Yes, I know, sweetie.” Amanda was about to go back to what she was doing when she noticed a dark smudge on Penny's dress. “Penny? What is that on your dress?”
The girl held the dress out. “I dunno.” She danced in place. “Maybe it's from Melly's hair.”
“What?” Amanda stopped what she was doing. “Penny, what happened to Melanie's hair?”
Amanda sighed heavily. “Where are the other girls?”
“Upstairs in Melly's room.” Penny took Amanda by the hand. “Come on, I'll show you.”
Curious, Amanda allowed herself to be escorted upstairs. The door to Melanie's room was open and she could hear the children's voices coming from the attached bathroom.
“Hold still,” Lorrie commanded.
Allison's voice piped up, “Careful. You're getting it in her ear.”
Amanda stood in the doorway to the bathroom and was shocked speechless at the chaotic scene.
Melanie was seated on the closed toilet lid, a formerly-white towel around her shoulders and black streaks in her blonde hair. Lorrie and Allison were on either side of her, both with black shoeshine sponges in their hands. Freckles danced between the girls, hoping for attention.
“What the hell is going on here?” Amanda asked, her voice bouncing off the walls.
Both Lorrie and Allison looked up with the same “oh shit” expression on their faces. Allison was the first one to speak. “We're making Mel more like Snow White.” Her brilliant idea was quickly losing its luster, especially with the very angry adult standing so close by. “Um, my mommy colors her hair, so we thought it would be okay.”
Amanda closed her eyes and counted silently to ten. When she opened her eyes, she tried to keep her voice calm. “Allison, I want you and Penny to go downstairs to wash up, then sit in the den.” After the two left, Amanda knelt beside Melanie. “Sweetie, keep the towel around your shoulders and go to the kitchen. We'll try to wash this stuff off in the sink.” She stood and put her hands on her hips. “Lorrie, put your momma's shine kit back where you got it, then go to your room. I'll deal with you when I'm through with your sister.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lorrie bowed her head and crept out of the bathroom, Freckles following close behind.
Lex checked the clock on the dash of the truck and grinned. Traffic had been light coming home, and as she pulled along side the house it wasn't even five o'clock . She couldn't wait to see the look on her wife's face. After parking next to the picket fence, she whistled a tune as she grabbed her unused overnight bag from the back seat. She jogged up the steps and opened the back door. Hearing noise coming from the kitchen, Lex crossed the threshold with a huge smile on her face. “I'm home!”
Amanda looked up from what she was doing. She had Melanie stretched out along the kitchen counter, her head over the sink. “Good. That means you can go upstairs and talk to your daughter.”
“What happened?” Lex crossed the room and stood next to Amanda. She looked down at Melanie. “What's that in her hair?”
“Boot polish,” Amanda muttered. She poured more shampoo and started to scrub again.
The phone in the kitchen rang, halting Lex from asking any more questions. She picked up the handset. “Hello?”
“Hey, boss. Could you come up to the corral by the bunkhouse?” Roy, the ranch foreman asked. “Chet found an injured horse. I think you need to see it.”
Never so relieved to be dragged from the house, Lex was more than happy to comply. “Sure, Roy . I'll be right there.” She hung up the phone and turned to her wife. “I'm sorry, sweetheart. Something's come up at the bunkhouse. It's going to be dark soon, so I shouldn't be long. I'll talk to Lorrie as soon as I get back, okay?” Lex kissed Amanda's cheek and left the house before the look she was getting from her wife could incinerate her.
Lex parked her truck next to the bunkhouse corral and climbed out. She saw Roy and Chet looking over a gray gelding, and walked over to join them. “Hey, fellas. What's up?”
Roy pointed to the horse's hindquarter. “Nothing good, that's for sure. See for yourself.” He watched at Lex carefully examined the animal. Several deep gashes were bleeding sluggishly, and the horse kept stomping and dancing anytime someone came near.
“Damn.” Lex turned to her foreman. “Did you call the vet?”
“Yeah. Dr. Hernandez should be here soon.” He moved closer to Lex and lowered his voice. “Are you thinking what I'm thinking?”
Lex nodded. “Big cat of some kind. Probably hanging around one of the new wells.” She turned to Chet. “Where did you find him?”
“That's the weird thing, Lex. This horse wasn't off in the brush somewhere. He was with the work horses down by the creek.”
It wasn't what Lex wanted to hear. Having a predator so close to the homes made her nervous. “I want everyone keeping a gun close by until we catch this cat. Roy , talk to the vet about setting up traps. Maybe we can work with the wildlife service and relocate this thing. It's probably come down from the hills looking for a fresh water supply.”
Roy scratched his chin. “Sounds about right. This damned drought has thrown everything out of whack.”
All three turned when the door of the bunkhouse opened. A slender, middle-aged woman stepped out and brushed off her apron. She came over to the corral, but kept outside of it. “There you are. I came to tell you that dinner's ready,” she told the men. “Hello, Lex.”
Lex ducked her head in greeting. “Hi, Helen. I see you're still putting up with Roy and the boys.”
