The Cedar Tree

The Cedar Tree

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Back cover copy:

After an injury forces cowboy Gil Howard from the rodeo circuit and an accident kills his girlfriend, he seeks out his grandfather in Colorado, a rancher and minister in a sect of faith healers. Wild, restless, and angry at his alcoholic father, Gil drifts in a life suddenly foreign to him until he meets intriguing rancher’s daughter, Katie Campbell—only to find no one wants him with her, including Katie herself, who has a longstanding attachment to her childhood friend and sweetheart. After a mountain storm throws the two of them together, Gil finds himself in love for the first time and his life begins to come together in unexpected ways. Then tragedy strikes and he is left struggling to reconcile his past with his new faith and his shattered dreams. Will there ever be another message from Katie in the cedar tree?

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Chapter One

The little Mustang GT hurtled down the winding canyon road, its headlights swinging across the black emptiness on the right side of the car then glaring off the rocky walls on the other. It took a curve in the road with a squall of tires.

“You’re not going to do this to me and then dump me like a piece of trash, Gil Howard,” Darlene said, her voice shrill. The knuckles of her small hands gripping the steering wheel shone white in the glow from the dash-lights. Tears caused her mascara to run unchecked down her cheeks.

Gil eyed the speedometer uneasily. “Slow down, Darlene.”

She glared narrowly at him. Her large, tawny eyes, set far apart on her small face had always reminded him of a spooky horse, but now they just looked crazy.

“I won’t let you treat me like a piece of trash,” she said between her teeth.

“Darlene, look out,” he yelled.

He grabbed for the steering wheel and jerked it just in time to avoid the headlights in the other lane. The car passed with a long blare from its horn, but Darlene only pushed her foot harder on the accelerator, fishtailing around another curve.

She looked at him again, the easy, sloppy tears of that stage of her drunkenness running from her eyes. He had seen it before. Too many times.

“I have loved you,” she cried.

His lips twisted. Him and at least half a dozen other guys. Her bright red mouth stretched down her face at his expression. Combined with the arrows of black mascara beneath her eyes, she reminded him of a clown. He looked away.

“I’ll kill you first.”

The tone in her voice had changed from hysteria to icy control. He jerked around his head. Her clown mouth turned up at the corners in a chilling imitation of a smile.

“You won’t dump me because I’ll kill us both,” she said.

Then she hauled the wheel to the right.

***

“Hang on there a minute, Tiger.”

The overpowering smell of gasoline infiltrated Gil’s consciousness, almost masking the smell of crushed pine needles. And blood. He opened his eyes to a blinding light. Blinking, he tried to sit up, but someone stopped him. He pushed aside the flashlight.

“What’s goin’ on?” he mumbled. “What happened?”

“You’ve been in an accident.” The face behind the flashlight leaned closer. “Been drinkin’ a little, Gil?”

Suddenly remembering Darlene, Gil sat up, gingerly fingering a stinging cut on his head. The slow revolutions of red lights lit the rocky walls of the canyon with garish brilliance, illuminating blood on his hand, too. He wiped it on the carpet of pine needles beneath him. Shivering in the breeze blowing down the canyon, he clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering. Someone wrapped a rough wool blanket around his shoulders.

“Darlene all right?” he asked the face.

The man with the light squatted next to him. “She Don Carpenter’s sister?”

“Yeah.”

The man leaned closer. He recognized the county sheriff.

“You two just about run me off the road a few miles back.” The sheriff studied him then shook his head, his mouth grim beneath his grey mustache. “I don’t know how come you want to be like your old man. Ain’t one drunk in the family enough for you?”

He rubbed his bloody hand over his face. “I wasn’t drivin’.”

“I know, but I could find a way to put you away for this, anyway. I ought to.” The sheriff rose. His knee popped. “As to Miss Carpenter, she’s got a steerin’ wheel in her chest.”

He jerked up his head.

The sheriff met his eyes with unveiled disgust. “She’s dead. And I have to say I’ll never understand how you got out of that car alive.”

***

Darlene’s powder blue Mustang had wrapped around the four foot trunk of an old pine, but the tree stood unfazed by the terrific impact except for a few broken branches. The paramedics treated Gil for minor abrasions, and someone found his black Stetson. He shoved it on his head and braced his lanky frame against a boulder, shivering beneath the brown blanket. Firemen moved unhurriedly about, preparing to cut Darlene out of the wreckage.

It was too bad about her car. Her dad had given her the new 1982 Mustang for her college graduation. She had loved only one thing more than the car—her rangy Appaloosa barrel racing horse. Her dad probably wouldn’t keep the horse around now.

The roar of a generator powering a Jaws of Life shattered the muffled sounds of the night, reverberating from the canyon walls, drowning out the rush of mountain water in the creek at the bottom. The machine slowly separated the roof of the car from the window frame with a groan of stressed metal and popping bolts, and then a final sickening sound as the rest of the windshield splintered.

The generator suddenly cut off, and he rubbed his hand through his hair. His ears still roared from the noise and he had a headache, but he didn’t feel anything else. Darlene had told him he was as shallow as a mud puddle. She must have been right. He should be feeling something.

She had just died trying to kill him, after all.

He rode back to town with the sheriff. Heavy jaw set, mustache bristling, the sheriff never said a word the whole way until he parked at the Boise County Sheriff’s Department.

“Am I supposed to tell her dad, or will you?” Gil asked.

The sheriff’s eyes, almost buried in a maze of weathered laugh lines, narrowed grimly. “I’d oughta make you do it.” His mouth twitched beneath his mustache into a humorless smile. “In fact, that’s a good idea. Yeah, you do it.”

He followed the sheriff’s wide back, ramrod stiff, into the building, picturing Darlene’s stocky little father, his greying hair slicked back, cigarettes rolled in his tee shirt sleeve, his mechanic’s fingers stained black with grease. Her father stayed broke to keep Darlene rodeoing, but he called her Baby and made every rodeo she’d ever competed in—he was going to take this hard.

