Willow and Gracie immediately went to their room followed by Tiana going to the guest room. Camille just slung her stuff on the chair and went back to the porch. She lifted the knitted afghan her mother made off the porch and stared at it, wondering if she will ever be able to get it clean. It is obvious the dogs have been sleeping on it. Camille wondered how they managed to drag it outside and why they brought it around to the front porch instead of taking it to their dogloo. Grumpily, she just carried it into the mud room and dumped it in the big utility sink to soak. She watched Sheridan and Benton walking around the barn. The old man was scowling.
Willow bounced into the mudroom in her all-weather gear, grabbing her coat and hat off the hook, she sat down to pull on a pair of worn cowboy boots.
“I’m riding out to check the herds,” the teen announces.
“Not alone, you’re not,” Camille retorted.
“Then you better get changed, ’cause Gracie and T have have already said they aren’t coming. T wants to sleep and Gracie wants to make a Get Well card for Gramma.” Willow walked out but called back over her shoulder, “Do you want Cookie or Cajun saddled?”
Camille groaned, what she wants is a cup of tea and a nap but Willow is right, chores come first. “Saddle Cajun, he’s already by the barn door. Do you want coffee in your thermos.”
Willow threw Camille a thumbs up over her head and never turns back. Sheridan followed Willow to the barn while Benton came toward the house, scowling. Camille went into the kitchen to plug in the pod machine Beau had gotten for the girls for Christmas. She began pulling the pods of coffee mix and Irish Breakfast tea out, as water heats the cores of two travel thermoses.
“What do you think you and your daughter are doing?” Benton gruffly demanded.
“We are going out to check the herds. This is a working ranch, Mr. Benton, as in a lot of work and until my cousin arrives from South Carolina, the girls and I will be doing this every day. Unless you and Sheridan want to saddle up and help us move the herd to the Ridge Trail pasture.” Camille wanted to smirk at the security coordinator’s expression; she doubted the New Yorker had ever even been on a horse.
“This place isn’t secure, anyone could just drive over the cattle guard and up to the house,” he complained. “And the trees obscure the line of sight...”
“Chainsaw is in the shed,” Camille interrupted while pouring hot beverages into the thermoses. “Clear the trees if you want, but if you cut them, you’re splitting them. I gotta go check our cattle.”
Willow shouted from outside, so Camille left Benton in the house grumbling about her being difficult. Sheridan was standing by the barn door.
“Camille, ma’am, I wish you would reconsider going out there with just your daughter,” he insisted as she swung up onto Cajun, the painted horse was practically dancing to be ridden after two weeks left to pasture.
Camille patted the old cattle pony’s neck to calm him. She looked down at the bodyguard tolerantly. “Sheridan, don’t worry about us. Willow and I can both ride well, we’ve got our rifles, and the cows won’t wait. This needs to be done every day, so unless you know someone who can do this with us, we’ll have to do it alone. We can’t have some greenhorn out around the mamas and newborns without risking them getting hurt. I know you’re good at your job, so stay here and protect Tiana.”
Willow whistled and the two cattle dogs ran ahead her. Camille turned her horse and rode after them. Sheridan just shook his head and went back inside. He was surprised to see Benton on the kitchen phone. He was arguing with Kyle. Sheridan just shook his head and went to stand on the front porch. He looked toward the driveway and the gate hidden by the rise of the terrain and the trees, the location was perfectly hidden but it was also perfect for an ambush. Anyone could drive up or walk up and not be seen until they were 300 feet from the house and there were multiple trails leading into the forest beyond the clearing. The valley that held the Wallace home was beautiful, secluded and someplace he wouldn’t mind living himself but it was a security nightmare.
As her mother and sister rode out to check the pregnant cows and heifers, Gracie settled Tiana back into the guest room.
After redoing Tiana’s nails and leaving her for a nap, Gracie went into the kitchen and put a roast in the oven with carrots, potatoes, and pearl onions. She pulled a dollop of sourdough starter from the jar and quickly kneaded it into flour mix and butter before feeding the starter and sealing the jar. She left the pan of biscuits in the oven to proof and went to the sunroom. She took out her watercolor pencils and began making a get well card for her gramma.
Benton was sitting in the corner watching out the front. He watched her sketching then asked, “Your mom and sister insisted on going out to check on the cows. Don’t you have someone hired to do that?”
“Hired hands cost money, Mr Benton. My Grandpa Ben and Uncle Beau used to handle most of it but since they were attacked, we do it,” Gracie shrugged. “After the estate taxes were paid, there wasn’t enough to hire someone on. It’s why Mom and Gramma both work. Uncle Beau managed the paperwork because he can’t ride for more than two hours. Katherine helps too but they have been back east with her family for the last month.”
