Disclaimers: See Part one.
Amanda paced the bedroom as Lex watched from the bed. The house was quiet, as the sun was only now peeking through the blinds. The children were still fast asleep, which allowed their parents the privacy that only early morning could bring. “I don't know, Lex. Keeping Lorrie out all day, especially with a cold front expected, doesn't sound like a very good idea.”
“We'll most likely be back by lunch.” Lex pulled her boots on, stood and stamped her feet. “The cold front's supposed to hit tonight. We'll be home sipping hot chocolate long before then.” She held out her arms and waited until Amanda snuggled close. “We've been out plenty of times. Why are you so worried?”
“You'll think I'm being silly,” Amanda muttered into Lex's shirt. She felt lips lightly touch her head.
Amanda raised her head and looked up. Lex's eyes sparkled with tenderness and Amanda felt her heart speed up and overflow with love. “How did I ever get this lucky?”
Lex's lips curled into a familiar smile. “I'd have to say we're both very lucky, sweetheart.” She lowered her face and kissed Amanda. When they finally separated, her grin widened. “Now what was it you were going to say?”
“Like I can remember anything after being kissed like that,” Amanda grumbled good-naturedly. She adjusted Lex's shirt collar. “I just have a weird feeling about today. I wish you and Lorrie would stay closer to the house.”
“We're only going to the eastern pasture and checking the pump on the tank. It's about a forty-five minute ride out there if we take it slow. If the weather even seems the least little chancy, I promise we'll head right back.”
Knowing she was fighting a losing battle, Amanda gave up. “All right. I know Lorrie's been looking forward to this. The extra week of grounding nearly killed her.”
“Wasn't easy for me, either. But she had to understand that using the emergency ladder had consequences. She'll think twice before doing it again.” Lex lifted Amanda off the floor and slowly spun her around. “Are you sure you don't want to come with us? I bet Ellie wouldn't mind watching Melanie for us.” Their youngest wasn't as fond of horseback riding, and would rather spend her time in more artistic pursuits.
During the past week, Melanie had quickly become Ellie's shadow. She had even talked her into playing dolls, something that the other members of the family had little time, or inclination, to do.
Amanda laughed. “I have enough trouble separating them as it is. Poor Ellie's going to get sick of Melanie at this rate.”
Lex thought about the changes in her cousin during the past week. Day by day, Ellie's face relaxed, and she was returning to the woman they had all come to love. “I doubt that. If anything, I think Mel's been good for her.” Lex put Amanda down and gave her another quick kiss. “I'm going to go wake Lorrie, so we can get started early. Why don't you head back to bed?”
“No, I think I'll take advantage of the quiet and get some things done downstairs.” Amanda picked up an item from the dresser. “Don't forget your phone.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lex clipped it to her belt, resting the leather holster on her right hip. She started to leave the room, but was stopped by Amanda's grip on her back pocket. “What?”
Amanda stepped into Lex's space and kissed her again. “Be careful.”
Lex started to joke, but saw the real worry in her wife's eyes. “I promise. What we have is too precious to me.”
The sun pierced through the barren trees, the glare causing Lex to wish she had remembered to wear her sunglasses. She squinted at Lorrie, who rode alongside her on Mine. Her daughter's face showed all the wonder of being alive on a beautiful day. Lex dipped the brim of her hat to block the worst of the blinding light. “You doing all right, lil' bit?”
Lorrie turned and gave Lex a huge grin. “Yep.” The grin took on a decidedly wicked turn. “Wanna race?” Mine sidestepped as Lorrie tightened her grip on the reins.
“Sure.” Lex pointed to a dead tree a few hundred yards ahead. “Last one there has to brush down both horses when we get back.”
“And give Freckles a bath,” Lorrie added.
The little dog hadn't been happy being left behind, but Lex didn't want her out that far with the weather being chancy. And giving her a bath usually meant that the bather would need one afterward. “All right.”
Lorrie kicked her horse and whooped, taking off and leaving her mother behind.
“You little—” Lex urged Rusty forward. His wounds had healed nicely, but she knew they'd have a difficult time catching the younger quarter horse in a short distance race. “Come on,” Lex yelled. “You're not going to let a little mare win, are you?” She leaned over Rusty's neck. They got within a length of Mine when Rusty stumbled. Lex pulled up on the reins and finally brought him to a stop. “Damn.”
“Yay!” Lorrie cheered and brought Mine to a halt, turning to look for Lex. “Momma?”
Lex bent over to look at Rusty's leg. She raised his hoof and found a small stick wedged beneath his shoe. Using her pocketknife, Lex gently removed the stick and brushed her finger across the frog, testing for tenderness. Rusty didn't flinch, so she stood and patted his shoulder. “We'll get her next time,” she promised.
Lorrie rode back to where Lex stood. “Is he okay?”
“I think so. Just a stick wedged in his shoe.” Lex climbed into the saddle. “Looks like I'm going to be busy this afternoon, aren't I?”
“Yep. Unless you want to race again.”
Lex laughed. “Nope, I think you had us beat before Rusty came up lame. Next time, I'm riding Thunder. No way you'd outrun him.”
They soon came upon the clearing where the water tank was located. Usually forty feet wide, the muddy pond would hold enough water to take care of the stock in the east pasture. Since the drought, Lex had a water well dug with the pump running off solar power.
The pump was supposed to keep the tank filled, yet Lex could see that something was terribly wrong. Only a small amount of water remained in the very center of the tank. Something had broken through the fence that protected the pump, knocking the solar panels off and leaving them lying in the dirt. In the middle of the tank stood a full-sized cow, apparently stuck.