The sheriff stood waiting at his telephone. Gil looked at him and then reluctantly reached for the phone. Satisfied, the sheriff left the room.

He sat in the chair and dialed Darlene’s brother, waking him. “Hey, Don. Can you come to the sheriff’s department and pick me up?”

“Where?”

“Sheriff’s department.”

“You in jail?”

“No.” He dropped his head to one hand and rubbed it through his black hair falling into his eyes. “And I need you to call your dad first and tell him somethin’.”

He didn’t tell Don what had really happened, but Darlene’s brother didn’t take it very well anyway. It took a few minutes before he could hang up the phone.

“That didn’t sound like Dad,” said the sheriff behind him.

He stiffened then swiveled around in the sheriff’s chair to face him. “He wasn’t home.”

“Bullcrap.”

He coolly met the older man’s disgusted gaze.

“What’s wrong, Gil? Can’t figure out how to joke your way out of this one?”

He didn’t say anything.

“That young girl is dead, her life ended—” The sheriff’s meaty hand chopped down. “Just like that. All over. Least you could do is take enough responsibility to break it to her old man.” The sheriff eyed him thoughtfully. “I’d oughta lock you up.”

He shrugged. “Knock yourself out, Sheriff.”

The sheriff’s gaze hardened at his tone. “You got a lotta potential, Gil. Before you got hurt ridin’ that bronc last year, I said to myself, this boy could get to the top with this. Then, when you couldn’t rodeo anymore, I said to myself, this is just as well. He can settle down, quit runnin’ with that hard drinkin’ crowd. It’ll keep him from turnin’ out like Roy. You’re just as good as your dad with horses, maybe better. You could do somethin’ with it still, but you ain’t one bit smarter than your old man. Get outta my chair.”

He rose.

“You need a change of scenery.” The sheriff moved toward him until he stood close, his eyes leveled. “You understand me?”

“You bet.”

“That’d be, you bet, Sir.”

He gave the other man a cocky grin. “You bet,” he said. He settled his Stetson on his head and walked out of the room.

***

A few days later, the sign for the towering, glass fronted church in Boise rose from a perfectly groomed emerald lawn. Gil turned his pickup into the parking lot, surprised. This was about the last place he’d have expected to find any of Darlene’s family. He parked next to Don’s truck, suddenly remembering Don’s Christian girlfriend.

She hadn’t lasted long, just that one date, but he remembered the small girl sitting stiff and out of place on the ratty couch in Don’s trailer. Her doe-like eyes had been earnest as she made a valiant effort at small talk. He had been wondering what was wrong with her that she had consented to a date with Don when she turned her soft gaze to him where he sprawled in a lopsided recliner across the room.

“What church do you go to, Gil?” She had a soft voice, too.

Don gave a loud guffaw.

He stared at her in surprise, and then gave a sheepish grin. “I haven’t been to church since I was about six years old.”

The girl turned to Don. “How about you?”

Don’s freckled face flushed. “I go to church some. I’m a…Baptist…I think. Hey, Darlene,” he yelled into the kitchen, “are we Baptists, or what?”

“I think so,” Darlene had yelled back.

Apparently Darlene hadn’t known what she was, either, because the church wasn’t a Baptist church.

He stepped out of his truck. The late morning sun on the fresh asphalt released a hot, oily smell into the air as he walked across the parking lot trying to remember what he had ever seen in Darlene. She had been pretty, no doubt about that, but her image in his mind remained as lifeless as the college rodeo poster of her from last year. A curvy girl posed on a horse with a sparkling tiara around the headband of her white Stetson, a dusting of freckles across her nose and shoulder-length brown hair.

Everybody thought he was cut up about her, but the poster hadn’t shown the clingy, emotional neediness spilling from her eyes and the instant craziness at any refusal to feed that insatiable need. He frowned. If Darlene was alive today, he’d still break up with her.

He joined the other five pallbearers in the foyer then filed into the hushed stillness of the church after them. They lined up on the front pew in front of Darlene’s flower covered, pink casket with a framed picture of her on the lid. An old lady with blue hair began to play the organ behind the preacher.

He shifted on the pew, unobtrusively studying the uneasy row of sun-browned faces beside him for signs any of them were cut up about Darlene. They all looked like they were getting over hangovers more than anything else, except for wiry little Carlos, who kept crossing himself every time he looked at the casket. At least he knew he was a Catholic.

The six of them on the pew probably appeared much the same—hair flattened to each pale forehead by the headband of a Stetson removed before entering the sanctuary, white shirts, sun-browned, rough hands fidgeting at the knees of their best jeans, each pair of boots showing wear from rubbing against stirrups. They had other things in common, too. They’d all been friends since high school, they’d all been on the same rodeo team in college, and Darlene had slept with them all, except for her brother, Don.

But…he didn’t fit with them anymore.

He shifted uncomfortably. That couldn’t be right.

Turning, he fastened his attention on the minister over the top of Darlene’s pink casket. The soft-looking man spoke of Jesus and heaven in a perfectly modulated voice, but he kept running his hand over his faultless hair and glancing at his watch as if he had a tee time…and he called the deceased Donna. In all fairness, this guy had probably never met Darlene, but that didn’t seem right.

For a while, he hoped something the preacher said would make sense of the weird sensation he’d had for the past several days this whole thing had happened to someone else. Someone he didn’t know. The words remained meaningless.

He turned his gaze back to the casket, studying the ornate brass fittings on the side-rails. At least Darlene wouldn’t be heavy for him and the other guys to carry. Now, if it had been him stretched out in a box he would’ve made them all grunt. He grinned a little, but his grin slowly faded. His gaze fixed.

Why hadn’t it been him?

Shifting uneasily, he looked up at the preacher again, his soft hands clasping and unclasping as he talked. The man’s image disappeared in a sudden vivid recollection of his grandfather’s lanky frame behind a wooden pulpit, his work hardened hands gripping the edges of it while his booming voice filled a crowded room.