Helen laughed. “Someone has to. Are you staying for dinner?” She brushed one hand along her pinned up hair. “I've got it warming in the oven. It's fried chicken.”
“No, I'm afraid I can't. I just came up to check out this horse.” Lex joined Helen at the fence. “Besides, Amanda's got me on a diet. You're too good of a cook, and I'd end up weighing three hundred pounds if I stayed up here.”
Roy ducked through the corral fence and put an arm around his wife. “Why do you think I walk back and forth to the main house?” He kissed her blonde hair. “Speaking of walking, I'd like you to stay close to home unless you're in a vehicle.”
Lex crossed her arms and wished she'd have thought to wear her coat. “We've got a big cat somewhere nearby, Helen. Please be careful going back and forth to the bunkhouse. And take one of the trucks if you decide to come up to the main house. It's not safe for anyone to be out on foot right now.”
Lorrie sat on her bed, sniffling to keep the tears at bay. Freckles jumped up beside her and started to lick her face. “Thanks, Freckles. At least you love me.” She hugged the dog to her chest and closed her eyes. Lately she felt as if she could do nothing right. “It's not my fault,” she muttered to the dog. “And I bet I get into more trouble when Momma gets home,” she cried into the soft fur.
The sound of the back door slamming caused her to look up. When it slammed again, she shook her head. “Mommy doesn't want to even see me. All I do is cause trouble.”
Freckles licked Lorrie's face again in an attempt to sooth her best friend.
“They'd be happier if I wasn't here, Freckles.” Lorrie slipped off the bed and went to her closet. She took out a backpack and tossed it on the bed. “Maybe if I went and stayed with Gramma and Grandpa, Jerry's mom would leave Mommy and Momma alone.” She gathered a couple of books, a pair of socks, and her favorite pajamas and stuffed them in the pack.
After changing into her jeans and denim shirt, Lorrie put on her jacket. She took the emergency ladder out of her closet and opened her window. Having been coached by Lex on its use, Lorrie had no trouble attaching the ladder to the sill. Freckles danced around her, wanting to play. “You be good, Freckles.” She kissed the dog on the head then put her backpack over her shoulders. With a last wistful glance at her room, Lorrie climbed out the window and down the ladder.
Freckles barked at the open window. She stood on her hind legs and propped her front legs on the sill, trying to figure out a way to get down to Lorrie. Unable to bring Lorrie back, she ran to the closed bedroom door and barked. Not getting any attention, she started to scratch at the wood, continuing to bark.
Lex looked on proudly as Dr. Hernandez and his assistant took care of the injured horse.
The vet stood by as his colleague carefully stitched the wound. Ronnie Bristol had recently returned from veterinary school. As he had interned with Dr. Hernandez, he had been thrilled by the prospect of joining the vet's already established practice.
Roy stood beside Lex. His wife had gone into the house, gently threatening him if he didn't follow soon. “He's turned into a fine young man,” he remarked. “Hard to believe he's old enough to be doing that.”
“I know what you mean. I still think of him as that kid who followed me all over the ranch. Being adopted by Martha and Charlie was the best thing in the world for him.” The cell phone on Lex's belt vibrated, causing her to jump. “Damn.” She glanced at the display before opening the phone. “Hi, sweetheart.”
“Lex, it's about Lorrie.” Amanda sounded frantic.
“Tell her I'll be there soon. We're just finishing up here, and—”
Amanda cuts her off. “Dammit, Lex. Lorrie is missing.”
“What do you mean? I thought you told me she was in her room.”
“She was. But I heard Freckles going nuts, and I went upstairs to see what was going on. Lorrie used the emergency ladder and took off.”
“Damn it!” Forgetting all about the injured horse, Lex jogged to her truck. “ Roy , give me a call when the vet's done. Lorrie's left the house by herself,” she yelled over one shoulder. She jumped into the truck and took off, still talking to Amanda on the phone. “I'm on my way. It's not quite dark yet, so I should be able to find her pretty quickly.”
It took Lex less than three minutes to get to the house. The truck skidded to a stop next to the picket fence and Lex was out before the engine completely died. She leaped over the three foot fence and ran into the house.
Amanda met her in the hall. “I looked around outside, but couldn't tell which way she went.” Her voice cracked as Lex put her arms around her. “It's my fault.”
“No, sweetheart. She's ten. It's just something that kids do.” Lex kissed Amanda on the forehead. “I'm going to run to the barn and saddle up. It'll be easier to find her if I'm on horseback. Call Roy and tell him I'll head toward the main road.”
Amanda helped Lex with her duster. “You'll find her soon, right?”
“Yeah.” Lex's hands shook as she tried to fasten the duster closed. “Amanda, Roy called me earlier because a big cat attacked one of the horses.”
“But we've never had any problems with them before, have we?”
“I think the drought has caused it to come down from the hills. Whatever you do, keep the kids inside. The horse was in the western fields when it was attacked.” Lex crammed her black Stetson on her head. She was about to leave when she remembered something. “Take the girls upstairs for a minute, will you? I want to get a gun out of the office.”