“Damn.” Lex could tell by the demeanor of the heifer that it had been stranded for at least a full day. She urged Rusty into a gallop. “Lorrie, keep Mine away from the tank. I don't want her getting in the mud, okay?”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lorrie followed behind Lex, pulling up short when they arrived at the tank. “Where's the water?”
Lex brought Rusty to a stop and climbed from the saddle. “Dried up. Looks like the pump lost power.” She glanced at the pump. “We'll have to get someone out to fix it. Damn it all to hell!” She picked up a twig and broke it in half, throwing the pieces away in her anger.
Lorrie prudently kept silent. She rode over to Lex, being especially careful to stay away from the muddy tank. “What are we going to do about the cow?”
“Haul her out.” Lex stood with her hands on her hips while she considered challenge. “Lorrie, give me your rope. We'll have to use both horses.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lorrie easily detached the rope from her saddle. She watched in awe as Lex worked the loop and tossed it casually over the mud to land around the heifer's neck.
“Here you go. Tie that off, will you?” Lex handed the rest of the rope to Lorrie, who quickly tied it to her saddle horn. “Keep the slack out of it, until I can get my rope on her.”
Having done similar things with her mother before, Lorrie had no trouble following instructions. She guided Mine back slightly, keeping the rope taut.
Lex nodded proudly at her daughter while she got the rope from her own saddle. “Good job, Lorrie.” She threw another perfect strike and got a good grip on the rope. “Back up a little. Let's see what happens.”
Lorrie did as she was told, well versed in the action.
The cow didn't budge, and Lex called on Lorrie to stop. “Looks like she's good and stuck.” Dropping her rope to the ground, Lex removed her duster and draped it across her horse. She rooted around in her saddlebag until she found a small shovel. “You're in charge of the horses, all right? Once I get out there, I'll take my rope off. All you need to do is keep the horses calm.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lorrie accepted Rusty's reins. “You're walking out in the mud? Mommy's gonna get mad if you come home dirty.”
“Yeah, I know. But it can't be helped.” Lex winked and squeezed Lorrie's leg, then started to wade into the tank. The farther she walked, the gooier the mud. By the time she reached the cow, she had to crawl across the mud on her knees. “Lorrie's right. Amanda's going to kick my ass for this mess.” She laughed at herself. “Martha always said I could find mud in a drought. Guess she knows me pretty well.”
Lex patted the cow on the neck. She could see it was buried up to its belly in the mud, and its eyes were dimming. “We got here too late, didn't we, girl?” Lex took her rope off the animal and tossed it nearby. “I'm sorry. Hang in there, okay?” She took the shovel and started to dig carefully around the cow's legs.
Lorrie was doing her best not to get bored. She watched her mother work, but sitting still in the warm sunshine was making her sleepy. She yawned and tried to keep her eyes open.
Not far away, the cry of a bobcat caused Mine and Rusty to both dance wildly. Lorrie was unable to hang on to Rusty, who took off into the trees. “Momma!” As Mine struggled under Lorrie's control, she reared. Lorrie did a good job of handling the frightened horse, but couldn't keep her from backing several feet.
Unable to help, Lex watched as her daughter fought to stay astride. She was about to holler encouragement when the tight rope caused the cow to bellow and fall toward Lex. With her knees buried in the mud, Lex couldn't move, and found herself trapped on her back beneath the dying animal.
“Momma!” Lorrie saw Lex fall under the cow. She untied the rope from her saddle and was finally able to bring Mine under control. Terrified, she jumped down and started out into the mud.
Stunned from the weight, Lex struggled to breathe. She was grateful the mud cushioned her, but the burning pain in her bent knees and lower back made it difficult to think. She was surprised when Lorrie appeared above her. “Lorrie?”
“It's okay, Momma.” Lorrie started frantically trying to dig Lex out with her hands.
“Shhh.” Lex tried to comfort her. “I'm okay, just stuck,” she wheezed. She felt the heifer exhale one final breath, then stilled. “Damn. Lorrie?”
“The cow's dead. I'm going to need you to go back to Mine, and try to drag her off of me, okay? We can't hurt her anymore.”
Lorrie sniffled and nodded. “Okay. Should I try to catch Rusty? I couldn't hold him, Momma. I'm sorry.”
Lex awkwardly stretched her arm out and patted Lorrie on the arm. “You did perfect, sweetheart. Letting Rusty go so you could control Mine was the right thing to do.”
“Okay.” Lorrie wiped a muddy hand under her nose, trying not to cry. “I didn't fall off, either.”
“You're a good rider.” Lex coughed as she tried to take a deep breath. “I need you to help me get out from under this heifer, okay? So be real careful going back to Mine. When you get there, I want you to pull from that other side, so the cow will roll off me.”
Lorrie nodded. “'kay.” She crab-walked across the mud and was soon climbing back into the saddle. It took a little maneuvering, but she got Mine into position. “Ready, Momma?”
“Yep,” Lex yelled as loud as she could. She braced her hands on the cow. As Mine started to pull, Lex pushed with all her might.
The carcass slowly rocked, until it flipped over onto its other side.
Lorrie stopped Mine as soon as she saw Lex was free. She leapt from the saddle and raced out into the mud once again. “Momma? Are you okay?”
“I'm fine, sweetheart. You did real good.” Lex hadn't moved, but at least she was able to breathe freely once again. “Untie the rope from the cow and hand it to me, okay? I don't think I can walk out of the mud just yet.”