He hadn’t seen his grandfather since his childhood, but Gene Howard wouldn’t have preached a funeral like that. If it had been him speaking of Jesus and heaven, his words would have rolled through the room with the certainty of thunder…and he would have known the deceased’s name.

At the cemetery, the sun in the deep blue of spring sky made the pallbearers sweat, but he had been right—Darlene didn’t make any of them grunt when they lifted her casket to the stand over her grave. And her father did take it hard. The tough little man stood alone and bawled like a baby.

Standing on the spongy, emerald turf in the line of pallbearers, hats in hands, Gil shifted his boots and turned his eyes away from Darlene’s father. When the minister said ‘amen,’ he turned and walked away.

He drove to Don’s trailer to change clothes. In the bathroom, Darlene’s beer bottle had cracked the mirror all the way across, but none of the glass had fallen from the frame. The crack distorted his reflection so one of his eyes looked higher than the other as he carefully probed the cut on the side of his face. He ripped open the snaps of his white shirt and shrugged out of it. Then he turned on the tap to splash water over his face and head. He braced his hands on the counter and stood with his hair dripping in his eyes and into the sink.

Finally, he reached for a towel and dried his hair, raising his gaze to his reflection. Sun-browned, lean-jawed face and dark lashed gaze reminded him of his father, but the anguish in his eyes as he really looked into them for the first time…completely unfamiliar.

Ain’t one drunk in the family enough, Gil?

He stared at himself as the sheriff’s words rolled through his thoughts. He hadn’t felt the need since he’d been a kid, but…maybe he needed to talk to somebody.

He tossed away the towel and gathered his shaving gear from the counter beside the sink. Finding his duffel bag under the couch that had been doubling as his bed, he stuffed the rest of his belongings into it. He slung it over his shoulder then hesitated at the door. Probably he should leave a note for Don. He shrugged.

Hoisting his saddle with one hand and his guitar case with the other, he left without a backward glance.

***

Heat reflected from the sun-lit bricks of the convenience store on the highway where a wiry-haired yellow mongrel trotted in a businesslike way along the sidewalk. The dog stopped suddenly to lift its leg on the phonebook dangling from a chain beneath the payphone then flopped down, panting, in the small patch of shade to the north of the phone.

Gil approached, digging in his pocket for a quarter. “Beat it, mutt.”

He dialed his sister, Dee. The phone rang twenty times while the dog sat up, ears cocked with every appearance of interest.

“I don’t think she’s home, Pooch.” He leaned over and scratched the mongrel behind the ear.

“Hey, Gilberto! Is that you, man?”

He turned at the shout then grinned widely, hung up the receiver, and stepped off the curb. “Armando! Hey, como estás, dude?”

Armando’s brown face stretched with a wide, white grin. “I am always doing good.”

He approached Armando’s car. Eyeing the glossy shine of metallic flaked gold paint, polished tires and a small Mexican flag fluttering from the radio antennae, he whistled. “How’d you score this nice ride, dude?”

Armando’s grin widened and his black eyes danced with laughter. “I am the Mexican National boss of all those illegals out at the farm of potatoes.”

He laughed. “How’s that goin’?”

“They love me, man.” Armando threw back his head, roaring with laughter. “What you doing now? Still riding those bucking horses?”

He shook his head, sobering a little. “Naw. Came off one last summer and blew out my knee.” He shrugged. “Just been doin’ this and that. Playin’ my guitar at the bar mostly.”

“Aw, man. You ain’ even going to be able to play ball at the college no more, neither?”

“Naw,” he said with a wry grin. “They pulled the plug on me before that ever happened.”

“Aw, man. You was a good hitter, too. Going to the playoffs and everything, you know? So you going to work for your ol’ man out at the ranch for the res’ of your life, now?”

He swore and gave a derisive snort. “Hardly.”

Armando studied him for a moment. “Uncle Antonio heading back to Mexico pretty soon since he los’ his job with you ol’ man.”

“I wondered what he’d do. Poor ol’ dude. He’s been with Dad since we came to Idaho. Seventeen years, I guess.”

Armando nodded. “He tell me once only reason he stay after your ol’ man start drinking so much is because of you an’ Dee. An’ your mama.” His gaze sharpened. “He tol’ me the bank selling your ol’ man out.”

He stared at Armando. “Sellin’ him out?”

“You didn’ know?”

He stood silent for a moment. “Haven’t been home in a while.” He changed the subject. “How’s Maria?”

Armando’s good-natured eyes became wary. “She doing good.” He paused. “Why you want to know?”

He shrugged. “I might come see her sometime if she won’t shoot me.”

Armando smiled. “She migh’ not shoot you, but I don’ know if I really wan’ you seeing her, man, you know? We grow up together and everything, an’ I like you, but…you a little crazy when you drinking, you know?” He paused. “Like that one time, remember? Taking that sign down like that? That guy could have drown when he wen’ in the river, you know?” He grinned. “Besides, she married, now, man.”

He stared at Armando. “Married? She ain’t even eighteen yet, is she?”

Armando shrugged. “Mexican girls grow up fas’.”

“Who’d she marry?”

Armando flexed his stocky shoulders. “Big guy. Mean. Jealous.” He grinned. “Very jealous, this man.”

He tried to grin. “Got it, Armando. I won’t try to see Maria.”

***

The bass from Armando’s car speakers boomed, still audible for a block after he pulled away from the convenience store. Gil stood on the curb looking thoughtfully after him until the sound faded away then he headed for his pickup. The sun gleamed on its shining, midnight blue paint, striking sparks of light from the chrome grill guard and wheels. He slid in and stomped down on the accelerator, pulling onto the highway toward the ranch with a gratifying roar of exhaust pipes.

He took a dip from the tobacco can on the seat beside him and groped for an empty beer can on the floorboard to spit in. An hour later, he had left the dry hills as the road climbed toward the foothills where the ranch his folks had built from nothing spread across a thousand acres.