Amanda's eyes widened. Lex was not fond of guns, and only brought them out when absolutely necessary. She took Lex by the hand and led her down the hall. “No, I think they need to know how serious this is.”
Three quiet little girls sat on the sofa, staring at the television. Melanie was the first to see Lex and jumped to her feet. “Momma!” She intercepted Lex before she could get to the office. “Lorrie's runned away.”
“I know, sweetheart. But I'm going to go out and find her, okay?” Lex pulled her youngest into her arms and held her close. “You be good for your mommy while I'm gone.”
“'kay.” Melanie kissed Lex on the cheek and giggled as she was spun down to the floor. Freckles danced along beside her, wanting in on the fun. They both went back to the sofa as the draw of the animated program was too strong for the little girl.
Lex opened the office closet door. She took the key that hung above the door and unlocked the gun safe inside. After she checked to make certain the gun was loaded, she felt hands on her belt.
“Thought you'd want a radio, too,” Amanda explained, attaching the handheld to Lex's belt.
Amanda nodded. “I wish I were going with you.” Over the years, Amanda had become an accomplished rider in her own right. “Please find her, Lex. I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to her.”
“I will.” Lex kissed her wife one last time before leaving the house.
After saddling Thunder, Lex stopped by the house again. She took a length of rope from her saddle and met Amanda at the front door. She had called ahead to have Freckles on a leash. “Thanks. I think Freckles can find Lorrie just about anywhere.”
Amanda tied the rope to the end of the dog's leash. “I hope so. It's starting to get dark.”
The sun was setting, and dark shadows had already covered most of the road. The wind, once cool, was now getting colder and stronger. Unaware of the drama back at the house, Lorrie kicked at the rocks along the road. She was already tired, and hadn't even made it to the old bridge. “Wish I would have brought Freckles with me,” she muttered. “I'm bored.”
Her great adventure had quickly dulled, and she also wished she would have thought to bring along her horse. “Mine would like this. But I'm still grounded from riding,” she sniffled. “Stupid Jerry.”
The shadows unnerved Lorrie. Tired of walking, she spied an opening in the brush. “Maybe if I go through here I can get to Gramma's faster.” She left the road, pulling her jacket up closer to her body as the chill settled in.
Small trees and heavy scrub made the tiny trail hard to navigate. Within minutes, Lorrie stopped and looked around. Nothing looked familiar. With the sun barely above the horizon she couldn't see but a few feet in front of her. Tears welled up in her eyes when she realized she was lost.
Freckles danced along the gravel road, enjoying the new adventure. Lex watched as the dog flitted from one side of the road to the other. “I sure hope you know where you're going, you crazy dog.” She had tied the rope to her saddle horn and held up a battery-powered lantern to light the way.
Suddenly Freckles left the road and tried to go into the brush.
Lex stopped Thunder and sighed. “Damn. I was afraid of that.” She raised the lantern and looked into the wooded area. “Thunder, I don't think you'll be able to get through there.”
It only took Lex a few minutes to gather what she needed from the horse. She strapped the rifle across her back and tied the reins to the saddle. “Might as well head back to the barn. No sense in you hanging around here.” She swatted his rear and watched as the horse trotted up the road. Lex took out her phone and called Amanda. “Hey.”
“Did you find her?”
“Not yet. Freckles thinks she's left the road ‘bout two hundred yards before the bridge. I've sent Thunder back to the house so if you could watch out for him, I'd appreciate it.”
“All right.” Amanda lowered her voice. “Any sign of anything else?”
Lex ducked to avoid a tree branch as she followed the dog into the brush. “Not that I can tell. Has Roy and the guys gotten there yet?”
“They're at the barn. Helen's here and is going to watch the kids, while I ride out with the guys. Ronnie's coming, too.”
Knowing better than to tell her wife no, Lex kept silent. She was having trouble holding onto Freckles and the lantern with the same hand, so she pulled the dog close. “Amanda? I've got to hang up now. The damned dog is going nuts.”
“Maybe Lorrie's close by. Call me as soon as you find her.”
“I will.” Lex put the phone back on her belt and squatted next to Freckles. “Since we're both on foot, I'm going to let you loose. Go find your little buddy.” Lex unhooked the leash and watched as Freckles took off down a small trail. “Sure, don't make it easy on me.” She pulled her hat down tighter and struggled to follow.
The sun had finally set and the moonlight wasn't enough to break through the dense brush. The young girl kept wading deeper into the trees, hopelessly lost.
Lorrie stumbled across a fallen branch and fell to her knees. She was cold, hungry and scared. Tired of walking, she huddled against a tree, wrapping her arms around her legs. She laid her head on her knees and started to cry. “I want to go home.”
Wind blew through the trees, bringing a distinct chill. The dried branches rubbed together, making a frightful sound.
A twig breaking to her right caused Lorrie to raise her head and look around. “Momma?”
Through the darkness, the rustling sound came closer. Unable to see, Lorrie cried out as an animal broke through the dense brush.
