Cowboy take me away, p.41
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.41

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  and they followed me outside. But then they started drinkin’ and drinkin’ from the stock tank. They wouldn’t stop that neither. Then they started throwin’ up, like a lot, and they laid down and I thought maybe they was dead.”

  “That’s why you’re hidin’ out here?”

  He nodded. “I didn’t want them to die alone.”

  Carson pressed his lips to Carter’s sweaty forehead. He was such a sweet boy.

  Then Carter said, “But then I was scared that maybe you’d whup me for killin’ them, so I was hidin’.”

  He had to work hard not to laugh. “You didn’t kill them. They’re pretty sick though. But that’s their own doin’. They’re greedy pups and they don’t know better than to eat everything in sight. I’m thinkin’ maybe they learned their lesson.”

  “Sorry, Daddy, I just wanted to help.”

  “I know. I’m sorry that you’ve been sittin’ out here by yourself, while your brothers…” He sighed and set Carter down. “Let’s make sure the door to the feed stall is shut tight before we head back to the house.”

  The morning of day three, Carson called Cal and asked if he wanted to come over with Kade and Kane for a couple of hours so he and Cord and Colby could get some work done. His brother laughed, said no way in hell, said it wasn’t his problem that Carson had three times more kids than he did and hung up on him.

  Asshole.

  So as to not have a repeat of the previous day, leaving the kids unattended in the house, Carson and Colby saddled up. Cord drove the feed truck and his siblings rode along. He led the cattle through four pastures and Carson and Colby followed behind wrangling the strays. What should’ve taken two hours took four and a half.

  By the time they returned home, the boys were starved and fighting, and Keely had a complete meltdown because Colt threw the wildflower she’d picked out the pickup window.

  Lunch was a free for all and as he looked in the refrigerator, he wondered where the hell all the food had gone. And how they could be completely out of dishes when the boys complained that he wasn’t feeding them?

  He shooed the kids out of the kitchen and loaded the dishwasher just to have some peace and quiet, knowing Caro would probably fall over in shock if she saw him. It wasn’t that he believed domestic chores were women’s work—over the years he’d offered to help out, but his wife made it very clear that the house was her domain and any help she needed she’d get from their children. He figured her stance was because if she accepted his help then she’d have to reciprocate and help him with cow stuff.

  Afterward Carson sat down with a cup of coffee.

  Within five minutes he heard, “Dad?”

  He glanced up from the newspaper—the first chance he’d had to read two-day-old news—and saw Colby leaning in the doorframe. “Yeah?”

  “I need to work on my ropin’ skills for junior rodeo.”

  “Ride and rope?”

  He nodded. “Been workin’ on stationary ropin’ and I gotta step it up for the meet at the end of the month.”

  He’d been promising the kid since last week he’d help him get in some practice time. “All right. As soon as Keely is up from her nap we’ll head out there.”

  Colby snorted. “She ain’t sleepin’. She’s been bouncin’ and singin’ ever since you put her in her crib.”

  Great. He drained his coffee. “Get saddled up. I’ll send Cord to gather calves. Where is he?”

  Colby jerked his chin toward the stairs. “In the bathroom. He spends more time in there lately than a girl. Me’n Colt and Cam have had to start goin’ outside.”

  Oh hell no. Cord wasn’t…

  Yes, of course he was. He was that age. Where once he could whack off that’s all he’d ever want to do.

  “Tell him to get his ass out of the bathroom. I’ll round up the boys and Keely. You okay with me bein’ your hazer or would you rather Cord did it?”

  “You.”

  “All right. But it’ll be a short session.”

  Carson had Colt and Cam carry the bench from the picnic table outside the corral, while he carried Keely. With her mother being gone, the girl had serious abandonment issues. Or maybe she was just cranky from day two with no nap.

  Piece of cake, right?

  He told the smart voice in his head to fuck off.

  The area offset from the barn was just a dirt pasture—not a setup per rodeo specs, but it’d work for Colby’s skill level. Although he knew if any of the boys took a serious interest in rodeo, they’d have to invest in space and equipment.

  He passed Keely off to Colt and squatted down so all three boys were paying attention to him. “Your butts don’t leave this bench, understand?”

  “What if I hafta go to the bathroom?” Carter asked.

  “Hold it.”

  “What if a big rattlesnake comes out of a hole in the ground and its fangs are dripping poison and it acts like it’s gonna attack us?” Cam asked with a straight face.

  He gave Cam a level look. “Even then. And maybe you oughta back off the evil critter scenarios in front of the littler kids?”

  Cam sighed and kicked at the dirt. “I told Ma that readin’ would just get me in trouble.”

  Jesus.