He should have thought about marrying Maria like she wanted. Armando’s younger sister had grown into one of the most beautiful girls he had ever known, but beneath her quick temper she had a tender, sympathetic heart—one of the few girls he had ever known who thought about something besides her hair and shoes. She really knew him, too, and he had always been able to talk to her. Heaving a sigh, he spit in his can. He should have treated her better the last time he’d seen her.

It had been hot that day almost a year ago. Dust had billowed from behind her old car on the graveled road until she slammed on the brakes.

She had glared across the seat at him, her black eyes flashing. “I ain’ no trashy wetback girl looking for no green card. I though’ you care abou’ me, but you don’ care about nothing. Get out.”

He had looked out at the dry grey hills shimmering in a heat haze in dismay. “Right here?”

“Righ’ here.” The more agitated she got, the thicker her accent got. “Jhew drink too much and jhew don’ got no feelings. Jhew ain’ never gon’ have no feelings. Only feelings jhew got is in jhore pants.”

“C’mon, Maria, settle down. It’s five miles to town—”

“Maybe you see if you got feelings in your feet. Get out.”

He hadn’t been mad when he slowly got out of her car and slammed the door, but the last thing she yelled out the window made him mad and he hadn’t gone back to make up with her like he should have.

“This too bad for you, Gilberto.” It sounded like Hilberto when she said it. “We coulda made a lotta babies, had a happy life, but maybe you gon’ end up jus’ like your papa…”

The big sign at the turn onto the gravel road to the ranch interrupted his thoughts. He stopped his truck in the road, staring disbelievingly at the sign reading, Ranch Auction Saturday, with an arrow pointing north. The auction notice almost obscured the faded sign reading, H Bar Ranch—Registered Roping Horses and Angus Bulls.

His stomach twisted. Armando had been right—his father really had managed to lose the place. Swearing, he jerked off his hat and drove his fist down on the steering wheel. He sat staring, and then he gunned the motor, leaving the pavement for the gravel road with a squeal of tires.

At the ranch, the evening breeze blew through the wide doors at either end of the log barn his father, Roy Howard, had built. Gil pulled his pickup into the breezeway and to the end stall. He shut off the motor and stepped out. Visible through the big double doors, his father worked a big buckskin gelding in the breaking pen outside the barn.

Jaw tight, he worked his wad of chewing tobacco, narrowing his gaze on his father and the horse. The whites of the gelding’s eyes stared and the muscles beneath his glossy hide bunched with effort as he struggled to keep his balance against the deep sand of the pen and the conflicting cues of the man on his back. His father moved easily with the horse, as much an extension of the big animal beneath him as always, but his hands pulled heavily at the horse’s foaming mouth as he jerked him in meaningless circles.

He spit contemptuously on the ground. If he tried to intervene with his father this drunk, it’d just be worse for the horse.

Turning away, he yanked open the half door of the stall, entering the dim space smelling of dust, horse sweat, leather, and saddle oil. Nails full of bridles, halters, ropes and saddle straps covered the length of one wall and he passed along it separating his gear from his father’s, flinging each piece into a pile on the floor as he went. When he had it all gathered, he carried it to his pickup and heaved it all into the back. He headed back for his saddles and the metal box with his horseshoeing tools then he stood looking around the familiar space for the last time before he turned away.

He drove around to the ranch house where his mother, Irene, sat on the top porch step, her unruly black curls loose on her shoulders. Her white blouse looked too big for her, and her sandaled feet peeked from under one of what his father always called her ‘hippy’ skirts. The skirt swirled around her in a riot of design, and the whole thing created the impression of a forlorn little girl dressed in her mother’s clothes.

He parked then removed his hat and flung it onto the seat beside him, ran his hand over his hair, and stepped out to spit his wad of chew onto the ground.

He stopped at the foot of the steps. His mother raised her dark blue eyes with their heavy fringe of lashes without any of her usual attempt at cheerfulness. The hopeless look in her gaze hurt him.

“I’m sorry, Mama.”

She reached for his hand, pulling him down beside her on the step.

He slid his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close to rest her head on his shoulder. “What’re you gonna do now?”

She sniffed and wiped at tears dripping silently onto their hands. “I’m still working at the travel agency in town, so I guess we’ll move into the apartment.”

His mother, desperate for money his father couldn’t drink, had taken the job at the travel agency in town a few years before. Too far distant for her to drive every night, she and Dee had lived in a small apartment during the week until Dee moved away to work at a veterinarian clinic in northern Idaho.

He stared out across the lawn. Once the color of an emerald and mowed smooth, it now sported a straggly growth of drooping dandelions and parched bluegrass in spite of the rush of irrigation water in the ditch at the edge of the yard. The flowerbeds next to the porch, once a profusion of color, grew only weeds now.

His mother cleared her throat. “Gil, the sheriff was out here a while ago.” She paused. “He said you were in a wreck with Darlene Carpenter and she was killed.”

He sat motionless. “That why he came out?”

She sighed. “No. He came to tell your dad not to give any trouble at the auction Saturday, but he’s…concerned about you.” She paused. “Is it true about Darlene?”

He shrugged and turned loose of her hand to lean his elbows on his knees. “Yeah.”

“He said her blood alcohol level was way over the limit and that you’d had too much, too. He seemed to think you could have prevented the whole thing.”

He didn’t look at her.

“Could you have prevented it, Gil?”

“Probably.”

Roy’s Australian shepherd, Spud, bounded around the corner of the house. The dog spotted him and launched himself. While he held the dog’s enthusiastic onslaught at arm’s distance, he scratched Spud’s grey ears and rolled him around at his feet, but he didn’t smile.

“Did you…care about her at all?” his mother asked.

He picked up a stick from the flowerbed and flung it across the yard, his gaze on the dog racing after it. “No.”

She burst into tears. He turned to her.

Tears swelled over her lashes and ran down her cheeks. “Gil, please. I’m begging you to stop all this. Do you not understand where you’re going to end up?”

Spud bounded back with the stick and dropped it. Tight jawed, he leaned forward to pick up the stick, throwing it again. The dog brought it back twice more while his mother sat with her face in her hands.

