Cowboy take me away, p.27
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.27

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  So he stared out the window. Or he sat in his chair in the corner, deluding himself that he could nap while he waited for his first hourly five-minute visit.

  “Hey, Uncle Carson.”

  Carson turned and saw his youngest nephew, Dalton, leaning against the wall. He eyed him from his ball cap to his steel-toed boots. Dalton was a strapping guy with the rugged good looks the McKays were known for. He’d left Wyoming a few years back to get his shit together after taking the term “hell-raising McKay” to a new level. Word among the family was Dalton liked to fight as much as Carson used to.

  “How’s the newlywed?”

  Dalton grinned. “Happier than a pig in shit. And if you tell my beautiful wife I phrased it that way, I’ll deny it.”

  “So noted.” Carson lowered into a chair. “Got time to keep your old uncle company?”

  “Of course.” Dalton sat across from him. “I realize it’s the dumbest question in the world, but how are you holdin’ up?”

  “I’m here. Beyond that, I don’t know. It’s a blur.”

  “Uncle Charlie mentioned you get to see Aunt Carolyn?”

  “Not for the first twenty-four hours. In a bit they’ll let me see her for five minutes. Which is better than nothin’, I suppose.”

  “Your kids still givin’ you grief about not sharing your time with them?”

  Carson glanced up. His eyes narrowed. “I figured they would’ve sent Tell or Ben here as the peacemaker to try and talk some sense into me, not you.”

  “Whoa. I’m not here on anyone’s behalf except my own. While I’d be pissed off if it was my mom in there, my dad wouldn’t have gone all guard dog for his wife or anyone else. So I don’t understand where they’re comin’ from. And not to be a dick, but you’ve been layin’ down the law for years. Why in the hell are they so surprised you’re doin’ it now with so much at stake?”

  “That’s the question I’ve been askin’ myself the past thirty-two hours. Enough about that. How was the honeymoon?”

  “Great. But I’ll admit we were bit by the travel bug. Rory is already planning our next trip.”

  “Is she here?”

  “She’s at her mom’s. Rielle said to tell you that you’re in her and Gavin’s thoughts. And once you and Carolyn are home, she’ll bring by a meal or two for you.”

  “Tell her thanks. How long are you here for?”

  Dalton adjusted his ball cap. “Just a couple of days. Now that the honeymoon is over, we both gotta get back to work. There’s plenty of stuff to do on the house we bought.” He groaned. “Don’t know what the hell we were thinkin’—the place is a money pit.”

  “I’m sure repairs are no problem for a man with your skill level. Kyler brags on you all the time. Says you can do anything.”

  “Ky’s a great kid, but what he saw me doin’ as far as a remodel at the house in Sundance was a cakewalk compared to what this house needs.” He shook his head. “After all me’n Rory went through to be together, I swear it’s fightin’ about house stuff that’ll break us up.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “That bad?”

  “The crazy-assed woman threw a hammer at me.”

  “What did it hit?”

  “The wall I’d just sheet rocked. I suspect stress from her new job and planning a wedding made her hypersensitive—” he leveled Carson with a look, “—and according to my lovely wife, hypersensitive is a word I don’t ever get to use in our household either, so between us, I’ll use the term bat-shit crazy to describe her there for a few weeks. But I know livin’ with me when I ain’t workin’ in the winter months ain’t a picnic either. So I’m hoping that now we’re married, we’ll settle in and it’ll be smooth sailing. They always say the first year is the honeymoon phase, don’t they?”

  Carson laughed. A little meanly.

  “What? Christ, Uncle C, you scare me when you laugh like that.”

  “I’ll just say that the first year Carolyn and I were married we hit rough waters. Right away. We made it through, but it wasn’t pretty.”

  Dalton wore a skeptical look. “You and Aunt Carolyn? Really? But you two never fight.”

  “We never fight in public. Except for a few times during those early years, but if anyone ever mentioned specific incidents to our kids, we lied like hell about it.”

  Dalton laughed.

  “Anyway, we’ve had our throwin’ hammers and settin’ the curtains on fire moments. Getting over those moments and not dwelling in the past is why we’ll hit the fifty year mark in our marriage next month.” Carson refused to consider Carolyn wouldn’t be around or sentient enough in a few weeks to celebrate that milestone.

  “That’s an accomplishment. Congrats.”

  The nurse walked over and put her hand on Carson’s shoulder. “It’s almost time, Mr. McKay.”

  “Good. Thanks.”

  He and Dalton stood at the same time.

  “I’ll get outta your hair.” Dalton clapped him on the back. “Give Aunt Carolyn a squeeze from me. Rory was so excited to get that book of McKay family recipes as a wedding gift from you guys. Mighty thoughtful.”

  “All Carolyn’s doin’, I promise. I still can’t cook a lick.”

  “Too bad she didn’t teach you to man the stove in the first year of marriage like Rory’s threatening to do with me.” Dalton offered his hand. “Take care of yourself.”

