Cowboy take me away, p.43
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.43

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  It clicked. And she was spun into another memory…

  Seeing Casper’s truck pull into the drive so early in the morning set off Carolyn’s warning bells. He always made Carson go to him if something needed to be discussed about the ranch.

  That man was more than a little off. She’d considered asking if Casper had been the deranged kid pulling the wings off butterflies, or torturing barnyard animals, but part of her didn’t want to know. She decided to give Carson a little time with his brother before she wandered outside. She had a legitimate excuse for interrupting; she’d talked to Joan two days ago and baby Dalton was fighting some kind of respiratory infection.

  She got sidetracked by Carter looking for his baseball cleats, and then by Cam searching for his library card.

  Ten minutes had passed when Carson stormed into the house, right past her, went into his office and slammed the door.

  That’d never happened before.

  She hovered by the closed door, trying to hear who Carson was talking to. She waited until several minutes of silence passed, then she knocked once and stepped inside the room.

  Carson had his back to her as he stared out the window.

  She closed the door and started toward him. “Sweetheart, is everything okay?”

  He shook his head.

  “What happened with Casper?”

  “He came to tell me, to gloat really, that our father is dead.”

  Carolyn froze. “What?”

  “Evidently Jed died during the night. For whatever reason they couldn’t get ahold of Cal so they called Casper.”

  “And he’s just letting you know now?”

  “Claims he wanted to tell me in person.”

  “Does Cal know?”

  “He does now. I just called him. And Charlie. Fuck.”

  She went to him, nestling her cheek against the rigid line of his back, wreathing her arms around his waist. “I’m sorry.”

  “Yeah, well, so am I. I hated putting him in that fuckin’ nursing home. Even after that last stroke and Cal and Kimi couldn’t take care of him…”

  His entire body was rigid even as it shook.

  “The man who spent his life outside, battling the elements, putting his blood and sweat into the land so he’d leave behind some kind of legacy for us, died alone in a tiny windowless room.”

  Her tears fell. Carson wasn’t looking to be absolved of guilt; he was in one of those rare moods where he needed to vent.

  “My father, a man I admired my whole life even when he could piss me off like no one else…is gone. Who the fuck would ever be happy about that?”

  Had Casper acted happy that Jed McKay had died? Had the idiot said that to Carson?

  “I know Dad ain’t been the same for a few years, but he was always there. Goddammit, I just saw him yesterday. Now I’ll never see him again. Keely is four; she won’t remember him. He was so damn tickled to have a granddaughter. He won’t see Cord graduate or take on more ranch responsibilities. He won’t know that I…”

  “That he did know. Jed McKay knew exactly how much you cared about him, about this family. How much blood, sweat and love you’ve poured into this place over the years. That’s why he put you in charge, Carson. He understood you have the drive and the love of the land, and the cattle business, and will make sure the legacy he built will be passed on to the next generation of McKays. He was proud of you. He told me that himself. We both know the man wasn’t prone to handing out any kind of praise unless it was earned. You earned it and his respect.”

  He didn’t respond for the longest time. When he finally said, “Thank you,” in such a quiet and sad tone she scarcely heard him. Then he disentangled from her embrace and faced her.

  His eyes were dry. Not that she’d expected him to be sobbing, but beneath the sadness Carson was seething.

  “I’ve gotta meet up with Cal and Charlie and go over the funeral stuff.”

  “What do you want me to do?”

  “Tell the kids. Then we’ll talk about it later.”

  She shook her head. “You—we—need to tell them before you leave.”

  “Caro—”

  “He was your father; this crappy job shouldn’t fall on me. And we broke it to the kids together last year when my dad passed on.”

  “Fine. They all here?”

  “Except for Cord. You sent him to town.”

  “Hell, he’s probably already heard the news about his grandpop at the hardware store. Round the rest of ’em up.”

  The kids lined up on the couch, from Colby to Keely, and Carson matter of factly informed them their grandfather was dead.