He broke the silence. “My life’s a bunch of crap, Mama.”

She looked up. “Honey—”

“I can’t ride rodeo with a blown out knee, and they won’t take me in the Marines, now, either. I’d kinda thought that me and Maria might settle down one of these days, but she married somebody else.” He rubbed a hand over his hair. “Everything I wanted to do with my life ain’t gonna work out now, and everybody seems to think I’ll end up like Dad.” He jerked to his feet and threw Spud’s stick with unnecessary force. “Maybe they’re right. I think there’s somethin’ wrong with me.” He turned and thumped his chest over his heart. “In here.”

She frowned, instantly worried. “Did you get hurt in the wreck?”

He shook his head impatiently. “No, but I should have.” He turned to look over the Saw Tooth Range, its jagged peaks still snowcapped. “I shouldn’t have got out of that car alive. It looked like a smashed pop can, but it was like—” he shrugged—”I don’t know. Like somebody lifted me out and laid me on the ground. Ever since then it’s been like…nothin’s the same to me.”

The screen door behind them kicked open. He turned and his jaw tightened. His father stood in the doorway holding a Pepsi can—no doubt half-filled with whiskey—then slouched onto the porch and dropped into a chair against the wall. Tipping back, he lifted his boots to the porch railing and pushed back the brim of his dusty Stetson, exposing sweaty black hair plastered in stark contrast to his white forehead. Aiming at a weed in the flowerbed, his father spit a stream of tobacco juice onto it then wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his denim shirt.

“Come home to watch the old man go down in flames Saturday, boy?” his father asked, his dark lashed eyes bloodshot and puffy. “That oughta make you and your mother happy.”

His mother’s shoulders sagged, making her smaller and more forlorn than ever. He stiffened, his stance with his hands on his hips belligerent. Spud brought back the stick, but he ignored him.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

His father took a swallow from the can and grimaced. “It means if you’d stayed home and helped out after Antonio left, I could’ve held this place together, but you had to go off chasin’ skirts and—”

“I learned everything I know about that from you.” The resentment bordering on hatred in his father’s eyes exactly mirrored his own emotions.

His father swore. “At least I ain’t never killed one of ’em.”

“I didn’t kill her. She was tryin’ to kill me.”

His father gave him a humorless grin. “Too bad she didn’t get it done.”

“Roy!” His mother’s head jerked up.

“Shut your mouth, Irene. You’ve worked all his life to turn him against me. Dee, too. If it hadn’t been for you—”

With a bellowed curse, he lunged up the steps toward his father, a red haze shadowing his vision. The chair legs crashed to the floor as his father scrambled upright. He caught his father halfway up and grabbed his shirt at the throat, slamming him against the wall. The black Stetson fell to the floor.

“Don’t you start on Mama,” he said through gritted teeth, eye to eye with his father. The veins on his neck swelled, throbbing. “This is all your doin’. If you wanna know who turned me against you, go look in the mirror.”

His father swore. “You get yourself tied to a woman like your mother and you’ll see the same thing I see in the mirror—”

“If it hadn’t been for Mama through the years—” he roared, slamming his father against the wall again with a satisfying crack of skull against wood siding—”you wouldn’t be any different from any old drunk layin’ behind a beer joint in an alley beggin’ money off hookers.”

The Pepsi can hit the board floor, splattering his boots with whiskey.

His father worked his hands between their chests, shoving back, his eyes ugly and unrepentant. “If it hadn’t been for her, I’d—”

Pulling back his fist, he drove it into his father’s lean middle. Roy doubled over, gasping, and then he lunged, driving his shoulder into Gil’s stomach. He staggered. His father drove forward again. He avoided the rush with a step to the side. His father’s momentum propelled him into the porch railing with his head. The dry wood snapped with a sound like a pistol shot. His mother screamed and rushed down the steps, sobbing as his father toppled onto the flowerbed beneath.

A moment later, he reluctantly followed. He rolled his unconscious father over to reveal a bleeding gash on his head then he grabbed Roy beneath the arms and hauled him onto the overgrown lawn.

With his chest heaving for air, he straightened and met his mother’s horrified gaze. “I wish I’d killed him,” he panted. “It would’ve solved a lot of problems.”

All the color left her face, leaving the scattering of freckles across her small nose standing out in sharp relief. Her face contorted with anger and pain.

“It wouldn’t have solved anything, Gil,” she screamed. “Why can’t you understand that?” She gestured at his father with an angry movement. “Do you want to end up like this?” She fell to her knees, and her tears dripped onto the dark whisker stubble on his cheek. She gently patted his face. “Roy, can you hear me?”

He stared at his mother. She was mad at him?

Spud crept up on his belly to his father and licked his hand with a worried whine. Even the dog…

In that instant he made a decision he hadn’t even known he had been considering.

He was going to Colorado. He wanted to see his grandfather.

Chapter Two

A June dawn rimmed a volcanic upthrust of black boulders and cedar trees with gold, filling the sky above it with the deep blue of the high altitudes. Mellow sunlight suddenly spilled over the top of the hill, illuminating the weathered grey of the barn and corral where an aging gelding, Shorty, lipped up the last of a measure of oats in a rusty metal tub. Gil’s grandfather, Gene Howard, leaned on the top corral pole, his dark gaze on the snow covered peaks far across the valley, cast into sharp relief by the sunrise.

Gil leaned next to the old man, eyeing the horse disgustedly. This late in the year, Shorty’s coat should have reflected deep, glossy chestnut. Instead, patches of his winter coat remained, absorbing the early morning sunlight. His hide looked tired and dusty, like the moth-eaten hair on a fledgling taxidermist’s forgotten experiment. Seemingly unmoved by his poor opinion, Shorty snuffled around in the tub for the last grains.

He turned to his grandfather. “That’s the laziest horse I’ve ever flung a leg over, Gramps.”

Even he recognized the striking resemblance between him and his grandfather even though the old man’s full head of hair had turned steel-grey and his lined and weather-beaten face reflected over seventy years of living.