Lex grumbled as another tree branch scratched at her face. She was practically running to keep up with Freckles and more than once wished she had kept the dog on its leash. “Damn it, dog. Would you slow down?”
Freckles came back to Lex and barked, loving the game. She bowed to Lex and wagged her stubby tail. Her sharp bark pierced the evening and she took off again.
“You crazy little beast,” Lex growled, doing her best to follow along. She stumbled over a dead tree. Hearing a different noise, Lex stilled, listening. “Lorrie?” she yelled, hurrying to her feet.
Twigs poked at her legs as Lex ran through the brush. Breathing heavily, she heard the sound again. “Lorrie!” She broke through to a small clearing and heard her child scream.
“Momma!” Lorrie saw the apparition come at her and squealed as an animal charged. “Help, Momma!”
Lex landed on her knees and spun the rifle around, but kept it pointed at the sky. She used one hand to wave the lantern toward the scream. She saw a white blur leap toward Lorrie. “Freckles, down!”
Lorrie's screams turned to giggles as her best friend licked her face clean. She hugged the dog close. “I'm so glad to see you, Freckles.”
Lex's relief made her weak. She made sure the safety was on the rifle and propped it against the nearest tree before getting to her feet and crossing the clearing. She pulled Lorrie into her arms. “Lil' bit, don't you ever do this again.”
“I'm sorry, Momma.” Lorrie snuggled close. “But Mommy was mad, and I got into trouble at school, and then we messed up Mel's hair, and—”
“Sssh.” Without releasing her hold, Lex took the phone from her belt and hit the speed dial by memory.
“Lex?” Amanda answered after half a ring.
“Yeah. I found her. She's fine.”
A sob tore from Amanda's throat. “Oh, thank god.” She muffled her phone and said something to the people she was with and then came back to the phone. “Where are you?”
Lex looked around the clearing. “Honestly? I have no idea. We left the road not far from the bridge and headed west. I think I can walk us back toward the road, but I'm not positive.”
“We'll bring your horse back that way,” Amanda promised.
“Great. I'll keep the lantern aimed toward the road, so maybe y'all can see us before we get out of the damned trees.”
Amanda's laugh came out as strangled. “I love you so much. Please be careful.”
“Always. I love you too, sweetheart.” Lex closed the phone and returned it to her belt. She slowly got to her feet, Lorrie still in her arms. “Come on, kiddo. Let's go home.”
Suddenly Freckles turned and growled low in her throat. Her hackles rose and she stood in front of Lex and Lorrie, staring into the darkness.
“Freckles, stay.” Lex heard another growl, then a high-pitched scream.
The scrub parted and a small animal stepped into the clearing, its yellow eyes glowing in the light of the lantern. Not much bigger than Freckles, the bobcat's reddish brown fur blended in well with the dead leaves around it.
Lex placed Lorrie behind her. She looked across the clearing, where her gun still leaned against the tree. “Damn.” She bent and grabbed the growling dog's collar. “Freckles, hush.”
The cat's ears went back and it took another step forward. It focused on Freckles, apparently not noticing the humans with her.
“Lorrie, stay behind me.” Lex started to edge slowly around the clearing in an attempt to reach the gun.
Growling, the animal turned its head and watched Lex closely. It took a step back as she came nearer.
Lex took that as a good sign. When Freckles struggled in her grasp, she lifted the dog and tucked it under her arm. She remembered something she had once read, and hoped it was true. The almanac article stated that bobcats were rarely harmful to humans, and could usually be run off with loud noises. “Hey! Get out of here,” she yelled at the cat.
It snarled and crouched lower.
“Hyah, go on, you mangy beast!” Lex continued to yell nonsense at the bobcat while she moved closer to her gun.
The large, noisy creature coming toward the cat was more than it bargained for. The bobcat growled once more and took off deeper into the bush.
Lex took the extra steps and picked up the rifle. She hitched the strap over her shoulder and put her shaky hand on Lorrie's shoulder. “Ready to go home, kiddo?”
“Momma, what was that? It looked liked Terry's cat, but bigger.” Lorrie tucked her hand into Lex's.
“That was a bobcat, Lorrie. They're wild animals and can be extremely dangerous. You did real good, sweetheart.”
Lorrie snuggled close to Lex. “I was kind of scared. But you made the cat run away.”
“Yep. And until we can trap the cat and send it away, I want you and your sister to stay very close to the house, unless an adult is with you. All right?”
Lex took the leash from her duster pocket and clipped it to Freckles collar. “Good girl.” She ruffled the dog's fur before setting her down.
Amanda led the way, while Roy led Lex's horse. She stopped and turned in her saddle to face him. “For the last time, I don't care.”
“But Amanda, there's no sense in you being out here. Lorrie's safe with Lex, and—”
“And what?” Amanda turned her horse. “I'm not going home until my entire family is with me. You're more than welcome to go home, Roy .”
The foreman pushed his hat back and scratched his forehead. “You know better than that. I just thought—”
“I know, and I appreciate it.” Amanda smiled at Roy . “Thanks for caring.”
