“Mom, can I take Tiana up to the waterfall?” Gracie asked at lunch.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Camille answered. “Mr. Benton went to talk to Kyle and only Sheridan is here.”
“Please mom. We’re on the ranch, nobody is going to bother us,” Willow whined.
“And soon she’ll be too big to ride up,” Gracie added.
“And it’s such a nice, warm day,” Willow finished.
“Please, Coach. I’ve never seen a waterfall up close,” Tiana begged.
Camille sighed, her sympathy getting the better of her, responding, “Only if Sheridan will agree to go with you.”
“Yay!” the three teens chorused.
A very few minutes, she watched them dragging the poor bodyguard toward the barn. She chuckled, thinking it was a good thing Sheridan didn’t have kids, the former bouncer was such a softie. She filled a backpack with bottled water and snacks, Holding it up to Willow as she rode by. Tiana was on Cajun, the horse gave Camille a questioning look.
“Take care of her, old man,” Camille said fondly patting the old cattle pony on the nose. He snorted against her hand as if to indignantly say ′like I wouldn’t′ and she laughed. Looking up at Sheridan, who was perched awkwardly on Cookie, Camille grinned, asking, “Are you going to be okay, Sheridan?”
“Uhh sure, fine. As long as the brakes work, I’m good.”
He looked nervous and Camille threw her daughters a look, scolding “Girls, you take it very easy, this is Mr. Sheridan’s first time on a horse. No fooling around and getting him killed.” To him, she said, “You don’t have to do this, Sheridan. They can stay home.” She rested her hand on his knee as she rubbed Cookie’s neck.
“No... no I want to go. The picture of the waterfall is pretty, and if Tiana wants to see it then I don’t mind going to see it too.” Cookie shifted on his feet and, for a moment, the giant bodyguard looked terrified.
“Just take it easy, Cookie is trained for my disabled cousin, so he shouldn’t give you any trouble. He’s a smooth ride. If you’re sure?” She gave him one last chance to get out of it.
“No... I mean, yes, yes I’m sure,” he tried to sound confident and failed badly.
Camille bit the inside of her lip to keep from laughing as he awkwardly rode after the girls, thinking perhaps she should have offered him the ATV as she went back inside to start dinner.
Idly she wondered if Sheridan would be able to walk tomorrow. It made her laugh wickedly inside, poor Sheridan ten miles plus his very first ride. He may be an excellent driver and former MMA fighter, but the ex-Marine had met his match in three teen aged girls. Half an hour later she used the ATV to go check the cows since all four horses were with the girls. As she drove the familiar trail to the western pasture, she chuckled again and doubted anything in Sheridan’s life had prepared him to deal with her butterflies.
Gio and Donnie watched the three girls and man leave the house and ride north on horseback. Gio insisted they stay and watch the woman who went back into the house. Donnie was starting to get impatient when she came out and rode a different direction on an ATV. They got on the dirt bikes they bought in Canyon and rode after the horse riders. Donnie had talked nonstop about the girl called Tatiana and admired her two friends who looked like fraternal twins. He wanted to add them to his collection.
Gio had tuned out his cousin’s obsession with the girl and his speculation that the twins were virgins as well. His only thoughts were of the mother. He hated the man on the horse, the way she had smiled at him and rested her hand on his knee while they talked. Gio wanted to rip the man’s leg off and beat him to death with it. The Blue Butterfly was his and his alone. He was grateful for helmets so he didn’t have to listen to Donatello as they followed a well worn trail to the top of the ridge.
Sheridan thought his hips were broken. The fire in his thighs and groin had him wondering how cowboys did this all day every day. By the time they got to the top of the ridge and started the mile toward the waterfall, he was wondering how much tequila he would need to kill the pain and how much viagra it would take to restore the mashed mess his balls and sausage had become. When the girls announced they reached their destination, Sheridan was ready to walk back. Nothing in his MMA fights or Benton’s training had prepared him for this torture, he would willingly go through Marine Corps boot camp again rather than get on another horse. He was pretty sure being split in half from the crotch up was worse than being waterboarded.
Gracie and Willow dismounted with the ease of people who spent their lives getting on and off the beasts. Tiana slid down after swinging a leg over. She stretched her legs but walked just fine. Sheridan fell off his horse trying to get his leg over. The giggles of teenage girls surrounded him but he was to miserable to even be embarrassed. . Cookie just stared down at him like, ‘not my fault, the human did it himself.’
“Please kill me,” he wheezed out as Gracie tied his horse with the others.
“Awww honey, we can get you some snow or ice to put on your sore spots,” Willow offered amused.
“Or you can just sit in the river, it’s mostly snow melt.” Gracie added. “It’ll be really cold.”
“Or we can put you back up there till you turn into one of us girls for realz,” Tiana teased as the three of them helped him up to his feet.