  “This ain’t gonna take long, so you all just sit here and watch us.” Carson hustled to ready his horse. Once he mounted up, he noticed four angry mama cows outside the corral bellowing at their calves. The calves were too busy frolicking inside the pen to pay attention.

  Colby was working his rope, keeping his horse Bart reined in. That gelding liked to bolt and Carson didn’t trust any of his kids besides Colby to handle the ornery thing.

  Carson trotted over to him. “Since we ain’t got space for a straight line, I’ll work the outside of the corral and keep the calf in the center.”

  Colby nodded, already deep in competition mode.

  They cantered to the far side of the corral and paused. Carson yelled, “Chute open,” and Cord cracked the gate.

  The first calf came out and looked around but didn’t run. Still, Colby was immediately on the ball, rope ready. He tossed the loop, made the catch and bailed off Bart, piggin’ string between his teeth as he tied four legs together and threw up his hands.

  Too bad they weren’t timing because that would’ve been a good score.

  Colby untied the calf, it trotted off and he shouted at Cord to get the next one ready. In that moment Colby wasn’t a thirteen-year-old boy, but Carson saw him as the man he’d become. Methodical, determined and competitive as hell.

  Yeah, maybe he’d better plan on getting that rodeo space ready sooner rather than later.

  Once the calves figured out they were about to be roped and dragged, they kicked up more of a fuss. After ten run-throughs, Carson said, “You’re lookin’ better. You won’t have to adjust on the fly in an arena as you do here. But this practice showed you can do it.” He dismounted and handed the reins to Cord. “Thanks for handlin’ the chute.”

  “And takin’ care of your horse,” he added sullenly.

  God save him from surly teens. Scary shit to think he’d have three of them that age at any given time for the next decade and a half.

  As he crossed the dirt, Carson noticed his kids were sitting on the bench like he’d asked. Then Keely’s beloved stuffed horse Buckles sailed over the corral onto the dirt. Just as he opened his mouth to yell at them to stay put, he’d pick it up, that little monkey Carter scaled the fence.

  When Carter reached the top rail and turned around, most likely to taunt his older brothers with his derring-do, he lost his balance and hit the dirt inside the fence with a bone-crunching thud.

  Carson was pretty sure he’d never run that fast in his life.

  By the time he reached Carter, the boy was wailing. And Carson knew why; his left arm was at the wrong angle.

  Fuck. Carolyn was gonna kill him.

  Colt and Cam were shouting, Keely was blubbering about her horse, and a wide-eyed Carter, obviously i
n shock, tried to squirm away.

  “Son. You gotta stay still.”

  “It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!”

  That sad, pain-filled voice sliced through him. “Ssh. I know. We’ll get you fixed up, I promise.”

  Cord and Colby both rushed over.

  “Holy fuckin’ shit,” Cord said. “It’s broke, ain’t it?”

  “Yeah. We’ll have to take him into town. Cord, the keys are in the truck. Go get it and bring it around so we can get everyone loaded up here.”

  “We’re all goin’?” Colby said.

  “No choice. Now get them horses dealt with so we can go.”

  Colby took off.

  Fifteen minutes later they were on their way into Sundance, with Cord driving and Carter on Carson’s lap, curled into him. It was the quietest he’d heard the kids.

  Not that it’d last.

  Six kids in the hospital for over two hours? The staff was happy to see the ass end of them.

  Too het up to worry about cooking, Carson had Cord stop at the grocery store and sent him in to buy frozen pizzas.

  Glancing down at Carter passed out on his lap, he realized the pain meds had kicked in. He smoothed the boy’s hair back, grateful the injury hadn’t been worse. He noticed Carter clutched the black marker in his fist so his brothers could sign his cast.

  Back at the ranch, Carter didn’t move when Carson carried him into the house and situated him on his bed.

  By the time he returned to the kitchen, the boys had opened all ten frozen pizzas. No doubt they’d devour them without tasting them.

  He went straight for the whiskey.

  Keely refused to eat pizza so he gave her applesauce and cottage cheese—most of which ended up in her hair, which required a bath. In the tub she leapt up and smacked her forehead into the soap dish, leaving a mini goose egg that would likely be a hideous shade of black and blue by the time Carolyn came home.

  He just had to survive the next two days. The worst of it had to be over.

  Didn’t it?

  Day four Carson ended up serving cookies for breakfast since they were out of breakfast food.

  “What happened to all the cereal? There were five boxes when your mother left.”

  “We ate ’em when we got hungry,” Colby said.

  Which seemed to be all the damn time. Feeding these boys was a fulltime job itself.

  Carson did a quick head count. Carter sleeping upstairs. Cord—in the bathroom again—Colby here, Keely here. “Where are your brothers?”

