Cowboy take me away, p.40
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.40

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  “Yes, cookies, but just like when I’m home, cookies only after chores are done.”

  “Mama, do I have chores?” Carter asked.

  “Yes. You’ll be in charge of feeding the dogs. Have your brothers show you what to do.” Carolyn looked over at Carson and he tapped his watch. She nodded and kissed the top of Keely’s head before she set her down. “Now, come and give me hugs.”

  They swarmed her. Then they shouted goodbye and raced inside, Cord bringing up the rear after he’d scooped Keely up and carried her into the house.

  She stared at the closed door for several long moments before she walked over to him.

  Carson pulled her into his arms. “Sorry about your Aunt Hulda, sugar.”

  “Thanks. I’m sure it’ll hit me that she’s really gone when Kimi and I are dividing up her belongings.”

  “You think you can get it all done in five days?”

  “Aunt Hulda was very organized. Everything is in a storage facility, boxed and labeled where it’s supposed to go. Kimi and I just have to contact the recipients. And meet with the lawyer to hear her will.” Her shoulders shook and a sob escaped.

  He rubbed circles on her back and rested his chin on her head, feeling so helpless and wanting to make her sadness disappear.

  She tilted her head back and looked at him. “Sorry to be blubbering on you.”

  “I don’t like wearin’ your tears unless they’re happy ones, but you’ve a right to your grief. I know she meant a lot to you.” He curled his hands around her face and wiped away her tears.

  “It’ll be good for Kimi and me to be able to talk about her on the drive.”

  “Are any of your brothers goin’ to the funeral?”

  “No. That makes me sad because she’s the only family we ever had besides each other.”

  “I know how that goes. My dad was my grandparents’ only child to survive to adulthood. My mom’s entire family got wiped out in the flu epidemic and she ended up an orphan. It’s good you had your aunt as long as you did.”

  “You are such a sweet man.” She pressed her mouth to his. “I’ll miss you.” Another couple of soft kisses. “So, so much.”

  “Don’t know how I’m gonna function with my heart gone,” he murmured gruffly against her mouth. “I love you, Caro.”

  “I know. You reminded me of that very thoroughly last night.”

  He grinned. “And I’ll remind you again the night you get home.”

  “Counting down the days, cowboy.” She stepped back and looked at the house. “I’ve never been away from the kids this long.”

  “I’m sure they’re already missin’ you.”

  “You’ll be okay with them.”

  A statement, not a question. Was she trying to convince herself? Or him?

  “I’ll be fine. Keely’s outta diapers, so it’s all good.”

  Carolyn poked him in the chest. “I still don’t know how you managed to get away without changing a single diaper after fifteen years of parenthood and six kids, Carson McKay.”

  Very careful and artful dodging if he did say so himself. “Drive safe. Call me when you get to the motel.”

  “I will.” She paused. “I left lists on the refrigerator.”

  He didn’t need lists. Wasn’t like he was a stranger or just babysitting. These were his kids; he’d been around them every day of their lives. He knew how to take care of them.

  “Go. I got this covered.”

  The first day? No problem. Carson dragged all the kids along in the feed truck when he did the late afternoon cattle check. They had sandwiches for supper. He figured it’d be hard to screw up sandwiches until he realized he had to make seven different kinds because none of them liked them fixed the same way. They also dusted two bags of potato chips and two dozen cookies.

  After supper they watched TV. He let the you have to bathe rule slide tonight. His sweet Keely even curled up in his lap and fell asleep. Ten o’clock rolled around and the boys went to bed without arguing.

  Piece of cake.

  At two in the morning, someone shook him awake. He squinted at his oldest son. “Cord? What’s goin’ on?”

  “Keely is cryin’.”

  Shit. Why hadn’t he heard her?

  Because Carolyn gets up with the kids at night if they need something, not you.

  “Why?”

  “I dunno. She’s cryin’ that she wants Mom.”

  “Okay. Lemme slip on some clothes and I’ll be right there.”

  “Hurry. Cam said she’s been screamin’ in her crib for a while.”

  Jesus.

  After Carson dug around in his dresser drawer, he found a pair of cotton pajama bottoms—he’d never worn the damn things before—and a T-shirt. Yawning, he walked down the hallway to Keely’s room. She was too old for a crib, but the thought of her having free run of the house all night terrified Carolyn. She stood in her crib rattling the wooden bars like an ape at the zoo.

  Cam was trying to talk to her through the wooden slats and she was screaming in his face. As soon as she saw him, she said, “Mommy?”