In his fake falsetto, he responded, “Just think of all the money I’ll save when I go for my surgery in Trinidad.”
The girls laughed harder.
Tiana spoke first, “Sorry to tell you this Senorita Sher-ri, but the sex change clinic closed down a few years ago, it’s now a medical marijuana dispensary. ”
“But don’t worry, I think Grandpa left an old bear trap in the barn,” Willow offered.
“We’ll just have you ride bareback down the mountain and you’ll be ready,” Gracie grinned. “Snap and you’ll finally be one of the girrrls!”
Sheridan chuckled, “You girls are funny, but I think I’ll pass on the bear trap and take you up on the ice.”
They walked up the river laughing, the view was amazing. The land just dropped away to the valley containing Pagosa Cliffs. The water roared as it rushed over the edge and fell into a turbulent pool at the bottom, the outflow of the waterfall carried the river toward the town. The deep rich color of the evergreens contrasting the young vivid aspens and poplars. The higher mountains still had caps of white snow as did the shadows of the trees, standing sentinel against the warmth of the sun. Winter and spring fighting for the land. Sheridan didn’t think he had ever seen a more beautiful place. Tiana wandered back up the river with Gracie while Sheridan looked down.
The horses were tethered to a tree, riders nowhere to be seen. Gio walked up to the animals and untied them, shooing them away. Three of the horses galloped back down the trail but the brown and white splotchy horse just stood there and looked at him. The name on the bridle said Cajun. No amount of pulling on the reins or slapping its hindquarter would make the stubborn horse move. Frustrated, Gio leveled his pistol at its head.
Donatello grabbed the gun, in Italian he scolded Giovanni, “Are you stupid? They’ll hear if you shoot it. Just let it wander off like the others.”
Gio growled something under his breath, then aloud responded, “Do you want to wait for them to come back here? Or go back to where they have to pass between the big rocks? We need to kill the man so the girls won’t cause problems. I still think we should just kill the other two and take your bride to be before we go back to the house.”
“Why do you want to go back to the house?” Donatello stared at him for a moment, then rolled his eyes. “Not the woman. Gio, we need to kill her too. And we are not killing the other two girls, I want them for my collection then you can have them or we can sell them.”
“Cousin, I do not have your fetish for children. I want the woman. I prefer maturity, and the one you gave me is no longer satisfactory.” Giovanni clenched his fists, thinking he was going to have to kill his cousin before all of this was over. Gio would not let Donatello hurt his blue butterfly, he needed her.
Donatello snorted amused. “Antonia is an exceptionally skilled whore. She’ll probably thank you for killing her rival by performing better than ever.”
“Perhaps for you. She has nothing more I want. And kidnapping three at once is a ridiculous problem.” Turning Gio pushed, his dirt bike back down the trail, leaving his stupid cousin and the stubborn horse behind.
Grumbling, Donatello followed, thinking his cousin was the problem. Slowly his mind began to work on why Giovanni would want the shorter, frumpier coach over the lithe, model beauty Tonia was. Donnie had never seen the Wallace woman up close, and he wondered what appeal the diving coach held to Giovanni. His mind couldn’t come up with the answer so he assumed Gio had finally cracked. His cousin’s mind worked in twisted and perverse ways, prison had changed him. Giovanni had always been volatile, dark and brooding, but now, since returning to Pagosa Cliffs, something had changed and Donatello wondered about it while they waited.
Finally after what seemed like hours, the Valtini cousins heard talking and laughing. Donnie peaked over the top of the boulder, Tiana was sitting on the horse. The twin girls and the man walking beside the horse. They were laughing as the man made a joke about getting stage fright. A glance told Donnie, Gio was taking aim. Donnie pushed himself up and stood on the giant rock.
Willow shouted over the roar of the water, “Below us is a strip of BLM land and then the Lazy UK, it’s owned by the Ursick family.” She pointed Across the valley to the north. “That’s the Rocking M, but the McConnell’s don’t run as many cattle as they used to. Their grandfather is the local vet. On the far side is the Durham farm, they mainly grow fodder and sell it to the lowlanders.”
“Where do you get your corn?” Sheridan called out loudly; he remembered getting corn fed beef in a St Louis steakhouse.
“We don’t feed grain, only grass. It makes the beef leaner, better quality,” Willow explained.
They stood quietly for a few moments more, Willow’s next words surprised him.
“Mom jumped off here,” Willow yelled to him. “Twice that she admits to, but I know it was more. She showed me how to survive if I ever went over the Falls.”
“Is she crazy?” Sheridan hollered back over the roar of the snowmelt swollen river.
Willow shrugged. “Maybe.”
They both turned as a rapid repeating whistle blast caught their attention and they ran back to where the horses were tethered. Gracie was waving at them from across the steel truss and wooden plank high water crossing, and then she turned and ran back into the forest beyond. They rushed across the bridge to follow.
