Cowboy take me away, p.42
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.42

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James

  except for Carter being loopy from his pain meds. Keely had crashed, face down on her stuffed animal in the middle of the living room floor—but at least she was napping. Cam had a bag of frozen peas on his face. Colby was sprawled out on the couch. Cord was in the bathroom. Again.

  That’s when Carson realized it was damn near two o’clock and he hadn’t checked cattle. How the hell had he forgotten? Now he had to feed the horde before he could feed the herd.

  Lunch was eight cans of Spaghettios, a dozen hot dogs, two bags of barbecue-flavored potato chips, a box of Twinkies—all washed down with a gallon and a half of chocolate milk.

  As soon as he chucked the paper plates from lunch, he wandered into the living room. “I need to check cattle.”

  Cord sighed and stood.

  Carson shook his head. “You’re in charge…and hold off on your bathroom visits until we get back.”

  Cord’s face turned bright red.

  He pointed to Colby. “You’re up. Let’s go.”

  Despite the gusts of wind that sent the cattle looking for shelter, they finished an hour and a half later. Colby hopped out to open the last gate, Carson drove through and waited, watching in the rearview mirror like he always did to make sure the gate actually got shut.

  That’s when a gust of wind shook the truck and he watched as the wind caught the gate, slamming Colby’s hand between the gate and the post.

  Carson bailed out of the truck and barely stopped the gate from smacking into Colby again as he rested on his knees, cradling his arm.

  “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Colby yelled. “That fuckin’ stupid fuckin’ gate.”

  “How bad is it?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Can you move it?”

  Colby shook his head.

  “Come on.” Carson opened the passenger side and helped Colby in before he went back and secured the gate.

  After he’d climbed in the truck, he saw Colby’s tears before he tried to blink them away. This kid never cried. Not even as a baby, so he must be hurting bad. “Show me.”

  Wincing, he moved his left arm.

  Carson’s stomach bottomed out, seeing that Colby’s right hand had already swelled and was turning red and purple. A long raised welt had darkened on the center of his forearm. “Christ, kid. How are you not screamin’? That fucker looks painful.”

  “I didn’t…”

  “Son, you don’t gotta act tough around me. I’d rather you were honest so I have an idea of what we’re dealin’ with.”

  “It feels like all the bones in my hand are broken.”

  A hand injury with multiple broken bones could mean multiple surgeries—and from what he’d heard, they were painful and incapacitating.

  Carson left Colby in the truck when he went in to explain what’d happened and why he had to make his third trip to the emergency room.

  On the drive into town, Carson kept up a steady stream of chatter because Colby’s pain-filled silence was more than he could take.

  Sure he’d been upset holding onto Carter and hoping there weren’t complications when they reset the break. But the poor overwhelmed six-year-old had all but passed out.

  Then today with Colt, the kid had cracked fishing jokes all the way into town. The only time his charm faltered was when the nurse had numbed the area with four separate shots. Carson had seen one single tear escape while the ten-year-old gritted his teeth.

  “Dad,” Colby interrupted. “It’s okay. I don’t really think Ma will skin you alive when she gets home. This was an accident.”

  His thirteen-year-old boy having to console his forty-one-year-old father just made him feel worse.

  This trip to the hospital took longer. He’d be damn surprised if the medical personnel didn’t call Wyoming Child Protective Services.

  He remained by Colby’s side through all the X-rays and waiting for the on-call specialist to give a diagnosis.

  The good news? No broken bones but a couple of hairline fractures that required Colby to wear a cast for six weeks. The bad news? Since he’d injured his riding hand the kid couldn’t compete for the rest of the summer. Better than not being able to compete for a few years because of surgeries.

  By the time they finished three hours later, Carson was exhausted. They stopped at Dairy Queen and picked up burgers and fries and ice cream for supper.

  The mood at home was subdued, although it hadn’t affected their appetites. His nerves were shot. He sat on the couch and Keely immediately crawled into his lap, snuggling into him. Then Carter did the same thing on the opposite side. Then all the boys were piled on the couch next to each other or on the floor in front of it. No bickering or shoving, and he finally relaxed.

  Carolyn arrived home earlier on day five than Carson expected.

  He caught her in his arms as she alighted from the truck, holding onto her tightly—then he kissed her with the passion he usually saved for behind closed doors. When he finally released her mouth, she sighed. “You really did miss me.”

  “Like you wouldn’t believe.” He heard the screen door open and knew the time of reckoning had come. His gut tightened, as did his throat. And he was man enough to admit even his balls shrunk a little, as he ran through everything he had to tell her.

  “Mom’s home!” Cam said with glee.

  And still he didn’t move.

  “Carson? Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”

  “You’ll see. And uh, don’t judge me too harshly, okay?”