“Okay.” Lorrie quickly did as she was asked, even going so far as to help tie the rope around her mother. “Are your legs broke?”
Lex tried to keep from scaring her. “No, they're just stiff from how I was sitting. And it'll be a lot easier to pull me out than to try and help me walk.”
“Oh.” Lorrie made certain the rope was fitted properly under Lex's arms. “Is this right?”
“Yep.” Lex gave her what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “I want you to have Mine pull real slow. Don't stop until I'm out of the tank, no matter what, all right?”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lorrie hugged Lex and hustled back to her horse once again. “Ready?”
Lex wrapped her hands around the rope and nodded. As the horse backed up, Lex was pulled forward. She bit her bottom lip to keep from screaming as her body unfolded. Rotating onto her side, Lex closed her eyes as she was dragged from the mud.
Lorrie stopped Mine once Lex was free of the tank. She untied the rope from her saddle and got down to check on her mother. Dropping to her knees, she brushed her hand across Lex's face, which was damp with tears. “Momma?” When Lex's eyes opened, tears started down Lorrie's face in relief.
Although it hurt, Lex rolled into a sitting position and pulled her daughter into her lap. “It's okay, sweetheart. You did perfect.” She held the crying girl close, shedding a few more tears herself.
Once they had both settled down, Lex gave Lorrie a hug. “I'm so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Momma.” Lorrie put her hand on Lex's cheek. “Your mouth is bleeding.”
“I'll be okay.” Lex kissed Lorrie on the forehead. “But I think I'm going to need some help getting back to the house.” She pulled her cell phone off her belt, grimacing at the caked-on mud. “Hope the case protected it.” After several shaky tries, Lex finally gave up getting the phone free from the holster and handed it to Lorrie. “Why don't you call the house for us?”
Lorrie took the phone out of the leather holder and hit the proper speed dial. The phone rang several times before being picked up.
“Rocking W Ranch, Amanda speaking.”
“Mommy,” Lorrie started to cry again at the sound of Amanda's voice.
Lex gently took the phone away from her daughter. “Amanda?”
“Lex, what's going on? Is Lorrie okay?”
“She's fine. We ran into a little trouble out here—”
Amanda cut her off. “I knew it! What happened? Are you all right? Is Lorrie all right?”
“Sssh. Give me a second, and I'll tell you everything,” Lex promised. “But before I get too far into it, do you think you could come get us?”
Amanda peered into the rearview mirror, checking on her wife and daughter. Lex was sprawled out across the bed of the truck. She had refused to sit inside, saying it would be more comfortable to lie down. Lorrie wasn't about to leave her mother's side, so she was curled up next to Lex. Amanda drove slow in deference to Lorrie's horse, which trotted behind the vehicle. “One of these days, Lex, I'm going to wake up and have completely white hair,” she muttered.
They arrived at the house and were met by Roy . He untied Mine. “I'll take care of her for you, Lorrie.” He tipped his hat to Lex. “Rusty showed up here about half an hour ago. He's fine.”
“Good.” Lex slowly sat up, trying to keep from crying out at her stiffened joints. “Get someone out to the eastern tank as soon as possible to remove the dead heifer and fix the pump. No other animals are going to go near the place until then.”
Roy nodded. “Already sent the boys out with the trailer. I told them to have it running before they left, or don't bother coming back to the bunkhouse.”
Lex laughed. “You're sounding more like me every day.” She allowed Amanda and Roy to help her from the back of the truck. “Thanks.” Lex started to stand, but her knees buckled. She would have fallen if not for the firm grip of the foreman. “Damn. I guess I'm going to need a little help getting to the house, too.”
“No problem, Boss.” Roy tied off the horse again to the truck. He put Lex's arm over his shoulder. “Lean on me and we'll get you inside.”
Amanda took position on the other side of Lex. “It's going to take a week to get all the mud off,” she teased, trying to keep her thoughts light.
“I told Momma you were gonna be mad that she got so dirty,” Lorrie announced, following behind the trio. “She said it couldn't be helped.”
“I bet she did,” Amanda agreed. She kept a tight grip on Lex's belt. Lowering her voice, she asked, “Are you sure you don't want to go to the hospital?”
Lex kept her voice equally soft. “I'll be fine. My knees are sore and I probably just pulled a muscle in my back. But I promise if it's not better tomorrow, we'll go see Rodney.”
Amanda patted Lex's stomach. “I'll hold you to that.” In a louder voice, she asked, “Lorrie, would you please open the back door for us? And make sure the downstairs bathroom is clear.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lorrie raced ahead to do as she was asked. She clomped into the house, forgetting to take her boots off at the back door. A trail of mud followed her.
“She's definitely your daughter,” Amanda pointed out.
As they reached the door, Lex paused. “Maybe I should just strip out here and save you the extra trouble.”
“Too late now.” Amanda poked her. “Besides, I think that's more of you than Roy wants to see.”
Roy shook his head as he grinned. “Isn't anything I hadn't seen before. I remember seeing her race half-naked across the back lawn when she wasn't any bigger than Melanie.”
Lex groaned. “Do we have to talk about that right now? I'm dying, here.”
“Serves you right. Although it's nice to hear you were always an exhibitionist.” Amanda laughed at her wife's discomfort. “All right, I'll be good. I can get stories from Roy later.”
They were going to put Lex in the downstairs bathroom, but Amanda decided that they might as well get her upstairs, where she could take a shower. She wasn't strong enough to help Lex from the tub, and even though Roy joked about it, Amanda knew that neither he nor Lex would be comfortable otherwise.