He ducked his head, embarrassed. “Um, do you want to split up so we can cover more of the road?” A bright light came out of the heavy underbrush to his right.
“Tired of waiting already?” Lex asked, her voice weary.
Amanda dropped from her horse and jogged over to Lex. She knelt in front of the ragged group and pulled Lorrie into her arms. “Don't you ever run away again, Lorraine Marie Walters. I was scared to death.” She looked up into the shadowed face of her wife. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Been a long day, though.” Lex came close to dropping Freckles leash when Amanda stood and embraced her. “It's all right, baby.” She kissed Amanda lightly on the lips. “Let's go home.” She let Amanda take the lantern from her.
Lorrie looked up at her hero. “Can I ride Thunder with you, Momma?”
Lex grinned. “Sure thing, kiddo.” She lifted Freckles and handed the squirming dog to Roy . “Mind handling this one?”
He held the animal in his lap. “She take you right to Lorrie?”
“Yep.” Lex scratched Freckle's head before taking control of her horse. “Thanks for coming out here tonight with Amanda.”
“Anytime.” He tipped his hat and turned his horse for home.
Lex put Lorrie into her saddle and climbed up behind her. “You want to drive?”
“Can I?” Lorrie took the reins as Lex put an arm around her waist. “Let's go, Thunder.” Lorrie directed the horse to follow Roy , grinning at Amanda when she rode up beside them. “I'm handling Thunder,” she bragged.
Amanda laughed at the joy on her daughter's face. She could tell by Lex's expression that something shook her wife, and was almost afraid to find out what had happened.
Once all four girls were tucked into bed, Lex and Amanda returned to their own room and closed the door. Lex sat on the edge of the bed and removed her boots, sighing as she felt the long day catch up with her.
Amanda heard the sigh and joined her wife on the bed. “Are you all right?” She put her arm around Lex's shoulders and leaned into her.
“Yeah.” Lex kissed Amanda's head. “Cut it close tonight,” she muttered, talking about finding Lorrie shortly before the bobcat came along. She had filled in Amanda on the entire ordeal earlier, after Lorrie couldn't stop talking about it.
“I know. I can't believe you yelled to make it run away.”
Lex's arm snaked around Amanda and pulled her even closer. “I'd read it once. Just hoped it would work. They're usually afraid of things bigger than them, that's why I was so worried when we found a horse scratched up. But Rusty more than likely startled it at a watering tank.”
“Good.” Amanda started to unbutton Lex's shirt. “I think we could both use a nice, hot shower. I don't know about you, but eau-de-horse isn't my favorite fragrance.” Her hand tracked down the smooth stomach, getting the expected laugh.
“Best idea I've heard all day.” Lex stood and brought Amanda with her.
The silence of the empty house was beginning to get to Eleanor Gordon. She'd spent the last year locked away from the outside world, only going out when the cupboards and refrigerator turned bare. She sat in the shadowed living room, curled up in one corner of the sofa. She had never bothered to turn on the heat, instead wrapping herself in one of her grandfather's suit jackets and staring at the darkened television. Her eyes tracked to the set of photos strewn across the fireplace mantle. “I wish you were here,” she whispered.
Last week's visit from her cousin had been Ellie's undoing. She thought she was doing better until Lex arrived and tried to get her out for lunch. “How can I make her understand?” Ellie hadn't just lost a grandfather, but the one person she had come to count on in the world. Within days of his passing, she'd shut everyone out.
She'd sent Nancy, Travis' housekeeper of many years, away not long after the funeral. The older woman was too much of a reminder of what Ellie had lost. Nancy had been excited by the prospect of living closer to her own grandchildren and reluctantly left. Her return to Dallas was both a relief and another painful loss for Ellie.
The phone rang, breaking Ellie out of her bout of self-pity. She tried to ignore the sound, but it continued to ring for several minutes. “Damn it!” She flung the jacket off her shoulders and stalked across the room. “What?” The gentle voice on the other end caused her to tear up again. “No, I'm doing okay.”
Ellie took the cordless phone with her and sat on the sofa. “No. I'm not really dressed for company.” She released a heavy sigh at the caller's persistence. “Really, you don't have to.” The voice became adamant and Ellie relented. “Fine. I'll see you in a little while.” She disconnected the call and tossed the handset onto the coffee table. “Damn.”
She frowned when she noticed what a mess the house had become. Empty glasses and dirty dishes covered every available space in the living room and she knew she didn't have time to do much about it. Ellie stood and tried to comb her fingers through her hair. Limp and filthy, the stringy mess was so knotted with tangles she wasn't sure if she'd be able to brush them all out. With another resigned sigh, she headed for the bathroom to take a shower.
Half an hour later, Ellie emerged from her bedroom feeling much more human. The medical scrubs she wore hung off her frame, but they were the only clean clothes she could find.
She was still hauling dirty dishes out of the living room when the doorbell rang. “Hold on.” Taking the handful she had into the kitchen, she hustled to the front door and opened it. “Hi.”
Amanda stood on the porch with her arms crossed. “You keep ignoring my invitations.”