“Son, at my age, the lazier the better,” his grandfather’s booming voice rumbled over the quiet of the morning. Hard of hearing, he compensated by raising his voice even in normal conversation.

“You can’t be that old.”

The old man laughed, deepening the maze of lines around his eyes. He reached a rough hand to scratch behind barrel-chested, fat-rumped Shorty’s ears. “Don’t be so hard on ol’ Shorty. He’s a good feller.”

He shook his head, but he grinned. “He’s a lazy bucket of lard, Gramps.”

The nose of his grandfather’s black and white shepherd, Chief, nudged against his jeans. He looked down at the dog and spit a stream of tobacco juice. “I’m not bendin’ down there to scratch your ears, Pooch,” he said, but he reached for Chief’s greying head, scratching his ears.

Chief gave a groan of pure delight and collapsed onto his well-padded side.

He rubbed the dog’s belly. “In fact, every animal on this place is a lazy bucket of lard.”

“Son, we’re all gettin’ old. We ain’t so full of juice as we used to be.”

“If I’m gonna help you get your cattle gathered and ready to move to the mountain before I leave, Shorty’s gonna have to get some juice somewhere.”

The old man eyed him for a moment. “What’s your hurry about leavin’?”

“I need to get a job one of these days.” He straightened, leaning on the pole again.

His grandfather cleared his throat. “You haven’t told me why you came here, yet, Son.”

He studied the patchwork of green ranch fields across the valley, now flooded with light. “You remember that time I almost got sent to juvie when I was fourteen or so? When Mama called you and had you talk to me?”

The old man nodded.

“I’ve always remembered that.”

His grandfather’s gaze probed his. “You in some kind of trouble?”

He grinned crookedly. “The sheriff suggested a change of scenery, but…that’s not it.” Removing his hat, he rubbed his hand through his hair, curling over his ears and shirt collar. He didn’t want to talk about the thing with Darlene. “I don’t know why I came.”

“You got trouble with your dad?”

He shrugged. “Nothin’ new there.”

His grandfather stood looking down at his big-knuckled hands. “Why don’t you just stay and work for me? With you here we could buy some more cows and break out that forty acres down by the creek for a hay field. We could make it a partnership, or I could just pay you.”

He grinned wryly. “With what?”

“Well, it might be with just a place to live and somethin’ to eat for a while, but we’ll sell calves this fall and next year—”

He chuckled. “All you old farts on the ranch live for next year. The year it’s all gonna come together.”

The old man grinned. “It’s called faith.”

“Mama calls it gamblin’.”

His grandfather’s hearty laugh boomed. “She may be right.”

Together they turned at the sound of a pickup coming fast down the dirt lane toward them.

The man driving stopped the truck in a cloud of dust and leaned out the window. “Gene, I think Maggie might’ve broken her foot.”

“All-righty. I’ll come take a look.” His grandfather turned. “Son, I’ll be back after a while, but I’m gonna draw you a map to Jon Campbell’s place. He’s got a good horse for sale, and if you decide to stay with me—”

“Gramps—”

The old man seemed not to hear his protest, and went on” you’ll need a horse.” He looked at the man in the truck. “You got anything to write on, Owen?”

Owen shuffled through a mess of curling edged papers on his dash. He handed out an envelope, and the old man removed a pen from his shirt pocket.

Without looking up, he said, “Son, run up to the house and get my bone bag out of the bottom of that closet under the stairs.”

He stared. “Your bone bag?”

His grandfather looked up and grinned. “Black bag. Don’t be scared. It ain’t full of bones.”

In the house, he looked in the bag—an assortment of splints and boxes of casting plaster filled it—and then he carried it to his grandfather. The old man handed him the envelope with the map on it then got into the pickup with Owen.

He stood looking after the truck’s dust trail until the pickup turned onto the blacktop at the end of the lane then he turned to lean on the corral pole again. Shorty now stood hip-shot, eyes half-closed, idly flicking his tail as the sun drove away the chill of the early morning.

Should he take up his grandfather on his offer?

When the old man had opened the door to him two weeks before, his grandfather had been just the same as he’d remembered from childhood. A little shorter, and a little greyer, maybe, but his eyes still held the quick humor and wisdom he hadn’t forgotten. Instantly at ease with the old man, he’d experienced an almost embarrassing sense of relief just as intense and puzzling as the sense he’d had at Darlene’s funeral he didn’t belong with his friends anymore.

He couldn’t just move in with his grandfather, though—he was twenty-three years old. That’d be about as bad as bumming a place to sleep on Don’s couch. And there were things that might work into problems if he stayed.

Not only was his grandfather a minister, the old man’s faith was his life. From the long blessings over the meals, to his conversation laced with biblical quotes and church attendance two or three times a week, his faith and position as an ordained elder in his church affected every minute of his day. Since his beliefs included faith healing, his church people dragged him out all hours of the day and night to attend to sickness or injuries. And the calls didn’t stop there. People called him for all kinds of other emergencies—one evening to referee a domestic dispute, and another time to pray with a single mother having financial problems. The old man never said so, but he suspected his grandfather had eased her way from his own strained bank account.

Add all that to the morning’s call for his grandfather’s ‘bone bag’ and no pay for any of it, and they ended up with a situation like the one now…him waiting on a broke old man who needed to be sorting his cows instead of playing doctor. If his grandfather wanted to live that way it was up to him, but he was pretty sure living in the same house with the old man’s religion would wear thin in a hurry.

He shook his head and spit. So, why was he so reluctant to leave?

He stared out across the valley again. The truth was, he couldn’t think of anywhere else he wanted to go, or anything else he wanted to do.

He sighed and straightened from the corral pole, glancing at the crude map on the envelope in his hand.

It probably couldn’t hurt anything to go look at the horse.

***

Twenty minutes later, he stopped his truck near a twisted cedar tree at a graveled crossroads, still unsure if he should have turned after he crossed the creek a mile back down the road. A half-mile to the west, a horse and rider jogged along the road, so he tossed the map onto the seat and turned toward the pair. In the sparsely populated countryside, whoever was on the horse would know where Jon Campbell lived.