Halfway up the stairs they were met by Ellie, Melanie and a very excited Freckles.
“Momma, you're all dirty,” Melanie scolded.
Lorrie hugged Freckles, who had made a beeline for her. “We were trying to save a cow,” she informed her sister.
Ellie put her hands on Melanie's shoulders, to keep her away from Lex. “What can I do to help?”
Amanda was about to brush off the offer when she felt Lex's weight shift more toward Roy . “Could you get the shower started?”
Ellie nodded. “Come on, Mel. You can help me.”
“Lorrie, could you go clean up in your bathroom?” Amanda knew that Lex wouldn't want her children to see her in such a weakened state. “I'll have your sister come help you in just a minute.”
“Okay.” Lorrie trudged toward her room. “Let's go, Freckles.” The rat terrier pranced happily beside her.
Lex sighed as the trio continued up the stairs. “Thanks,” she whispered. “The crowd was starting to get to me.”
“No problem, love.” Amanda guided them into the bedroom. “ Roy , if you'll help me get her to the bathroom, I think Ellie and I can take it from there.”
Barely through the doorway of the bathroom, Lex's legs started to go out from under her.
Roy got a tighter grip around her waist. “Hang on, Boss. Almost there.” He helped her lean against the double sink, while Amanda bent to remove her boots.
Ellie came over to relieve Roy . “Mel, why don't you go check on your sister? I bet she has a great story to tell you.”
“'kay.” Melanie started to leave the room, but stopped to look at Lex. “Momma, are you sick?”
Lex tried to stand up straighter. “I'll be fine, sweetheart. After I get in bed, do you want to come read me a story?”
“Sure!” Melanie bobbed her head up and down. “I got a new book that El gave me. We can read that.”
Amanda stopped what she was doing and gave her youngest a kiss. “Make sure your sister puts her dirty clothes in the laundry room and her boots on the back porch.” She knew if Melanie was put in charge of such an important detail, they'd have plenty of time to take care of Lex.
“I will,” Melanie promised as she raced out of the room.
Roy laughed at her exuberance. “Glad I'm not Lorrie.” He gave up his position to Ellie. “If you folks have things handled, I'll run on to the house.”
“Thanks for everything, Roy .” Lex closed her eyes as Amanda tugged on her socks.
“Anytime, Boss.” He leaned close to Amanda so as not to be overheard. “Let me know if you need help getting her to the doc, or anything else.”
Amanda squeezed his arm. “I will, thanks.” She waited until the foreman was on his way down the stairs before she started on Lex's jeans.
Lex swatted at her hands. “I'm not an invalid,” she complained.
“Tough.” Amanda unbuttoned the muddy pants and slid them down Lex's legs. She paused halfway down, concerned. “Your knees are pretty swollen.”
“Yeah. Got bent backward when the cow fell over on me. Hurts,” Lex admitted quietly.
Ellie stood silently by, lending her physical support to her cousin. Although Lex was leaning against the sink, she still needed help standing upright while Amanda undressed her. Ellie saw that Amanda was barely able to keep her composure. “You know, Lex. I think I'm going to have to buy you a rabbit's foot or something. You get into the damndest messes I've ever seen.”
The comment got its desired effect, as Amanda laughed. “If you do that, I'll make her wear it around her neck.” She started to unbutton Lex's shirt, when her hand was grabbed by Lex. She looked into the sheepish eyes and sighed. “Ellie, would you mind waiting in the bedroom? Miss Prude is getting all shy.”
“Come on, Lex. I'm a nurse. You helped me finish school, remember?” Ellie leaned closer to whisper in Lex's ear. “Do you really want to put the extra stress on Amanda?”
“No,” Lex grumbled. She released Amanda's hand. “I get to bathe myself, don't I?”
Amanda kissed Lex on the cheek. “Only if you want to take away my fun.” She turned to Ellie. “Could you check on the girls for us? I'll holler if I need help.”
“As long as you're sure.” Ellie slowly stepped away from Lex, who seemed to be standing all right on her own. “I'll close the bedroom door behind me, to give you some privacy.”
“Thanks, Ellie.” Lex gave her a weary smile. “Maybe if I'm really lucky I can talk Amanda into joining me.”
Ellie comically covered her eyes. “TMI, Lex.” She laughed as she left the room, making a point of closing the door behind her.
Amanda poked her wife in the stomach. “You're evil.”
With a martyred sigh, Amanda started to unbutton her own shirt. “It would be easier to help you get clean,” she theorized.
Lex's only answer was a pleased grin.
Amanda stared at the poster on the wall, wrinkling her nose at the detail. “I really didn't need to see the inside of a stomach,” she muttered. She was doing whatever she could to keep her mind off the group of people huddled in the tiny examination room. Between her, Lex, Dr. Rodney Crews and his nurse Laura, there wasn't enough room to turn around.
Rodney patted his annoyed patient on the leg. “It's only a precaution, Lex. A second opinion.”
“I don't care.” Lex crossed her arms over her chest and glared at her brother-in-law. “No one's coming near me with a scalpel.”
The doctor sighed. “I'm not saying he will. But I'd feel a lot better if the orthopedic surgeon looked at your knee.” He turned to Amanda. “Will you please try to reason with her?”
Amanda was torn between siding with Lex or doing what was best for her. “Can't we wait and see how she's doing in a week or so? I mean, Lex should know better than anyone how much pain or discomfort she can handle. She can't cause any new damage to her knee if she waits, can she?”