  “Mommy ain’t here, punkin, so you’ll have to make do with me.”

  “Want Mommy.”

  “C’mere girlie.” He picked her up and she burrowed into him like a tick, her little body shuddering. He looked at Cam. “You heard her cryin’?”

  “Yeah.”

  Then he wondered how that was possible when Cam and Carter’s room was at the opposite end of the hall. “Were you in the bathroom?”

  Cam studied his feet.

  A guilty look if he’d ever seen one. “What were you doin’ up at two in the mornin’, Cam?”

  “I heard a noise on the back porch and it sounded like a mountain lion so I went down to check it out.”

  Cord snorted. “There ain’t mountain lions around here dipsh—” he looked at his dad, “—stick.”

  “You went outside lookin’ for a damn mountain lion at two o’clock in the mornin’?” Carson demanded.

  “No. I climbed up on the counter and peeked out the window. Didn’t see no eyes glowing back at me or nothin’.”

  “So you helped yourself to some cookies while you were down there,” Cord sneered, pointing at the crumbs on Cam’s Indiana Jones T-shirt.

  “I was hungry. Then I came up here and heard Keely cryin’. She kept saying she wanted Mommy so I tried to tell her a story to get her back to sleep, but then she started screaming.”

  “What kind of story did you tell her?” Cord asked. “A monster story?”

  Keely lifted her head and hiccupped. “Scawy monsers in my woom, Daddy.”

  “No, punkin, there aren’t scary monsters in your room.”

  She nodded and pointed at Cam. “He tole me, rawr!—” she made a clawing motion with her hand, “—and den dey get me.”

  “For the love of God, Cameron, did you really tell your terrified two-year-old sister, at two in the mornin’, that there are mon—them things in here?”

  “I was trying to help her! She was cryin’ and sad…” Then Cam’s lower lip started to quiver.

  Shit. He was such a big kid sometimes he forgot the boy was only eight.

  “It’s okay, son. Thanks for ah…tryin’ to help. It’s late. Just go crawl back in bed.”

  Cam came over and gave him a side hug before he raced off.

  Cord shook his head and left without a word.

  Carson brushed the curls out of Keely’s eyes. “You ready to go back to bed, darlin’ girl?”

  She shook her head. “Hafta go potty.”

  “All right. But then bed, okay?”

  “’Kay.”

  Of course it didn’t work out that way. It was after three a.m. by the time he’d finished rocking her to sleep and slipped her in bed.

  Day two started out well enough. Except for Cam insisting he could make his own toast. Only after the kitchen filled up with smoke and he refused to eat the slice of blackened bread did Cam confess that he’d never used the
toaster.

  Everyone got cereal at that point.

  Carson left Colby in charge while he and Cord did morning chores.

  They returned two hours later and Keely was running around the yard in just her underwear and her pink cowgirl boots.

  No sign of any of her brothers outside.

  Carson scooped Keely up and stormed into the house. “Colby! Why in the hell is your sister half nekkid outside all by herself?”

  “What? She was outside? Me’n Colt were just, ah…doin’ some stuff in here. I swear she snuck out on her own! She’s always, uh, runnin’ off on Ma.”

  Bullshit. His eyes narrowed. “What kinda of stuff were you doin’?” His gaze swept the living room. “Because it looks like a goddamned tornado went through here.” That’s when he noticed the hammer and a few nails on the coffee table. “What do you need them tools for?”

  Colt said, “We hung up a picture for Ma. As a surprise.”

  “Where?”

  He swore both boys looked at the ceiling and whistled.

  Shit.

  “Where?”

  Colt pointed. “It’s the one Carter drew her for Mother’s Day and she put it in a frame and everything.”

  Keely squirmed. “Daddy. Down.”

  “Hang on.” He walked over to the framed picture of flowers. They’d done a nice job hanging it straight and he would’ve been proud if not for the fact he could see the plaster buckling behind the frame. He lifted the picture off the wall the same time Colt said, “Dad, we can explain.”

  Sure enough. Behind the oh-so-thoughtfully hung picture was a fist-sized hole.

  Keely said, “Uh-oh.”

  “You better believe uh-oh.” He replaced the picture and counted to ten before he faced Colby and Colt. “What happened?”

  “We stayed in the house like you told us,” Colby blurted out. “And Colt bragged that he could punch as hard as Rocky Balboa. So I was holdin’ a pillow—”

  “And Colby thought it’d be funny if he pulled it away at the last second. My fist hit the wall and went clean through it,” Colt finished.