“Yeah, well.” Ellie shrugged and held the door open wider. “You know how it is. Come on in.”
Ellie led her to the living room and had the good grace to blush. “Sorry about the mess. I wasn't expecting company.”
“I'm not company, Ellie. I'm family.” Amanda scooted old newspapers off the couch and sat at one end. Even through her coat she felt the chill in the room and suppressed a shudder. “It's freezing in here.”
Curling up on the opposite side, Ellie put her feet on the cushion and wrapped her arms around her legs. She rested her chin on her knees. “I hadn't really noticed.”
“Honey, you can't keep living like this. We all miss Travis, but he wouldn't want you doing this to yourself.” Amanda scooted closer and put her hand on Ellie's arm. “When are you going back to work?”
“I'm not. At least not at the nursing home. I called them a few month's ago and they told me I'd been gone too long.” Blinking away the tears, Ellie sniffled. “There's nothing left for me here.”
Amanda wrapped her arm around Ellie. “You're wrong. You've got a family who loves you.” She kissed the grieving woman's head. “Gather your things. You're coming home with me.”
Ellie shook her head and tried to push Amanda away. “No, I can't.”
“Why not?” Amanda stretched her other arm out wide. “Afraid to leave all this? Sorry, that's not going to work. Pack up some clothes,” she flicked the edge of Ellie's shirt. “On second thought, just put on your shoes. We'll stop by Davenport 's and get you some things that fit.”
Allowing herself to be pulled to her feet, Ellie tried one last time. “I don't want to sound ungrateful, but this isn't really necessary. I was already working on the house when you called.”
“Uh-huh. And that's why it looks so nice?” Amanda lightly yanked on the ends of Ellie's hair. “And your hair's wet because?”
“I just got out of the shower.” Ellie tried to hide newspapers under the sofa with the tip of her foot. From the look on Amanda's face, she wasn't successful. “Um, okay. Wait here. I'll be right back.”
Amanda laughed at Ellie's actions. “Pack a toothbrush,” she yelled to the retreating woman. “We'll come back next weekend and clean up together.”
The long dining table was not quite half full, yet the few who shared the space were boisterous enough for an entire crew. Lex groaned and pushed her plate away. “Helen, that was fantastic.” She glanced at the remains of the roast and potatoes that littered her dish. “I'm going to have to take up jogging or something to combat your cooking.”
“That's very sweet of you to say. But I honestly don't think you have anything to worry about.” Helen stood and started to clear the table but was stopped by the two hired hands.
“We'll handle it, Mrs. Wilson,” Jack offered. He gathered several plates while Chet picked up a couple of serving dishes.
Lex shared a smile with Roy . “Looks like she's got them trained,” she commented. “Especially Jack. I think he's got a little crush on your wife.”
Roy leaned back in his chair. “Can't really blame him, can you?”
“Nope. She's a wonderful woman, my friend. And a hell of a cook.” Lex lowered her voice. “I know it's slowing down right now, but are Chet and Jack enough? We can always bring in a few more guys.”
“The three of us can handle things pretty well, Boss. And I've got a few guys in town I can call if we need them. Hell, you do more than your share.” Hearing the two men arguing over who would wash and who would rinse the dishes, he raised his voice. “No wonder the boys are turning into housewives.”
“Hey!” Chet yelled good-naturedly. It didn't stop him from running Helen out of the kitchen.
Helen returned to her place at the table and smiled her appreciation to Roy, who had poured her a cup of coffee. “I swear, those two men won't let me do the cleanup after meals anymore. I think you need to find more for them to do, since they have so much energy.”
“I'm sure something to be arranged.” Roy edged his chair closer and put his arm around Helen's shoulders. “Lex, if you'll take the north well, the guys and I will divvy up the rest.”
Lex nodded as she sipped her coffee. “Sounds good to me. I promised Lorrie a chance to spend the day in the saddle so that will be perfect.”
“You're not taking the truck?”
“Nah. I know it's a ‘ways off from everything, but if we ride we can make it last all day. Lorrie's been having some troubles at school, and I think a day out and about is just what she needs.”
Helen played with the hand on her shoulder. “That's a shame. Is there anything we can do? She's such a sweet girl.”
Leaning back in her chair, Lex released a heavy sigh. “It's the same as it's always been. Just a couple of rotten kids spoiling it for everyone. I went through the exact thing at her age.” She was about to say more when her cell phone rang. “Sorry, folks.” Lex stood and flipped open the phone as she walked into the living room. “Lex Walters.” She listened for a moment and checked her watch. “That's right. Sure. Okay, then. See you in a few.” She closed her phone and returned to the dining room.
“Everything all right, Boss?” Roy asked.
“Yep. Got a buyer coming out to look at Coco 's colt. Said they saw the flyer I placed at the feed store.” Clipping her cell to her belt, Lex leaned against the doorframe.
“Thunder's latest, right?”
Lex nodded. “I was hoping to place him before Christmas. If this buyer looks good, that'll be one less we have to worry about when it gets colder.” She crossed the room and picked up her coat from the back off her chair. She slipped it on and gave her hostess' shoulder a squeeze. “Guess I'd better get up to the house. Helen, thanks again for a great lunch.”