“No, not unless she does something new to it,” Rodney admitted. “But I would still advise a consultation with Dr. Needham.” He pointed his pen at Lex. “One week. And you have to use the crutches. Keep as much weight off your leg as possible.”
Lex grinned. “Sure.” She started to climb off the exam table when Rodney stopped her.
“I mean it, Lex. Use the crutches. Or else.”
With her feet on the floor, Lex towered over the doctor by several inches. She looked down into his face as she tucked a crutch beneath each arm. “And exactly what will you do?”
Rodney winked at Amanda before staring into Lex's eyes. “I'll sic Martha on you.”
The smirk on Lex's face slowly disappeared. “You wouldn't dare.”
“Watch me. After all, I'll see her on Thanksgiving.” Rodney tucked Lex's chart under his arm and adjusted his glasses, trying to ignore Amanda and Laura's laughter. “In all seriousness, the crutches will help. Maybe even enough to put off a trip to Dr. Needham. But I honestly think the consult would be in your best interest.” He gave Amanda a hug. “Give Jeannie a call. We've missed seeing you both.”
Amanda kissed his cheek. “I will. Thank you.” She took the prescription from a chuckling Laura. “Come on, honey. We'll get this before we pick up the girls from school.”
Lex paused at the door. “Thanks, Rodney. We'll see you in a couple of weeks.” She followed Amanda out of the office and down the hall. “I'll kick his ass if he—” The slap on her stomach silenced her. “What?”
“I swear, Lex. You're worse than the kids.” Amanda tried to keep the smile off her face, but wasn't very successful.
“I thought that's why you married me.” Lex waited for Amanda to hold the door open for her as they left. “Hey, can we get the prescription filled at the store? I want to get some ice cream to take to the girls.”
“Yes, we can, my oldest child,” Amanda sighed, secretly pleased that Lex seemed to be content to follow Rodney's advice, at least for the time being.
“Mild sprain, my ass.” Lex stretched while she stood next to Amanda, who was studying the different flavors of ice cream. Her back had stiffened up due to the use of the crutches and she was more uncomfortable than ever.
“You could have waited in the truck,” Amanda chided, not bothering to look at her wife. Less than half an hour after they'd left the doctor's office, Lex was already complaining. It actually made Amanda feel better, because she knew Lex wouldn't gripe if she was in much pain.
“I hate waiting in the truck.”Lex pointed at one of the cartons closer to Amanda. “One of those, please.” She adjusted the crutches beneath her arms.
“Big baby.” Amanda placed Lex's choice in the cart and added one of her own. “We'd be done already if you had, you know.”
“But then I couldn't help you,” Lex teased, as she dropped another container of ice cream in the shopping cart. “I think we need more hot fudge, too.”
Amanda laughed. “How about sprinkles?”
“Ooh, yeah. Almost forgot about those.”
On the next aisle, the cry of a child caused both women to become silent.
Amanda looked at Lex. “I'll be right back.” She left Lex with the cart and quickly disappeared around the corner. She felt her heart begin to pound when she saw Jerry Slater lying on the floor with his hands covering his head.
Standing over Jerry was his mother. “Quit your whining and get your ass up,” Susan growled. She grabbed her son by the arm and jerked him to his feet.
“Mommy, please. I'll be better,” Jerry cried as he tried to break free of her grasp.
“Stop it!” Susan slapped him along side his head with her open hand. “I said shut up!” she yelled as he cried even louder.
Amanda pulled Jerry away from his mother and stood between them. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Get away from him. It's none of your damned business what I do with my son.” Susan started to reach for Jerry when Amanda stepped back.
“I don't care who you are, you can't hit a child,” Lex interrupted. She had finally made it to the aisle and stood next to her wife, presenting a united front. “And shouldn't he be in school?”
Susan's face scrunched into a nasty scowl. “You two dykes have no room to talk. At least I'm not ruining my kid by being a pervert.” She snapped her fingers low, as if calling a dog. “Jerry, over here. Now.”
Crying, Jerry stepped around Lex and Amanda. He wiped his runny nose on the back of his hand and kept his eyes on the ground.
“Stop that sniveling, or I'll give you something to cry about,” Susan warned. She pointed at the couple a few feet away. “If you come near me again, I'm calling the cops. Come on.” She roughly twisted her hand in Jerry's shirt and led him away.
Lex stopped Amanda from following. “Hold on, sweetheart. You can't do anything.”
“I'd like to give her a taste of her own medicine.” Amanda clinched her fists at her side. “We can't let her get away with that, Lex.”
“I know. Let's go put the ice cream back. We'll run by the sheriff's department and talk to Jeremy.”
Amanda sighed but agreed. “That's a good idea. I saw her hit him in the head. If we're lucky they'll arrest her and throw away the key.”
“Maybe so.” Lex followed Amanda to the ice cream aisle to clear out the shopping cart they had started to fill. They could return after their visit with the sheriff.
Although she'd spent a lot of her youth visiting the sheriff's department, Lex felt uncomfortable stepping into the building. After Charlie retired, she hadn't had a reason to return and things felt, “…different.”
“Hmm?” Amanda turned to look at Lex. “What's different?”
Amanda looked around. The waiting area seemed the same as it always had, down to the institutional tan walls and scuffed furniture. “Looks the same to me.”
Lex shook her head. “I used to come here all the time when I was growing up. I think I spent as much time here as I did at the ranch. It was like a second home to me. But now, it feels really weird.”
“Is this the first time you've been here since Charlie retired?”