  “I will. Safe travels back to Montana. Tell that pretty bride of yours hello.”

  After Dalton left, Carson slipped on his sterile gear. His mind drifted between the here and now and the past he’d been lost in the past day and a half.

  Finally, he was here with her. Where he was supposed to be.

  Inside her room, he rolled the chair next to her bed and ran his gloved fingers down her forearm, threading his fingers through hers. He rested his forehead on the metal side rail. Between the hissing of the respiratory machine and the other noises, he figured this angle was the best for her to hear him. He had to speak loud, since the faceguard he was required to wear covered his mouth, protecting her against airborne germs.

  “Hey, sugar. I’m sittin’ here beside you. I know you can hear me. I need you to hear me. Come back to me. I need you to know that I’m right here, I ain’t goin’ anywhere.

  “It’s quiet out where I am in the waitin’ room. There’s really not a whole lot for me to do except sit around and think. Dangerous, right? I don’t care if everyone thinks I’m an old fool for talkin’ to you like this, because I know you can hear me. I know it. I feel you—my Carolyn—stirring inside there. I can’t explain it any better than that and I don’t even bother tellin’ the nurses or doctors, lest they believe me to be a crazy old coot and kick me outta here.”

  He cleared his throat. “I’ve been thinkin’ about our courtship, but as fast as things went between us, we shoulda called it a rocket ship.” He paused because he knew she was laughing inside at his lame joke. “Anyway, Dalton just dropped by and said to tell you that him’n Rory are holdin’ you in their thoughts. I’ll admit I was surprised to see him.” He let his thumb sweep over her knuckles. “Guess they had a nice honeymoon. Wish I’da taken you someplace fancy. So I’ll make you a deal; when you come outta this, I’ll take you anywhere in the world you wanna go for our fiftieth, okay?”

  He paused. Forcing himself to slow down.

  “So Dalton was tellin’ me his house remodel project is a big job. He kinda hinted around that him’n Rory have had some cross words about that. I’m afraid I laughed at him when he said now that they’re officially married things will go right as rain between them. I couldn’t help but remember that first year we were married… It’s a miracle we stayed married. Yeah, I know it wasn’t all bad. It made us stronger as a couple goin’ forward, that’s for damn sure. Makes me cringe to think you couldn’t even buy your own birthday shot that year. Christ. I cannot believe you were only nineteen. You looked that young, but sugar, you never acted that young. Especially with what you had to deal with growing up
.”

  The door to the room opened. “Mr. McKay? Time’s up.”

  He acknowledged the nurse with a wave.

  “Come back to me. I’m right here. Where I’ve always been, where I’ll always be. I love you. Please. Come back to me.”

  Carolyn felt as if she was suspended in a box. Trapped inside the four walls, aimlessly floating up, sinking to the bottom or floundering in the middle. Every once in a while she’d get a sharp pain in her head from being too close to the top. She’d reach up and push herself down and the pain would fade.

  A spike lanced her brain. Before she moved, she heard it.

  Heard him.

  And I don’t care if everyone thinks I’m an old fool for talkin’ to you like I do, because I know you can hear me. I know it. I feel you—my Carolyn—stirring inside there.

  She pounded her fists on the ceiling, yelling, I’m here! Right here! I can hear you! Don’t go! Stay here with me!

  But the louder she yelled, the fainter his anguished voice became so she went motionless again.

  I couldn’t help but remember that first year we were married…

  She listened to the cadence of his voice, needing it to tether her. But she found herself spinning headlong into that memory even as she tried to reach out to hold onto him for a little while longer…

  They’d been married three glorious weeks.

  Carolyn had never been happier. Carson left early in the morning, came home for lunch, and did mysterious “ranch stuff” until supper, or he’d knock off mid-afternoon. He never mentioned if the tension and anger between him and his father had been patched up. Occasionally he’d mention a dumb thing that one of his brothers had done, or more accurately what they’d left undone. He came down hard on Casper and seemed to forgive Charlie because of his age. Even though Carson and Cal were twins, Cal deferred to his older-by-just-a-few-minutes brother.

  Although there were only six weeks until the end of summer, Carolyn convinced Carson to till up a section of dirt behind the trailer. He brought her a truck bed full of good black dirt to mix in with the red clay soil and fenced the area off.

  She’d planted peas, beans, lettuce, radishes and other vegetables with shorter growing times. She drove to see her mother twice a week and checked on that garden because her brothers had no interest in maintaining it. In her mind that meant half the yield of whatever she grew and canned belonged to her.

  Since it was her birthday, Carson insisted on celebrating by taking her out. After supper they headed to the dancehall to meet Cal, Charlie, Casper, the McKay’s neighbor Jerry Jenkins and his girlfriend Brenda, Beverly and Mike, who were officially engaged, and her brother Thomas and two of his friends.