Willow and Sheridan found Gracie and Tiana on the other side of the river, in a clearing. Tiana was kneeling on the ground crying, next to a mostly eaten newborn calf, the mama cow was also dead and partially eaten a few feet away. Gracie was examining the rusty-colored cow.
Willow cursed and walked quickly over, “Do you know whose she is, sis?”
Gracie shook her head. “No.”
“What do you mean, no?” Tiana snapped, “I thought you said you knew all your cows on sight. Someone ate her and her poor baby.” Tears ran freely down her cheeks. The tiny calf had the cutest face, even in death.
“Willow does know all our cows, but she’s not one of ours T, she’s a red angus,” Gracie explained. Taking several pictures of the cow with her phone.
“She isn’t branded. She might be stray-born.” Willow frown, leaning over the carcass. “Sheridan, can you help up turn her over?”
They rolled over the dead partly frozen cow and Sheridan resisted the bile that rose up in his throat as Gracie and Willow checked the other side of the cow.
“How long you think she’s been dead?” Willow asked.
Gracie rocked back and forth on the toes of her boots, “Not more than a week or two, whatever had been eating her has been here in the last few days. Maybe a cougar or a small bear. Looks like she died having the calf.” Gracie cut the cow’s ear off.
“Why’d you do that?” Sheridan wanted to know, he was suddenly very worried about having let Tiana come to such a dangerous place. Cougars and bears were animals to be avoided but Willow and Gracie acted like this was perfectly normal to find a half eaten cow in the middle of the forest on the far side of the river.
“The game warden and brand inspector will want proof, it is a free ranger. Stray livestock are a danger to the herds, they catch things from deer and elk and spread it to other domestic animals. This one is being eaten by scavenger so there may not be enough for them to look at when they get up here.”
“Are you sure a small bear is eating it?” Tiana asked terrified, “And not the one that treed you?”
“Well, pretty sure. At least it isn’t the one I saw. That one was huge, it would have eaten a lot more.” Willow rubbed the spot where her leg had been impaled when she climbed the tree to escape that particular bear. “I guess Mom and Uncle Tank did manage to kill it.”
Sheridan put his hand on Tiana’s shoulder, “I think we need to go back, girls. Benton will kill me if I let you all get eaten by bears.”
They walked back to the bridge in silence. Suddenly, Gracie took off running. Only Cajun stood where the horses were tethered.
“Dammit Willow! Freaking Lucky untied everyone and took off with Cookie and Misty!” Gracie kicked the dirt as she cussed at her sister. “I swear to gawd I am gonna put a muzzle on the stupid horse. Now we have to walk back.”
Willow held up her hands apologetically. “Sorry. She’s got bad habits.”
“Bad habits... bad habits... she left you in a freaking blizzard with a bear and now she’s stolen the rest of our mounts. That’s not a bad habit, that’s larceny, its horse thieving. She’ll be lucky if I don’t hang her,” Gracie ranted.
“Come on, Gracie, it isn’t her fault she can’t stand to be tied. You know Mom will bring them back up when they get home, let’s just start walking. T can ride Cajun and we’ll meet mom part way.” Willow tried to calm her irate sister.
“Walking is fine, Gracie, Willow.” Sheridan interrupted the feuding teens, “Besides I don’t think I could ride back anyway. My balls still haven’t dropped to their normal spot after the last ride.”
The girls stopped glaring at each other and stared at him shocked for a moment, then burst out laughing.
“You did not just say that,” Tiana laughed, aghast.
“We’re sorry, Sheri, we didn’t realize city boys got more junk under their trunk.” Gracie teased.
“We’ve always got that bear trap,” Willow giggled at his wide eyes and rapidly shaking head.
“No thanks, I’m good. I’m just going to walk it off, or walk them down as the case may be,” He smirked and they laughed even harder.
“You’re funny, Sheri,” Tiana laughed “Inappropriate but funny.”
“Yeah well, my older sisters voted me world’s most annoying baby brother, so I’ve had years of practice.” He grinned, walking in pace with Cajun, hoping they got back before Camille came with the horses. He would probably do anything not to get on another horse ever again.
“Ever thought about turning the annoying brother attitude into stand up?” Tiana asked. “Or maybe doing drag?”
“Oh no...” Sheridan said in his falsetto, “This girl gets stage fright.” They laughed as he fluttered his eyes up at T, who snorted.
A loud bang turned their laughter into screams. Sheridan collapsed as crimson blood soaked the front of his shirt. Gracie knelt next to him pressing her hands over his chest, with Willow standing between her sister and the threat. Tiana’s next scream caught in her throat.
“He was a real laugh riot. Now get of the horse, my angel or one of the twins will join him.”
“He’s dead,” Gracie whimpered.
Tiana almost fainted before she dismounted. Standing on top of the big boulder by the trail was the man of her nightmares, Donnie Valtini.