Amanda patted Lex's leg. “I'm sorry, love.”
“No, I'm okay. It's just that—”
Jeremy stepped into the reception area. “I'm sorry to keep you both waiting.” He shook hands with Amanda, then Lex. “I don't know how Charlie kept from losing his mind all those years. I spend more time behind the desk writing reports and fielding calls from politicians than I do handling police work. Anyway, enough of my complaining. What can I do for you?”
“We need to see what we can do about reporting a case of child abuse.” Amanda stood. “Can we talk in your office?”
“Sure.” Jeremy waited until Lex got to her feet and tucked her crutches under her arms. “Geez, Lex. What did you do to yourself this time?”
Lex followed Amanda. “Went swimming in a mud tank with a dying cow,” she tossed over her shoulder, grinning. She loved messing with Jeremy.
He stepped ahead of them and held open his office door. “Why do I even bother to ask?”
“Hey, it's the truth.” Lex sat in the chair Amanda steadied for her. “Thanks.”
Once both women were comfortably seated, Jeremy sat in the rolling leather chair behind his desk. He slid a legal sized notepad close and picked up a pen. “All right. Why don't you start at the beginning?”
Half an hour later, Jeremy pushed the notepad away and exhaled heavily. “I hate cases involving kids. All right. I'll contact Child Protective Services and go from there.”
“Lorrie told us that Jerry came to school with a black eye, so you might pass that along as well,” Amanda added. “Is that all we can do?”
Jeremy tapped his pen on the desk. “You did the right thing. I'll make sure the case is a high priority, and offer our assistance to CPS.” He dropped the pen on his desk and stood. “Don't worry. I'll keep my eye on things.”
“Thanks, Jeremy. Let us know if there's anything else we can do.” Lex slowly got to her feet, fighting the crutches. “Stupid things.”
Amanda helped her and shared a grin with Jeremy. “Come on, tough stuff. It's almost time to pick up the girls. Thanks again, Jeremy.”
“Anytime.” As soon as the two women left, he picked up his phone. “ Lydia , could you get me Child Protective Services, please?”
Amanda tapped on the steering wheel and stared at the front of the school. The meeting at the sheriff's department had taken longer than expected, and she wasn't able to get her usual parking space. She turned her head when a strong hand covered hers, effectively stopping the nervous habit. “What?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.” Lex squirmed in the seat. “I think you need a bigger vehicle.”
“It's not that much smaller than your truck.” Amanda released the steering wheel, but didn't let go of Lex's hand. “Although it can be a beast to control when the wind gets up.”
Lex stretched the best she could, bracing her hands against the top of the Xterra. “I've always worried about how top-heavy the damned thing is.” She groaned as her back protested the movement. “There's not enough legroom, either.”
“There is for normal people,” Amanda teased. She stretched out her own legs quite easily. “I think I'll go wait by the door to the school. The girls aren't used to looking for me over here, and I don't want to miss them.”
“I think Lorrie's smart enough to find us. What's the real reason you're so antsy?”
Amanda twisted around in her seat so she was looking directly at her wife. “I'm worried that we didn't do enough today to help Jerry. What if she did something else to him when they got home? It breaks my heart to think that she could do god-knows-what and there wasn't anything we could do about it.”
“Have faith in Jeremy, sweetheart. He knows we're not just jumping to conclusions. I wouldn't be surprised if he had a deputy go with CPS. He's very good at his job.”
The loud ring of the school bell caused them both to turn and look at the front door to the school, even though Lorrie was in the final group to be released, and she and Melanie would be some of the last to come out.
“Almost time.” Lex grinned as she kept her eyesight glued to the front of the school. “Want to get pizza tonight?”
Amanda laughed. “I suppose you want to go back to the store and get some ice cream, too?”
Lex turned and her grin widened. “That's a great idea. Why didn't I think of that?”
“You are such a brat.”
“Here they come.” Lex turned toward the back seat as the back door opened. “Hey, girls.”
Melanie, the first in, squealed. “Momma! You never come to get us.”
Lorrie tossed her backpack into the floorboard and crawled in after her sister. “Momma? Is something wrong?”
“No, everything's fine.” Lex turned to Amanda. “Is it so weird for me to be here?”
Melanie piped up innocently, “You're always working. We don't see you most of the time until dinner.”
At the look on Lex's face, Lorrie added, “At least on school days. We see you lots on weekends.”
Amanda could see the hurt in Lex's eyes. “Honey, we all understand that the ranch isn't an eight to five job.”
“That's the one thing I didn't want to do,” Lex whispered. “My father put the ranch, and everything else, before his family.”
“Honey, it's not the same,” Amanda assured her. She put her hand on Lex's arm. “You've had to work very hard during this drought to keep helpless animals alive. No one blames you for that.”
Lex shook her head. “I do.” She turned toward the backseat. “I'm sorry, girls. We're going to have some changes around the house, starting right now.”
“Lex—” Amanda's words were stopped by Lex's fingers on her lips. She didn't want Lex to put the ranch on the back burner. She knew how much their home meant to her wife.
Melanie started bouncing in her seat. “Ice cream parties after school?” she guessed.
“No, silly. Momma means she's not gonna work all the time.” Lorrie leaned over Lex's seat and put her chin on Lex's shoulder. “Right, Momma?”
Giving Amanda a reassuring smile, Lex kissed Lorrie on the forehead. “That's right.” She winked at Melanie. “Although an ice cream party sounds pretty good to me, too.”