“What attacked them?”
“A pair of bears.”
Her voice was so calm as she said it, he could only gape at her in surprise. “WHAT?!?”
“There was a bear going after the calves and birthing cows. Grandpa Ben and Uncle Beau went out to hunt it. They got it but then a second charged them while Grandpa was making sure it was dead. Lucky bolted, Cookie threw Uncle Beau. The bear slashed Grandpa and grabbed Beau by the leg and tried to drag him off. Cajun managed to kick it and Grandpa crawled to his rifle. He got a lucky shot straight up through the neck. When Lucky and Cookie showed up at the barn, Mom and Gramma rode out to look for them. Then Cajun showed up by then the McConnells had come to help look. They didn’t find them till really late that day. Grandpa put a tourniquet on Beau’s leg before he dragged him under a cedar where they were huddled together. Uncle Beau said he woke up with Grandpa’s coat over him and Grandpa was...”
Gracie’s voice wavered and she wiped a tear from her cheeks. Benton suddenly regretted asking, he couldn’t stand watching any female cry. He watched her dip a brush into water and begin painting water over what she had drawn.
“Uncle Beau used Grandpa’s whistle to signal the searchers for help. The Doctors said it was a miracle he survived. They had to cut off his leg above the knee, it made riding hard. Cookie was only green broke when it happened, it was Willow’s idea that Uncle Beau trained him to be reins only. ”
“I’m sorry your family went through that.” Benton didn’t know what else he could say.
“I miss Grandpa but Beau met Katherine at the rehab hospital, so I get a new aunt. Dawn always comes after the dark night,” Gracie responded as she blew lightly on the paper. “Ta-dahhhh, instant Get Well card.”
Benton stared at the watercolor amazed, “You’re very talented, Ms Gracie, and you have a very good outlook on life.”
She smiled and shrugged, “There’s no point in going all drama queen, pity party meltdown. Things happen for a reason, even if we don’t understand those reasons. Gramma says it’s all about how you look at things. Mom and Willow see everything as separate things, blocks of colors.” She drew a line of blue and a line of black, then brushed water between them. “Grampa and Gramma taught me that there’s always a bigger picture, things blend together. You just need to step back far enough to see the whole.” In the kitchen, a timer dinged. “I have to finish dinner.”
Gracie walked out and left him looking at the watercolors. Benton just shook his head, kids these days were so much smarter than when he was a kid. He walked out onto the porch and lit a cigar, scanning the treeline, he worried that it would be too easy for someone to come up on the house unseen.
It was almost sunset when Gracie saw her mother and sister riding up. Three mama cows were trailing behind them, and two pregnant cows on leads were complaining. Gracie hollered at Sheridan and Benton before she ran out to open the calf pen.
Camille slid off and dropped a calf that ran to its mother. She took a calf from Willow and while Gracie reached up for the other. They cautiously led the pregnant cows to the calving pen.
“Sis, we got 6 more swelling. We should have more calves by morning. We left the dogs with the herd,” Willow grinned proudly.
Camille smiled, “Looks like the bull you picked did his job well, Gracie. All the calves are strong and none of the moms are in distress.”
Gracie whooped happily, then laughed out, “I knew he was notcher.”
Sheridan looked confused, “Notcher?”
Willow pulled the saddle off Lucky, looking at the man like he was a fool. “You know ’a notcher? Looking to notch his bedpost.”
Gracie added. “The Magic Mike of the heifer harem.”
“A boy cow Casanova,” Willow giggled, as Sheridan began to turn red above his beard.
“A Maury-moment-maker baby-daddy.” Gracie continued, Benton coughed a laugh around his cigar.
“A gigolo with condoms not included,” Willow smirked.
“Enough girls, they get the idea,” Camille interrupted tolerantly, “We rented the bull Gracie picked. He did his job well, we didn’t have to artificially inseminate any of the cows or heifers this year and all the pregnancies have made it this far. By the end of the month, we’ll have double the hooves on the ground.”
Tiana yelled from the house, “Why is the timer and smoke detector going off?”
“Oh no, my biscuits are burnin’!” Gracie climbed the fence in two steps and ran toward the house.
Camille, Willow and Sheridan stared after her. Benton shrugged and puffed before exhaling an explanation, “Gracie made dinner.”
Willow made a sour face. “I love sis and she can decorate a pretty cake after Ms. Milli showed her how, but please mom, you gotta ban her from the kitchen before she burns the house down.”