  Carolyn ripped herself away from him. She froze after she’d only taken two steps.

  All six kids were in a line, like before. Carson tried to see it from her eyes. Cord, the only one without obvious injury, unless she looked close enough to see the chafing on his right hand from continual jacking off, held Keely, who was sporting a goose egg on her forehead. Next was Colby, his hand in a cast. Next was Colt, a bandage wrapped around his calf. Then Cam, with a vicious black eye. And finally Carter, with a cast on his left arm.


  Then Carolyn slowly faced him.

  And Carson blurted out, “I swear I can explain.”

  “Mr. McKay?”

  Carson blinked at the nurse. “Yes.”

  “It’s time if you want to go in.”

  “Thank you.”

  Yeah, that wouldn’t be a memory he’d bring up with his wife.

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Hospital, Day 4—afternoon

  “I’m headed down to the cafeteria,” Carson told Tori, the day charge nurse.

  “The special today is Salisbury steak. And it is good.”

  “Thanks. I’ll give it a try.” He rode the elevator down to the first floor. The doors opened and he was surprised to see his sister-in-law—or was she his ex-sister-in-law?—Joan McKay standing there.

  She said, “Just the man I wanted to see. But it looks like you’re leaving?”

  “Only to grab lunch in the cafeteria. You’re welcome to tag along if you’d like.”

  “Sure, if you don’t mind.”

  “Not at all. It’s this way.”

  Joan got into the beverages only line. Carson loaded up his plate knowing he wouldn’t eat again today. He chose a spot in the corner away from everyone since he’d become a real germaphobe.

  “You look surprised to see me,” Joan said.

  “I’m surprised to see anyone, if you wanna know the truth. The kids aren’t taking the ‘no visitation’ rule too well.”

  “I don’t imagine they are. I knew I’d better stop in before I see my grandkids. Georgia mentioned Jackson and Carly had the sniffles. Which means Tucker, Wyatt and Bethany probably do too. Brandt and Tell said to let you know you and Carolyn are in their thoughts.”

  “Tell ’em I said thanks.”

  Joan leaned forward. “I’m sorry this happened to Carolyn. I’ve always admired her. Although she didn’t like Casper, she treated me well. She still treats me like part of the family, even after…”

ou and Casper got divorced? Or after Casper died?”

  “Both.” She sipped her coffee. “But I was thinking more of when she birthed kid after kid and I struggled to get pregnant and stay that way. Then when it finally happened, she welcomed my boys. I know we didn’t get included in a lot of McKay stuff in those early years, but I never resented her for it.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because she was protecting you. She didn’t want you to have to deal with Casper in your own home. He went out of his way to make you feel like shit during the work day and she wouldn’t put up with that in a place that’s supposed to be your refuge.”

  “She’s put up with a lot over the years.”

  “She took it all in stride and she lived those Christian tenets so many—including my ex-husband—paid lip service to. She and Kimi and Vi were completely supportive after Luke died and all the rest of the crap that happened afterward. Very few people know how instrumental she was getting me settled when I left Casper.” She smiled sadly. “Carolyn just wanted to get me the hell away from him.”

  Carson had to tread lightly. Joan didn’t only have rotten memories of her time with Casper, but what he’d learned of the man had tainted everything. He couldn’t fake letting bygones be bygones.

  “I don’t know if I ever really thanked you for what you did for Brandt, Tell and Dalton as far as the ranch. I mean, I know you didn’t retire because you wanted to.”

  “Oh, you’d be surprised how eager we were to pass the reins over,” he said dryly.

  Joan smiled again. “It went above and beyond. It changed everyone’s life.”

  “Ours too, but I’m happy to hear that.” He picked at the meat soaked in gravy. The food was okay, but it wasn’t as good as Carolyn’s. “Dalton stopped by. Sounds like him’n Rory had a good time on their honeymoon.”

  “They’re leaving for Montana tomorrow. It’s a good fit for them up there. Especially after all that happened.”

  His gaze moved to hers.

  Anguish distorted her face. “You know, don’t you?”

  “About Casper secretly beatin’ the fuck outta Dalton? Yeah. Charlie told me and Cal.”

  “Does Carolyn know?”

  Carson shook his head. “Charlie debated on even tellin’ us. I didn’t talk to my kids about it. Neither did Cal. We figure if Dalton wants people to know, it’s his business to tell them, not ours or anyone else’s.”

  Relief swam in her eyes. But it was there and gone. “I didn’t know it was going on. And I’m sure you’re thinking, how could she not know what was happening with her own children? Living in the same house…”

  “You don’t gotta explain or defend yourself to me, Joan.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because it ain’t my place to judge. There’s a lot of guilt to go around. If I hadn’t been so pissed off at Casper about ranch stuff, I might’ve recognized the signs. Me’n Cal and Charlie. We didn’t. We were too wrapped up in our own lives. If not for Luke callin’ us out, things would’ve stayed the same.”