Amanda sighed. “All right. I can take a hint. Buckle up, girls. Let's go get some ice cream.” She laughed at the chorus of cheers, which included her wife. “Overgrown kid,” she mumbled.
Since she was taking a different route to the store, Amanda was surprised when they came upon a new office building under construction. “I wonder what's going in there?”
Lex checked out the structure as they passed. “Hard to tell. Maybe if we're lucky, it's an ice cream parlor.” She laughed at the frown on her wife's face. “Aw, come on. You know you'd like it.”
“You are such a troublemaker.” Amanda shook her head but couldn't help but smile.
Amanda pulled the Xterra into its usual place behind the house and turned off the engine. Her cheeks were sore from laughing and smiling. Lex definitely added a different angle to the drive home. She kept both girls happy and energized with her ongoing commentary, and even had them chiming in from time to time.
A familiar SUV was parked in front of the small cottage that Martha and Charlie called home. The 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee had been a compromise between the couple after Charlie retired. He wanted something they could take on long trips and be comfortable. Martha wanted something “shiny”. They both enjoyed driving the Jeep, which withstood the rough country roads.
“Mada's home!” Lorrie yelled, opening her door and leaping from the vehicle.
“Yay! Hey, wait for me,” Melanie cried. She quickly followed her sister.
Knowing it was useless to call the girls back, Amanda got out of the Xterra at a more sedate pace. She removed their bag of groceries from the back, and came around the passenger's side in time to see Lex ease herself out as well. “Aren't you forgetting something?”
Lex slowly stretched, her crutches still leaning against her seat. “Umm, do you need help with that bag?”
“No, smartass.” Amanda pointed to the inside of the SUV. “Long, shiny things, remember?”
“Hurts more when I use the damned things,” Lex grumbled. She took them out of the vehicle and tucked one beneath each arm. “Satisfied?”
Amanda ignored her and continued toward the house. “Guess I'll just have to eat all this ice cream myself.” She'd compromised and allowed the ice cream, but told her family they'd be having sandwiches instead of pizza. It helped retain her mom-status, at least in her own mind.
“Hold on there, woman. You're not touching my chocolate chip cookie dough.” Lex muttered several other things under her breath, much to her wife's amusement.
“Keep it up and I'll wash your mouth out with soap,” Amanda promised. She left the back door open and took the groceries into the kitchen. She unpacked the bag and put the cold items in the freezer.
Lex came up behind Amanda and kissed her on the neck. She almost allowed the crutches to fall to the floor when Amanda turned and tugged her close.
Amanda's arms automatically went around Lex's head so she could pull Lex's head down for a kiss.
“I swear, it doesn't matter how long I'm gone, the second I come back I catch you two all over each other,” Martha boomed from the doorway. She had a child on each side of her, each keeping a firm grip on the hem of her blouse.
Amanda released her hold and patted Lex on the stomach. “Later,” she whispered. She edged around her wife and met Martha halfway. “Welcome home.” The older woman's embrace was warm and familiar.
“It's good to be back.” Martha looked past Amanda to Lex, who had a wide grin on her face. “I've been gone over a month but it looks like nothing's changed.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” Lex asked, moving toward the group. She leaned the crutches against the edge of the table and held out her arms. “Where's my hug?”
Martha made a tsking sound, but enveloped Lex anyway. “You're nothing but skin and bones, Lexie.”
“Ha! Blame my wife. She's the one that's got me on a blasted diet all the time.” Lex kissed Martha's cheek and pulled back to look at her. “And why do you keep looking younger? Did y'all find the fountain of youth on your trip?”
Brushing her hair away from her face, Martha blushed. Gone was the bun she kept her hair rolled in for so decades, and in its place was a short, naturally-colored style that took years off her face. “Lexie, you're so full of bull pucky. I don't know how Amanda puts up with you.” She swatted Lex lightly across the stomach. “Are you going to enlighten me on what you did to yourself this time?”
“Ow.” Lex rubbed her belly. “I figured Ellie would have filled you in on everything.”
“Ellie? She's here?”
“She's staying with us for a while.” Amanda walked around Lex and picked up the crutches. She handed them to Lex. “Here. You forgot something. Again.” She gave the children a loving smile. “Who's up for some ice cream?”
Both girls cheered.
Amanda laughed at their exuberance. “All right. Run and wash your hands.”
Lorrie stopped on her way to the bathroom across the hall. “Yes, ma'am. Come on, Mel.” She tugged her little sister along, wanting to hurry back before the adults changed their minds.
As soon as the children had left, Amanda turned to her wife. “If you'll sit down, I'll fix you a bowl.”
Lex started to argue, but the look on Amanda's face stopped her. “Yes, ma'am.” She kissed her wife on the cheek and with a smug look toward Martha, took her place at the table.
“She's up to something,” Martha whispered to Amanda.
“Probably. It'll be fun to see how long she behaves,” Amanda answered just as quietly. “Where's Charlie?”
Martha gathered the bowls and spoons, while Amanda took the different ice cream containers out of the freezer. “He's probably sacked out in front of the TV. Ornery old man wouldn't let me do any of the driving home.” They'd spent the last month in a rented cabin in Colorado . It had been Charlie's turn to choose the vacation spot, and Martha swore he picked camping to get back at her for the cruise they'd taken last year.
“You drive like a little old lady,” Lex teased. “If you'd been behind the wheel, y'all would probably still be on the road.”
“Hush, you.” Martha balled up a dish towel and tossed it at Lex. “At least we'd get here in one piece. Charlie drives the Jeep like it was a police car.”