Kyle paced back and forth in his construction office, the warmer than usual April had allowed to pools to be excavated and demolition finished on time. Now he was having massive amounts of building supplies driven in from Grand Junction and Denver. Mack was just about beside himself, keeping the logistics moving. Every night the temperatures dropped well below freezing, causing issues with some of the larger heavy equipment. The snow melt from the last March storm and the consequent dustings of snow due to the altitude made for slick working conditions. They had already had two guys take pretty serious falls in the semi-frozen sludge that covered the construction site and having to constantly use one piece of machinery to pull out the others was getting annoying fast. Kyle sent Mack to decompress after debriefing him.
After an all-nighter, the first day home from Cancun, Kyle was seriously questioning why he didn’t just retire, he hadn’t slept in almost 48 hours. He trudged back to the only other original building that remained, soon his crews would begin gutting it to and he would be forced to live in one of the construction trailers but for now he still had a bedroom of his own. As he showered the water was bitterly cold, then he remembered the gas line for the hot water heater was no longer connected. Cursing, he showered quickly, not even caring if he got all the soap rinsed with his desire to get out of the cold water quickly. Hands shaking, he started a fire in the small wood burning stove in the corner. The air was so cold he could see his breath.
Achingly slowly the room began to warm and he crawled into bed. Time stilled and he closed his eyes, wishing he had Camille to curl up with. His mind conjured the afternoon he had watched her walking down the beach with the girls. The triangles of her bikini top framing her butterfly, her legs, lean and perfect, below the curve of her hips and indention of her waist. He groaned and rolled over, he needed sleep, not adolescent dreams. His phone rang, reaching for it his hope was quashed by the prefix on the caller ID. Sophia! He turned it off and laid back. Whatever his ex wanted she could complain to his voicemail. The room had become warm enough to make him drowsy, one last thought of Camille and the girls chasing after butterflies at Xcaret and he fell into the deep dreamless sleep of the exhausted.
Doreen lay awake looking out the window of the hospital. Camille and the girls would just be getting up, Willow or Gracie would be saddling the horses while Camille made them a hot breakfast. The first of the calves had dropped and soon they would have doubled their herd size. The ranch was finally getting back on its financial feet after Ben’s death and she had to get in an accident and make more bills. A tap at the door had her smiling at Thomas. Sheriff Tanner was such a good young man, who had paid harshly for his youthful mistakes. She had wished that he and her granddaughter would move forward in their relationship, but it had become quickly apparent they would just be friends. Doreen hadn’t wanted that for Camille and now that Kyle was back in their lives perhaps her granddaughter would have a share of the happiness Doreen had with Ben.
“Mornin’ Gramma, I brought you a coffee and cinnamon rolls from the Anemone bakery. Camille called me last night and said they had three calves and two heifers close.” He held out his gifts.
“You always were a life saver, Thomas. The food here isn’t quite as bad as it was in the war.” She smiled opening the foam container to smell the raisin, cinnamon, and buttery goodness of a pastry made with love by Pagosa’s only bakery. “This might get me through till lunch. Did you find the youngin’ that wrecked me?”
“No ma’am, I was wondering if you remembered anything else?” he asked hopefully, “Maybe saw the guy or guys leaving?”
’No Thomas, I’m sorry. It was dark and they had no lights. I didn’t even see it at all. Just realized I was being t-boned as the airbag deployed. Do you really think there was more than one?” She saw something filter through his expression that worried her. “You think it was that man who is after Tiana.” Her matter-of-fact observation didn’t surprise him.
“Valtini has a cousin by the same name. He got out of prison six months ago for retrial and disappeared. We... I think they may be working together. That they staged your accident to get Camille to bring Tiana back.” Tank looked down at the hat in his hands, he wanted to crush something at the thought that the two thugs would put one of the sweetest ladies to ever live in such danger.
Doreen scowled, it made her wrinkled smile lines suddenly look fierce. “I’m alright, but I need you to watch out for my girls. It takes more than a little fender bender to put this old war horse out of commission.”
Tank snorted. “Fender bender? Gramma Doreen, your old truck as practically torn in two, the bed’s off and the rear axle was broken in half. I honestly don’t know how either of you didn’t die.”
She shrugged and grimaced at the whiplash pain before remarking, “Well, if you leave me here much longer, I might die from the institutional food or boredom.”
He chuckled, “Sorry Gramma, but I’m a sheriff, I don’t help with prison breaks.”
“Why Sheriff Tanner, I would never suggest such a thing. I just need you to leave the keys to your patrol vehicle on the table and walk away quietly like a good boy,” Doreen responded sweetly.
Tank chuckled. “Gramma Doreen, I would, but I am more afraid of Camille than I am of you.”
Doreen laughed too. “Aren’t we all?”