Amanda parked the Xterra in her usual spot in front of the playground. It was where the girls knew to look for her and she always arrived early enough to secure the location. She stole a glance at her passenger, who had been silent since they left the clothing store.
The shopping trip had worn Ellie out. Her energy levels were practically non-existent since she spent the majority of her time locked up in the house she had shared with Travis. After traipsing through Davenport 's for close to an hour, her entire body felt like jelly. She rested her head against the window with her eyes closed.
Concerned, Amanda touched Ellie's shoulder. “Hey.”
“Hmm?” Ellie opened her eyes and faced Amanda. “Sorry.”
“You don't have to apologize. I was only going to ask if you're about ready to be invaded by the girls. They should be out in a few minutes.”
Ellie's face slowly creased into a smile. “I've missed them.”
“They've missed their ‘El', too.” Amanda squeezed Ellie's arm. “We all have. That's one of the reasons I kidnapped you today.”
Amanda studied the crease in her jeans intently. “Lex and I have been going ‘round and ‘round about bringing someone in to help with the house and the girls.”
“And my cousin has been her usual stubborn self about it?” Ellie quizzed.
“Not exactly.” Amanda turned in her seat so she could face Ellie. “Don't tell Lex, but I've pretty much come over to her side of the argument. I just don't want her to think she's going to win every time.”
Ellie laughed. “Don't worry. Your secret is safe with me. Over the last few years, I've become quite fond of that bull-headed wife of yours. But I agree it's best to keep her on her toes.”
“So, you also took me hostage because you needed someone on your side against Lex?”
Amanda shook her head. “Actually, I want to surprise her by hiring a new housekeeper, and I'd like another opinion when I start interviewing.”
The sound of the school bell could barely be heard over the engine of the Xterra. Within minutes, the first group of happy children poured through the front doors. First out was the kindergarten class. Escorted by their teacher, the youngest members of the school milled around in little groups close to the door.
Ellie, who had never seen school let out, was completely fascinated. “Even at that age, they've already developed their little cliques.”
“Scary, isn't it?” Amanda agreed. “Here come the first and second graders. Watch how they totally ignore the younger ones, as if they are so much more mature.”
Less orderly than their predecessors, the next wave came tearing through the doors. They brushed by the kindergarteners just as Amanda had warned.
“Unbelievable.” Ellie watched as the final set of children came out of the elementary school. She easily spotted Lorrie, who somehow in the melee found her little sister and solicitously escorted her toward the SUV. “Is it like this every day?”
“Wow. Elementary school teachers have got to be some of the bravest people on the face of the earth,” Ellie mused. She turned around to face the back seat as the door opened. “Hey, girls.”
Melanie was the first inside and she scooted across the seat to her usual spot. “El,” she squealed. “Are you not sick no more?”
Ellie glanced at Amanda, who shrugged. “Yeah. I'm feeling a lot better now, thanks to your mom.”
Lorrie climbed in beside her sister and closed the car door. “Hi, El. Whatcha doin' here?”
“Lorrie! That's not polite,” Amanda scolded. “But for your information, Ellie is going to be staying with us for a while.”
Both girls cheered, causing Ellie to blush. The love that surrounded her eased the ache that had been in her chest for the last year. She looked forward to being a part of an active family again.
Back at the ranch, Lex paced in the living room as she waited for the buyer to arrive. She was about to return to her office when she heard the sound of tires rolling across the graveled driveway. She fought the urge to peek through the living room blinds and instead slowly made her way to the front door. She opened it as her guest stepped up the stairs to the porch. “Welcome to the Rocking W. Come on in out of the cold.” After closing the door behind her guest, Lex held out her hand. “I'm Lex Walters. Let me take your coat.”
The smaller figure removed their hat and coat to reveal a woman close to Lex's age. “Pleased to meet you. I'm Shelby Fisher.”
Lex accepted the woman's coat and hung it on a spare hook by the door. You from around here?”
“Yeah. We bought a small place on the other side of Somerville a few years ago. Nothing like your spread, but I'm enjoying it.”
Pleased to meet another businesswoman, Lex gestured for Shelby to enter the living room. “Come on in, I've got some coffee in my office.”
“That sounds great.” Shelby looked around the spacious living room as they headed for the office door in the far corner. “Nice place you've got here.”
“Thanks.” Waiting until her guest was seated, Lex poured two mugs of coffee from the carafe on her desk. “Take anything?”
Shelby shook her head as she accepted the cup. “No thanks.” She leaned back in her chair and studied the woman across the desk. “I really appreciate you meeting me on such short notice. When I saw your flyer at the feed store, it took all I had not to race out here.”
“Not a problem. To tell you the truth, I wasn't sure if anyone was ever going to be interested. Not many folks are buying right now.”
“True. But I've been looking for a good stud, but haven't been able to find one in my price range that wasn't broken down. When I saw your flyer, I thought I'd take a chance.”
Lex nodded. “Good idea. Are you in the horse trade?”