  Joan looked confused. “What did Luke do?”

  “He said just because Casper was an asshole didn’t automatically make his sons assholes. They worked hard and had as much McKay blood as their cousins—our sons—did. Casper kept them out of the loop on ranch happenings and Luke asked that one of us keep at least him apprised of what was goin’ on so they didn’t look like lazy idiots.”

  “How old was Luke?”


  She closed her eyes. “Luke wasn’t perfect, but I’d like to think he would’ve gotten his act together if he’d had more time. I miss him every day.” She sniffled and looked at Carson. “Sorry. Not exactly a happy topic.”

  “No, it ain’t. But sometimes we gotta look back to go forward. Whatever mistakes you made, you’ve atoned for them from what I can see. It seems your sons have forgiven you or at least gotten to a place where the past don’t have a stranglehold. That says a lot about how you raised them and what kinda men they are.”

  “Thank you. We’ve moved past a lot of it and I’m thankful every day my sons have their heritage as part of the McKay Ranch. If Casper had had his way…”

  Carson’s gut clenched. “Yeah. I remember that time all too well. Though, I try not to think about it.”

  “Casper had such extreme reactions when it came to death.” She paused. “How did he react after your mother died? He never spoke of it to me.”

  They’d all been in shock. There was no sickness or downward health spiral like Carolyn’s mother. Helen McKay had been fine one day and dead the next. Their father had dealt with his devastation by working his sons even harder, so at age eighteen Carson and Cal bore the brunt of Jed’s grief.

  “Casper simply shut down. He’d been closer to Ma than any of us. She let him get away with everything. She took Casper’s side even against our father’s.”

  “But Charlie was the baby, and he was sickly, so I would’ve guessed he would be spoiled,” Joan said.

  Carson shook his head. “As the oldest boys, me’n Cal knew Dad had greater expectations for us. He never expected much out of Casper because Ma made excuses for him. I think if she’d lived longer Casper wouldn’t have stayed on the ranch. He had aspirations to go to college but after Ma passed on he was lucky he graduated at all. Then he figured out he didn’t have to work very hard and he’d still get paid the same as the rest of us. By age twenty he was completely apathetic. After that he just got plain mean.”

  “I’m familiar with his mean side. Whenever he was…annoyed with me, he’d say his mother never would’ve allowed him to marry me because she would’ve known I was a liar, and a whore who’d be a sorry excuse for a wife and a lousy mother.”

  “How you stayed with him as long as you did…”

  “I made the best of the situation. I’m not the first woman to do it, likely I won’t be the last. My sons gave me joy. And at times, they gave him joy too. It wasn’t all bad. I’m not making excuses or coloring the past as I’d like it to’ve been, but there were happy times in our house.” She stood. “This wasn’t what I had in mind when I decided to visit.”

  “Joan, it’s fine. There’s never gonna be water under the bridge where Casper is concerned. For either of us.”

  “I know that. Take care of yourself, tell Carolyn she’s in my prayers, and I’ll be in touch.”

  Carson lumbered back to the ICU waiting room. As he donned the space suit, his thoughts had drifted to that dark place he’d avoided and he didn’t want to drag that into Caro’s room.

  Your life has hardly been sunshine and rainbows. Besides, just because you remember it a certain way doesn’t mean she will.

  Inside the room, he hooked the rolling stool beside the bed and sat down wearily. “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.”

  Then he waited a beat to gather his thoughts.

  “I had another visitor. Joan. She sends her love and best wishes. As I was talkin’ to her, it hit me that even when she’s been part of our lives since Cord was what? Two? That until she left my brother, I didn’t really know her. But then again, with all the stuff that’s come to light in the past few months, I don’t think I ever really knew Casper either.

  “It was weird, Joan askin’ about Casper’s relationship with our mother. I hadn’t thought of that in years. But it reminded me how Casper reacted after Ma died, which was totally different than his actions after Dad died.” He paused. “Still burns my ass how I found out that our father was dead…”

  Without warning, almost against her will Carolyn popped up at the listening place like a cork, roused by the sadness in Carson’s tone. Disoriented, she only caught bits and pieces of what he was saying because his voice kept fading in and out.

  What made him sound so sad?

  She focused on the words, not the emotion, as she tried to avoid slipping
back into the gray matter.

  The word died leapt out at her.

  What? He was talking about death? Who died?

  Dear God. She wasn’t dead, was she? Was that the reason for his sadness?

  No. He’d be inconsolable if it were her.


  Eerie silence surrounded her.

  Then…burns my ass how I found out that our father was dead.

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