  “Jesus.”

  “Geezuz,” Keely repeated.

  “Dad. You ain’t s’posed to swear,” Colt pointed out.

  “Least he didn’t say the f-word. Though I think Ma hates takin’ the Lord’s name in vain swear words worse than the f-word or the c-word.”

  How the fuck did these boys know the c-word?

  “It rhymes with lock,” Cord said helpfully.

  Okay, not that c-word.

  “Ain’t no one asked how my hand is,” Colt grumbled.

  “Or my stomach,” Cam said from over by the couch. Which was missing all the cushions. Cushions that Cam was sprawled out on, on the floor, holding his gut.

  “What happened to your stomach? And the couch?”

  “Colt punched me. It’s okay, Dad, don’t get mad at him. I asked him to. But then it hurt really bad ’cause I’m pretty sure Colt does punch as hard as Rocky and I kinda…threw up.”

  “You threw up in the fuc—” don’t swear, don’t swear, “—in the livin’ room?” Was that why the cushions were scattered to hell and back? Was he tryin’ to cover it up? “On the couch?”

  Cam rolled his head back and forth on the cushion. “No, I barfed in the bathroom. I got most of it cleaned up.”

  “You will get all of it cleaned up because I ain’t on barf-mopping duty,” he warned.

  “How come Keely’s still half-nekkid?” Cord asked.

  “Good question.” He looked at Colby, then Colt. “Why didn’t one of you boys help her get dressed?”

  “Ma always does that.”

  “Hey, I tried to get pants on her but she screamed in my face and tried to hit me,” Colby said. “So I let her be nekkid. But she did get her boots on by herself.”

  On the wrong feet, Carson just noticed. “Girlie, you need to put some clothes on.”

  She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed. “’Kay. Wanna weaw a dwess. I’m a giwl, not like dem.”

  “And thank God for that,” he muttered and shifted her higher on his hip. He glanced at the clock. It was only eleven a.m. Too damn early for a tumbler of whiskey.

  Then he noticed he was one kid short. “Where’s Carter?”

  Colby and Colt looked at one another like they just remembered they had another brother. “Uh, he went to feed the dogs.”

  “By himself?”

  “Yeah.”

  “You were supposed to help him and show him what to do.”

  “We sorta…forgot.”

  “How long ago did he go outside?”

  They both shrugged.

  Shit.

  Carson motioned Cord over and handed him Keely. “Help her get dressed in a dress.”

  “Where are you goin’?”

  “To find Carter.” He pointed at Colby, Colt and Cam. “When I get back this place better not look like this, understand?” Then he leveled the only threat that would work. “I mean it, boys. No one is eatin’ lunch or getting so much as a crust of bread until this place is cleaned up to your mother’s standards.”

  That made them hop to it.

  Then Carson went in search of his youngest son. The kid wanted chores like his brothers and Carson had been putting him off, it was just easier to do even the little things himself. He whistled for the dogs.

  Weird they weren’t around. They were always underfoot.

  He headed to the barn. “Carter? You in here?”

  No answer.

  He cut to the last empty stall where they kept the dog food. The bag of dog food that’d been half full…was now completely empty. No sign of the dogs or his son.

  That’s when he noticed the side door that led to the back pasture was cracked open. He pushed it open all the way and stepped onto the packed dirt. “Carter?”

  All at once a sobbing boy launched himself at Carson. Alarmed, Carson picked him up and said, “Are you hurt?”

  “No, Daddy.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “I think I killed Beast and Sassy!” Then he sobbed so hard Carson couldn’t understand the rest of what he said.

  “Slow down, son.”

  More hiccupped crying.

  Once he’d settled, Carson said, “Where are the dogs?”

  Carter pointed to the stock tank.

  What the hell? “Where? I don’t see them. Are they in the tank?”

  “Behind it.”

  Still carrying Carter, he walked over and sure enough, the dogs were lying on their sides, bellies bloated, panting heavily. Then he caught the ripe scent of barf and saw two enormous piles of vomit, mostly comprised of undigested chunks of dog food. At least the dogs weren’t laying in it. He wasn’t cleaning up kid or dog barf.

  “You wanna tell me what happened?”

  “I went to get the scoops of dog food and Beast and Sassy followed me into the stall. And they started eatin’ and eatin’ and they wouldn’t stop! Not even when I tried to pull them away. So I made a trail of food
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