“No, not really. We've got a paint mare and I picked up a nice sorrel mare a year or so ago. Right now we mainly board for others. But I'd like to start up a training facility or a riding school.” Shelby sipped her coffee. “The old guys at the feed store have good things to say about you.”
“They're a fun bunch,” Lex admitted. “Since you're on the other side of town, have you done any business with Lockneer? He's got some real good horses.”
Shelby choked on her coffee and wiped her chin. “Uh, no. He doesn't care much for me, or my partner.”
“Don't feel bad.” Lex handed Shelby a tissue. “He hates me, too. Homophobic bastard,” Lex muttered. She put her cup on the desk. “Want to go see the colt?”
“Sure.” Shelby set her mug down also and followed Lex from the office.
In less than five minutes, the pair stepped inside the barn closest to the house. Shelby glanced around and whistled. “Impressive.”
“Thanks.” Lex led her to a stall near the rear of the barn. Inside was a small bay colt. His face had a white streak down the center that went all the way to his nose. Lex opened the stall and gently grasped the animal's halter. “Come on, fella.”
Shelby studied the colt as Lex walked him around the barn. “He's a handsome one, that's for sure.”
“Yep. Good stock.” Lex pointed to the other side of the barn. “Sire's over there. Dam's up at the other barn. We can drive up and look her over if you want.” She handed the colt over to Shelby . “Why don't you two get acquainted?”
With an almost reverence, Shelby brushed her hands over the animal's coat. She carefully inspected every inch of the colt before looking at Lex. “He's magnificent. Why on earth do you want to sell him?”
Lex smiled, pleased with the other woman's obvious knowledge of horses. “He's too good an animal to geld, and I've already got a nice stud. No sense in him competing with his sire.”
“I guess not. I'm almost afraid to ask how much you want for him.” Shelby 's eyes widened at the figure Lex quoted. “Kinda low, isn't it?”
“Maybe.” Lex stepped to the opposite side of the colt and began running her hand across his back in a soothing motion. “This drought has made things rough for us. One less mouth to feed will easily offset what I could get for him next spring. Besides, I'm hoping this could be the start of a good business relationship. Having an ally is never a bad thing.”
Shelby held out her hand. “You've got a deal, Lex. I've got my checkbook with me, but I'll have to run back to the house for my trailer.”
“Actually, I need to pick up a few things in town and was going to take a trailer. I can follow you and do my errands afterward, if that's okay with you.”
“That would be more than okay, Lex. Thanks.”
As Shelby 's truck left the highway onto a small dirt road, Lex took in the surroundings. They drove past a small frame house, the well-kept flowerbeds around it attesting to its care. Not far behind the house was a barn and corral. Several horses milled freely in the enclosure, heads turning as Shelby 's truck parked nearby.
Lex pulled past Shelby then backed the trailer up to the corral. She got out and met Shelby by the gate. “I like how you've got the corral sectioned off. How many horses do you stable here?”
“Five in all. Three boarders and our two. I'm about to add another set of stables this winter. We tore down the old barn a couple of years ago when business picked up. My partner and I built this one ourselves.” Shelby opened the trailer and climbed in beside the colt. She slowly backed him out. “Easy there.”
The slam from the back door of the house caused both women to turn. Hurrying down the steps was a voluptuous redhead. She buttoned up her blue quilted jacket as she jogged toward the corral. Her blue eyes lit up when she spied the colt. “He's adorable!”
Shelby grinned. “Rebecca, I'd like you to meet Lex Walters. Lex, this is my partner, Rebecca Starrett.”
Rebecca shook hands with Lex. “Hi, Lex. I've seen you at Carson 's with your family.” The western-wear store where she worked was the only one of its kind in the county, and Rebecca had recently been promoted to assistant manager.
“That's right. It's nice to see you again.” Lex stepped back and allowed Rebecca to get closer to the colt. She grinned as the younger woman began to stroke the animal's coat.
“Oooh, Shelby. What's his name?” Rebecca asked.
Shelby looked over at Lex, who shrugged. “I guess that's up to you, darlin'. We've got Patches and Duke. What do you think this little fella looks like?”
Rebecca looked into the colt's eyes. “How about Morgan?” She gently rubbed his nose. “You like that, don't you?” She continued to coo at Morgan, while the other two women looked on in amusement.
“I have a feeling I've lost my new horse,” Shelby joked. “Lex, you want to come up to the house for some coffee? I think Morgan's in good hands.”
“Coffee sounds great. I'm getting too old to stand out in the cold wind nowadays.” Lex glanced over her shoulder before she stepped into the house. The joy on Rebecca's face solidified in her mind that she'd made the right decision on selling the colt.
Shelby laughed as they headed for the house. She held the door open for Lex, exhaling heavily as they stepped into the warm kitchen. “Tell me about it. My old aches from the rodeo gets worse every year. Take your coat off and get comfortable. I'm sure Rebecca will get Morgan settled and be in shortly.”
Lex grinned. The more she was around Shelby , the more she enjoyed the other woman's company.
To be continued in Part Three
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