  Booze flowed freely and as the birthday girl she nursed a beer just to keep people from nagging her about not drinking. Carolyn chatted with Beverly about her upcoming wedding and her excitement at being a military wife. When she looked up she noticed Carson had disappeared.

  At the half an hour mark when Carson hadn’t returned, when her brother Thomas asked her to dance she said, “Sure.”

  Out on the dance floor, she knew Thomas had something on his mind. “What’s going on?”

  “Remember that stuff we talked about the first night you met McKay?”

  “About me moving to Denver with you or to Chicago with my friend Cathy?”

  “Yeah. I told Dad tonight that I’m going to Denver and I gave the mine my two-week notice.”

  She felt as if he’d punched her in the gut. “You’re really doing it.”

  “I really am.”

  “What did Dad say?”

  “Some smart thing about not being surprised because I’ve always been too good to get my hands dirty for very long. Not much I could say to that, was there? Anyway, Mom started crying about another of her kids flying the nest. But she wasn’t upset, just…resigned.”

  “I don’t want you to go.”

  Thomas squeezed her hand. “Don’t look at me like that. You’re a married woman now, with a life of your own. Denver’s not that far away. Carson wanted to take you there for your honeymoon and you know you can visit me anytime.”

  Her eyes searched his. “But that’s the only way I’ll ever see you, isn’t it? Because you’re not coming back here.”

  “Maybe I will. Chances are I won’t.”

  “Because of Dad?”

  He sighed. “Yeah. Mom’s gotten way worse in the last year and Dad won’t…”

  “But he took her to the doctor last month.”

  “Did either of them tell you what the doctor said?”

  Carolyn shook her head.

  “The rheumatoid arthritis is in her lungs.”

  She frowned. “What does that mean?”

  He said nothing.

  “Thomas. You can’t spring something like that on me and then clam up.”

  “Do you think I wanted to share this with you on your birthday?” he demanded. “No way. And here I am… Just forget it.”

  “Because it’s bad, isn’t it?” she whispered.

  “Yes.”

  “How bad?”

  “If she goes on oxygen they’re giving her another two years to live at most. Without oxygen…a year.”

  That’s it? “How’d you find out?”

  “They were fighting about it. She’s refused to go on oxygen because she doesn’t want to move into a nursing home just to prolong her miserable life—her words, not mine.”

  She rested her head on her brother’s shoulder, too shocked to even cry.

  “I’m sorry. I was the only one home during their fight so I’m the only one who knows. And now you.”

  “Even knowing she’ll probably be dead in a year, you’re still going to Denver?”

  Thomas locked his gaze to hers. “Yes. I can’t change anything and I’ve watched this situation deteriorate long enough. You weren’t here and I didn’t say that to make you feel guilty. We have to make our own choices. You did. Now I am.”

  “What am I supposed to do with this information? Mom and Kimi had a fight after the wedding and she left in a huff, saying she wasn’t ever coming back. That she’d finish out her schooling and work for Aunt Hulda until she turned eighteen.” Carolyn wanted to scream, who’s going to take care of her?

  But in that moment, she knew. Caring for her mother as she was dying would fall to her.

  “I’ve always been closer to you than anyone else in the family,” Thomas reminded her. “I couldn’t not tell you.”

  Did he think passing along the bad news somehow absolved him of the guilt of leaving?

  The only one who feels guilty about anything in the West family is you.

  When the song ended, she hoofed it back to the table and ignored Thomas’s shouts calling her back. Still no sign of Carson, but he’d left his whiskey.

  Good. She picked it up and drained it.

  Beverly grinned. “That’s the spirit, birthday girl! Mike, get her another shot. And one for me.”

  “Oh, no, that’s okay.”

  “I insist,” Beverly said. “Who knows where I’ll be on my birthday so we’re celebrating yours and mine tonight.”

  Carolyn knew better than to argue. And besides, wasn’t that what this crowd did? She needed to learn to drink. Especially if she wanted to keep up with her husband.

  Where was he, by the way?

  She tapped Charlie on the arm. “Where’s Carson?”

  “Went out to talk to Earl about something. Why?”

  “He’s been gone a while.”

  “You know Carson. He gets to talkin’ and drinkin’ and loses track of time.”

  No, she didn’t know that about the man she’d married.

  “Come on sis-in-law, you wanna dance with me?”

  “Sure. After the shot I’m doing with Beverly.”

  Charlie’s eyes widened. “Didn’t think you drank.”

  “I’m trying it on for size tonight.”

  He slid his full lowball glass over. “Since
I’m too young to buy you a birthday shot, you can have this.”

  “Why aren’t you drinking?”

  He shrugged. “Not feelin’ it.”

  “Thanks.”

  Mike returned with two shot glasses. Beverly leaned over to whisper, “To marriage; we fold our man’s socks because we want to hold their cocks.”

  Carolyn grinned. She chased the whiskey burn with the last of her warm beer. Then she clapped Charlie on the shoulder. “Let’s dance.”

  Charlie was a great dancer. She didn’t think anything of it when the
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