  Colby’s eyes were glued to the back of the empty cereal box. “Haven’t seen them.”

  “At all?”

  “I saw them when I was comin’ out of the bathroom this mornin’,” Cord offered as he strolled in.

  “When?”

  “Like seven.”

  That was an hour ago. “What were they doin’?”

  “Didn’t ask.”

  Two hours later, just as Carson was ready to call the sheriff, Colt and Cam ambled up the driveway like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, fishing poles slung over their shoulders and carrying buckets.

  “Where in the hell have you boys been?”

  “Fishin’!” Colt said with pride.

  “You didn’t think to tell anyone where you were goin’ at seven o’clock in the damn mornin’? You just took off?”

  “We wanted to surprise you and catch fish for breakfast since we don’t got no food.”

  Carson tried to remain calm and not thrash the crap out of them. Where the hell had they thought they’d catch fish around here? The stock dam?

  “But we didn’t catch nothin’,” Cam said, dejected.

  “That’s cause you don’t even know how to cast a line,” Colt scoffed.

  “Do too!”

  “Do not,” Colt mimicked.

  Cam stopped. Holding his pole with both hands, he yelled, “Do too! Watch this!” Then he started wildly waving his pole around and let the fishing line fly. “Hey. Where’d it go?” He spun the reel and jerked on the line hard.

  Colt screamed and bent over.

  For the fifteen seconds it took Carson to reach Colt’s side, he feared Cam had hooked Colt in the eye. He said, “Where’d it get you?”

  “My leg!”

  “Which leg? Son, stand up so I can see it.”

  When Colt straightened, Carson saw the hook imbedded in the back of Colt’s calf, deep enough to have threaded through the skin in two places. It’d gouged out a chunk of flesh before it’d caught. This was beyond him being able to yank the damn thing out with a pair of pliers.

  Fuck. Looked like he’d be making another goddamned visit to the emergency room.

  Carson took out his pocket knife and said, “Hold still.”

  “Dad! It ain’t that bad! Don’t cut off his leg!” Cam yelled.

  “For the love of God, Cameron. I ain’t gonna cut off his leg. I’m cuttin’ the fishin’ line.”

  “Oh.”

  “Can you get the hook out?” Colt asked, craning his neck around to gauge the damage.

  “’Fraid not. Gonna hafta take you to town.”

  Cam had dropped the pole and crouched to check it out. “Well, it don’t look that bad. Ain’t hardly bleeding at all. With how loud you screamed like a girl I thought I’d see the hook stuck in the bone and blood gushing everywhere.”

  Colt spun around and punched Cam in the eye, knocking him on his ass. “Ain’t that bad? How’d you like it if—” he growled and lunged.

  Carson was quick enough to stop Colt from pouncing on Cam, who was now holding his face and wailing. “Knock it the hell off, both of you. This is getting fuckin’ ridiculous.”

  “What’s goin’ on? We heard screamin’.”

  Cord and Colby—holding Keely—stopped five feet from where Cam was curled into a ball. And Colt was bleeding.

  “Colt has a fishin’ hook stuck in his calf, so I’m taking him to the hospital. You all stay here. And stay in the damn house.” He rested on his haunches in front of Cam. “Lemme see.”

  “I think he popped my eyeball.”

  Mr. Dramatic. The kid should be an actor. “Then you’d better let me look at it so I know whether I’ll need to take you to town with us.”

  Cam moved his hand.

  Carson sucked in a sharp breath. Already swollen. The kid would have one helluva shiner. “Can you see?”

  “Sorta.”

  “Put something cold on it.” He addressed his oldest sons. “Watch TV or something until we get back. If your mother calls, not a word about us bein’ at the hospital, got it?”

  “Yes sir.”

  He gestured to the poles and buckets. “Get this stuff put away.” Then to Colt he said, “Stay put. I’ll get the truck.” He checked to make sure he had his wallet. In fifteen years with six kids they’d been to the ER once. Once. The first time he’s left alone with the kids? He was on his second trip in less than twenty-four hours.

  Yeah, his wife was gonna lose her mind.

  Cord rapped on the driver’s side window.

  “What?”

  “Probably better stop at the store while you’re in town since there’s nothin’ to eat around here.”

  Colt ended up with four stitches but it’d taken the doctor longer than he expected to remove the hook. After the doc had cleaned the area, and Carson had seen the level of grime on Colt’s skin, he swore that kid was taking a shower if he had to hose him down himself.

  At the grocery store he’d ended up with a cartful of food—all quick, all junk, all of which would make his sons happy.

  Luckily there wasn’t big trauma at home. Things were somewhat normal
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