The rider turned into a slender blonde in a white shirt mounted on a blaze-faced sorrel mare, and then something thudded against his bumper.

The young woman’s face registered sudden horror. She screamed. Throwing her leg over her horse, she slid to the ground. He slammed on the brakes, skidding to a stop. The blonde ran across the road in front of him to a still mound of gold fur in the grass. She fell to her knees. He jumped from the cab and ran to her just as she gathered a small dog into her arms.

She raised astonishingly blue eyes, full of tears and glinting with shocked anger. “You killed my dog, you moron,” she cried.

“I’m sorry,” he exclaimed, gaping down at her delicate, heart shaped face. She was really pretty, even mad. “I didn’t see him.”

“Well, why not?” she wailed. She pulled the dog to her chest. “He was right there in plain sight.”

“I’m…sorry,” he stammered, uncharacteristically rattled. He hadn’t seen the dog because he’d been looking at her, but he couldn’t very well say so. “Here, don’t do that, you’ll get all bloody.”

But she bowed her head over her dog, crying. He stood staring uncertainly down at her glossy hair drawn back in a long ponytail. Wiping out his wad of chew from his lip, he flipped it away then fished his handkerchief from the back pocket of his jeans.

Squatting beside her, he held out the handkerchief. “Here.”

She didn’t look up. “Go away. Leave me alone.”

He scanned the deserted road, a thin grey strand intersecting rocky, cedar dotted pastures. “I can’t just leave you here like this. Let me take you home.”

She jerked up her head and glared at him, her face wet. “I’ve seen how you drive. What makes you think I’d go anywhere with you?”

Unused to a reaction like that from a girl, at least not until later, he stared at her. “I’m tryin’ to be nice.”

“You’ve been nice enough. If you got any nicer you might run over me.”

“I told you I didn’t see him.” He removed his hat to run his hand over his hair in frustration. “If I promise not to run over you, will you let me take you home?”

Her gaze flicked over his bare head. She turned away. “I’ll ride my horse.”

“Let me take the dog, then.”

“I’ll carry him.”

Squatting there, he studied her dainty profile. She was a stubborn little thing.

He thrust the handkerchief at her again. “Here. Your nose is…er…runnin’ a little.”

She snatched his handkerchief with one hand and wiped her nose. Thrusting it back at him, she stood, the front of her white shirt covered with blood.

“C’mon. Let me take you home. I feel bad.”

Without looking at him, she picked up the dog and carried it toward her mare grazing on the other side of the road. He followed, but stood back while she tried to mount. With the dog in her arms, she couldn’t pull herself onto the saddle, so she tried to hoist the body first. She was too short to heave it up far enough. The dog’s body slid back into her arms.

He stepped forward and took the dog from her. “This is ridiculous. Get on.”

Turning the mare’s head to face him, she jumped to get her booted foot in the stirrup. She swung onto the saddle then held out her arms for the bloody mass of fur. He reluctantly handed the dog to her. Their hands brushed together and the contact rushed through him like an unexpected electric shock.

The blonde flushed and jerked away.

He gaped up at her for an instant then he moved his hand to grip the saddle horn. “What’s your name?”

“You don’t need to know.”

He suddenly did need to know. “I might.”

“You don’t.” She nudged her mare into a trot and moved away with the unthinking grace of one raised in the saddle, her silvery ponytail bobbing.

He stared after her then slid into the pickup. By the time he pulled alongside her, she had dropped from a trot to a walk to keep the dog’s limp body from bouncing off.

He leaned out the window. “I’m tryin’ to find Jon Campbell. Am I on the right road?”

She glanced at him. “Why?”

“My gramps, Gene Howard, told me he has a horse for sale.”

She stopped her mare and stared at him as though trying to figure out something. “You’re Gil?”

“I see I’m a big disappointment.”

She frowned, gesturing at the dog’s body. “You just killed the best dog I ever had.”

“I really am sorry.”

She nudged her mare into a walk.

He idled along with her for a hundred feet. “You never said if I was a big disappointment.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m very disappointed that you killed my dog.”

“I mean, other than that.”

She stopped the horse again. “You have got to be kidding.”

“No.”

She shook her head disgustedly and moved on. “Go away.”

A moment later, he followed. She was crying again.

“I’d like to make it up to you.”

She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her bloody shirt then glared at him. “Then go up the road there to the end of it and stop following along behind me.”

But he didn’t pull away. Fifty feet later, he cleared his throat. “Since you know my name, I think I ought to know yours.”

“If I tell you, will you leave me alone?”

His reckless grin had never failed to charm. He flashed it at her. “If you’ll give me your phone number, too.”

Her wet eyes narrowed. “You are so full of yourself. I wouldn’t give you my phone number if you were the last man alive.”

He paused, a little bewildered by her hostility. “That’s pretty cold.”

She stopped her mare. “You killed my dog, you idiot,” she exclaimed.

He held her gaze. “I really prefer moron.”

She gave an offended toss of her head and nudged her mare forward.

He followed. “C’mon. Tell me your name.”

Her small chin with its hint of a cleft jutted, and she turned to glare at him. “I’m Katie Campbell, I’ve already got a boyfriend, and I’m definitely not interested in you, so leave me alone.”

He rolled along beside her in silence for a long moment, surprised by the depth of his disappointment. “You sure you don’t want me to take the dog?” he asked, finally.

“I’ve got him.”

He reluctantly pulled away. At the end of the graveled road, he found a battered tin mailbox with a terse ‘Campbell’ painted on the side, faded by the weather of many years. He pulled into the driveway between an old, two-storied ranch house with a wide porch, and a peak-roofed grey barn where a horse stood tied to a hitch rail.

A wiry man bent over the bay gelding’s near back hoof, holding it between his knees while he nailed on a horseshoe. Looking up at his approach, the man dropped the hoof. Slowly he straightened, pulling a pained face. He pushed his hat back to wipe his sweating face on the sleeve of his shirt.