Lex caught the towel and tucked in into the top of her shirt for a bib. “Thanks, Martha.”
Amanda laughed. “I call her that all the time.” She took a bowl of ice cream over to Lex, just as the girls raced into the kitchen.
“We're all clean, Mommy.” Melanie held out her hands for inspection. “Lorrie made me wash two times.”
Lorrie took her place next to Lex. “That's ‘cause she didn't use soap the first time.”
Melanie stomped her foot. “Yes I did!”
“Girls,” Lex warned. It was all she had to say, as both turned silent.
Mumbling under her breath, Melanie pulled out her chair and crawled into it. “Did so use soap.”
Lex held up her index finger and looked Melanie in the eye. “Last warning.”
Martha chuckled. “I'll swear both of those girls have Lexie's attitude.” She placed a bowl in front of each child, getting a quiet “thank you” from both.
“And Amanda's temper,” Lex added. She gave her wife an innocent smile. “Isn't that right, love?”
Glaring at Lex, Amanda prudently refused to answer. “Martha, do you remember saying that Lex could find mud in a drought?”
“I surely do.”
“Amanda—” Lex warned.
“You were right. That's how she hurt her back and her knee.” Amanda blew her wife a kiss. “Playing in the mud.”
Lex set her spoon in her bowl. “I was not playing.”
Lorrie piped up. “We tried to save a cow that was stuck in a tank.” Her face fell. “It died.”
Martha's eyes widened. “You were there, sweetie?”
“Yes, ma'am. Momma and me was checking the pump and found the cow. The pump was broke, but the cow died before we could get it out. Momma tried to dig the cow's legs out of the mud, and it fell on her when the big cat made a noise.” Proud that she finished her story, Lorrie returned her attention to her ice cream.
Lex sighed. “We've had a bobcat running loose lately and we haven't been able to catch it. We've got some traps set, so we can let it loose in the hills, but we haven't had much luck so far. So you might want to be extra careful walking up to the house, just in case.”
“I certainly will. But what's this about mud?”
“The pump had quit working and the tank had dried up. The cow was in the middle of what was left of the tank, and I tried to dig it out. I had Lorrie holding a rope that I'd thrown around the heifer, and when the cat hollered, her horse jumped. The rope tightened and the cow fell over on top of me.”
Martha gasped. “Oh, my.” She turned to Lorrie. “I bet that was scary for you, sweetie.”
Lorrie used her napkin to wipe the ice cream from her face. “Yes, ma'am. But Momma made it okay.”
Melanie giggled. “And when they got home, Momma was really dirty. And smelly.” She sat up straighter. “I got to help Lorrie get clean. She was kinda dirty, too.”
“It was necessary,” Lorrie explained. “That's what Momma said.”
“She would,” Martha added with a wink. “Your Momma has always thought that getting dirty was necessary.”
Lex blushed. “Aw, come on, Martha.”
“It's true and you know it.” Martha finished her ice cream and stood. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go check on my husband. If he naps too much now, he'll never get to sleep tonight.” She kissed each child on the head. “You sweet girls be good, and we'll see you at dinner.”
Amanda gave her a quizzical look. “Dinner?”
“I've got a roast in the oven and I'll bring it over about six.” She left the room before either woman could argue with her.
“How in the hell does she do that?” Amanda asked. “She just got home. There's no way she could have cooked a roast.”
“I dunno. I gave up trying to figure it out a long time ago.” Lex scooped out the last of her ice cream and licked the spoon clean.
A gray, Chevrolet pickup, bearing the logo of the Rocking R ranch on the doors, pulled over and parked on the tree-lined street.
Ellie stepped out of the truck. “I really appreciate it, Roy .”
“Anytime. It was nice having the company on the drive in. Do you need me to pick you up when I'm through with my errands?”
“No, that's okay. I've got a car here. But thanks.” Ellie closed the passenger door and gave him a little wave.
Roy returned the gesture and slowly drove away.
As the truck disappeared from view, Ellie turned and headed up the walk to her home. She opened the door and stepped inside, feeling the heavy weight of loss rest once more upon her shoulders.
Her eyes tracked to the item left casually on the arm of the sofa. Ellie crossed the room and lifted the men's suit jacket to her chest. She raised it to her face and inhaled, trying to catch even the slightest hint of her grandfather. Unable to detect anything, she felt tears burn her eyes.
“He's gone.” Ellie blinked the moisture from her eyes and took a deep, cleansing breath. She knew in her heart that Travis wouldn't have wanted her to continue mourning his passing. “I'm sorry, Grandpa.”
With a new resolve, Ellie gently folded the jacket and started for the master bedroom. She had a lot of things to go through and pack.
Travis had made Ellie promise that she'd donate everything of his that she couldn't use. She had tearfully agreed, and felt a deep shame at the thought she had let him down.
She opened the master bedroom door and peered inside. A layer of dust covered everything. Ellie walked in and rubbed her itchy nose. After Travis had died, she'd cleaned the room one last time and closed the door.
Ellie ran her hand along the handmade quilt that covered the queen-sized bed. “I bet Lex would like this,” she mused. Travis had told Ellie years ago that it was the last thing his wife Melanie had finished before her passing, and he'd only allow it off his bed long enough to have it cleaned.
After she had stripped the bed and got over a sneezing fit, Ellie opened the window. The cool air felt good on her dusty and overheated skin. She turned and surveyed the room. “The sooner I get started, the sooner I get finished.” Brushing her hands together to remove the dust, she focused on her task.
To be continued in Part Four
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