“You’ve got to be Roy Howard’s kid. You look just like him.” Pulling off his leather gloves, the wiry man poked them into the back pocket of his jeans, extending his rough hand. “Jon Campbell.”

The other man was grinning, but there was an edge of…something…in his direct gaze.

He shook the older man’s hand. “Gil Howard.” The guy almost looked like he had a problem with him, but…how could he? He didn’t even know about the dog yet.

“Gene called. Says you’re needin’ a horse.” Jon’s tone sounded friendly enough.

He shrugged. “Yeah.” He rubbed the gelding’s glossy shoulder. “What’s his name?”

“My girl names everything around here. She calls him Lucky.”

He moved along the horse and ran his hand down Lucky’s back leg, lifting his newly shod hoof. The horse made no objection. He dropped it then moved around to the other side.

“I think I met your daughter down the road.” He eyed Jon over the horse’s back. “Pretty blonde?”

Jon nodded.

“I hit her dog with my truck.”

The other man’s weathered face reflected dismay. “Kill him?”

“Yeah.”

“Where’s she at?”

He nodded over his shoulder toward Katie, still a dot on the road down the hill. “She’s pretty upset at me. Wouldn’t let me carry the dog back.”

He finished nailing on Lucky’s last shoe himself as Katie walked her horse into the yard. Her dad met her and lifted the dog from before her on the saddle. The two of them exchanged words and Katie angrily jerked her head toward him where he filed the horseshoe nails he’d just clinched onto the hoof. Then she stomped into the house and slammed the screen door. Jon laid the dog’s limp form on the opened tailgate of a dusty, black pickup nearby.

He dropped Lucky’s hoof and straightened. “You want me to do somethin’ with the dog?”

“No. One of the boys’ll bury him.”

The screen door of the house opened. A gangly boy of about fifteen came out.

“Tim,” Jon yelled, “come get Benny and a shovel and take him down to Katie’s graveyard.” He turned. “She’s got a place where she’s buried every dead cat, bird, and dog she’s ever come across.”

He winced. “I’m really sorry about the dog. I just didn’t see him.”

“He’s always been bad to run out in front of vehicles,” Jon said with a shrug. “You wantin’ to take ol’ Lucky for a spin?”

A few minutes later, Lucky moved out at an easy lope across the irrigated green of the home pasture. The horse’s long legs covered a lot of ground, ears flicking at the sound of his voice. Sure-footed and eager to please, the big bay climbed through acres of rocky grazing land to the top of a cedar covered hill and then higher still to the elevation where oak brush grew. He grinned at Lucky’s aggressive pleasure in working a group of black cattle with a Flying C brand out of the dense thickets.

He allowed the cattle to scatter at a small spring and stopped the horse to let him blow. Fishing in his back pocket for his Skoal can, he took a dip, his gaze on the Campbell place spread out far beneath him.

He shook his head. What a way to introduce himself to the pretty little blonde…Katie. He’d never had that kind of bad luck with a girl before. Well, the thing with Darlene hadn’t turned out so good, but he’d never mangled a first impression like that. Katie was younger than the girls he usually went after…might even still be in high school. But something about her almost tempted him to stick around and see what happened. The boyfriend might be a problem, but, then again, maybe not.

He grinned. He’d gotten around boyfriends before.

He rode back into the ranch yard to find Tim Campbell waiting at the hitching rail. The boy had an open, likable face with an engaging grin, a shock of curling dark hair, and hazel eyes like his father.

“Dad had to go help my brothers get the heifers out of his new hay field,” Tim said. “What’d you think of Lucky?”

He dismounted with a creak of saddle leather and tossed the reins over the hitching rail. “Why’s your dad sellin’ him?”

Tim’s gaze ran over the fender of his saddle with its declaration of his victory in a saddle-bronc competition tooled into the worn leather.

The boy whistled. “You ride saddle broncs?”

“Not anymore.” He loosened the cinches and pulled off the saddle. “I came off one last summer and blew out my knee.”

“Rotten luck.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, there ain’t anything wrong with Lucky,” Tim said. “Dad just decided we’ve got too many horses eatin’ their heads off.” The boy leaned back against the hitch rail and eyed his pickup. “That’s a sweet truck. I like it when the suspension’s jacked up like that. Makes ’em look cool. It must have cost a lot.”

“I won it.”

Tim whistled again. “You must’ve been pretty good.”

“Didn’t do too bad.” He carried his saddle to his truck and flung it over the side.

“It’s four wheel drive, too,” Tim said. “Is it pretty good in the mud? My brother Dave drives a GMC, too, and it’s good, but my brother Karl drives a Ford and it’ll get stuck on a cow-pie.”

He eyed Tim. “How many brothers you got?”

The boy grinned. “Just the two, but Mom’s gonna have a baby, so I may end up with three.” Tim handed him a curry comb.

“You just got one sister?”

“Yeah. So you hit on her, huh?”

He turned to the boy with a raised eyebrow. “That what she said?”

“She told Mom you’d hit her dog and then hit on her. That didn’t go very good, did it?” Tim grinned. “She was pretty mad.”

“It might not have been one of my smoother moves.” He grinned wryly and began working on Lucky’s sweaty withers with the comb. “She said she’s already got a boyfriend.”

“Yeah. Lance.”

“She serious about him?”

“Who knows with girls?” Tim shrugged. “They’re all crazy. Her especially. You gonna move here?”

The screen door opened. He glanced up. Katie walked out in a fresh shirt then her boot heels beat a hollow sounding staccato on the boards as her petite frame moved briskly down the length of the porch. She never looked his way, but she held her back stiff and her chin slightly elevated.

He grinned—she knew he was there.

She descended the steps at the end of the porch and turned the corner.

“I hadn’t really made up my mind,” he said, his gaze on the place where she had disappeared, “but, yeah. I think I’ll stick around.”

He handed the curry comb back to Tim. “You can tell your dad I’ll take the horse.”

*****

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