  Carolyn understood the man was in shock, but still, it was a pretty abrupt way to break the news, especially to children. Gently, she said, “How about if we say a prayer for Grandpop, since he’s at peace and in a better place.”

  Keely blurted out, “Grandpop Jed is at Disneyland?”

  Carson cracked a smile at that. “No, punkin. Grandpop is in heaven now.”

  “Oh.”

  It was clear by the look Cam and Carter exchanged that they thought Disneyland was a much better option than heaven.

  They all bowed their heads, Carolyn said the prayer and before they hit the last consonant in amen and crossed themselves, Carson had booked it out the door.

  He didn’t come home until late that night. But Carolyn hadn’t been worried because Cal and Charlie were both out with him, doing whatever.

  She’d talked to Joan, who’d been even more subdued than normal. Evidently Casper hadn’t been with his brothers. In fact, Joan hadn’t seen Casper at all.

  The next morning Carson bounded out of bed and out of the house before Carolyn. During the day the phone rang off the hook. Friends and neighbors wanting the details on the funeral service and if they should bring food to one place so the four McKay wives could divvy it up for the McKay sons’ families.

  When her husband hadn’t shown up for supper, and Cal and Charlie were mum on his whereabouts, Carolyn figured Carson had gone looking for a fight.

  She knocked on Cord’s bedroom door.

  He barked, “What!”

  “I need your help.”

  Cord immediately opened the door and stepped into the hallway—probably so she couldn’t see the mess inside his room. “Ma? What’s goin’ on?”

  “I need to find your father. You’re driving. I’ll meet you downstairs.” Next she knocked on Colby’s door.

  He barked, “What!”

  “I’ll be gone a while. Cord’s coming with me so you’re on babysitting duty.”

  Colby immediately opened the door and stepped into the hallway—probably so she couldn’t see the mess in his room either. “Babysitting again?”

  “I’m not a baby!” Keely yelled from her room.

  “Me neither,” shouted Carter from the bathroom.

  “Just watch your younger siblings, okay? I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

  Cord didn’t say anything until they were halfway to town. She’d directed him to Moorcroft rather than the Golden Boot in Sundance—Carson’s usual hangout. “I ain’t surprised Dad’s takin’ Grandpop’s death so hard. I haven’t seen him since yesterday and he never disappears like this.”

  “Not in recent years. But before…” She shot Cord a look. “Let’s just say you boys come by your fighting nature naturally.”

  “I’d heard rumors about Dad bein’ like that…but I never put much stock in ’em.”

  “Why?”

  Cord’s look said, Duh. Because he’s old.

  “I hope he’s just drowning his sorrows and not getting his pretty face messed up by some kid twenty years younger than him.”

  “Ma. Are you okay? Because you never say sh—stuff like that about Dad.”

  “Yes, I do. You boys just don’t hear it.” Where did these sons of hers think their good looks came from?

  “When was the last time Dad got into a fight?”

  She closed her eyes briefly, tryin
g to remember. “Six years ago? A guy who was bitter about some cattle deal called him out on the cheating way the McKays did business. Two things your dad won’t stand for. Someone tearing down the McKays or some guy coming on to me. Anyway, this guy wouldn’t pipe down.”

  “Dad took a swing at him?”

  “Eyes on the road, son. Yes, your dad went after him. And that ended it.”

  They drove through the Ziggy’s parking lot first. No sign of Carson’s truck.

  “You don’t think he could’ve left his truck somewhere and rode to the bar with someone else?”

  She shook her head. “He doesn’t hide it if he’s out looking for trouble. He’s probably at the Rusty Spur.”

  Cord gave her an odd look. “You’ve been there?”

  If he only knew. “You do realize your father and I had a life before we had children?”

  “Well, yeah, but I don’t see you and dad tearing it up, getting wild and shit.”

  “Because we’re old?”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  “You didn’t need to.”

  He sighed. “I know where the Rusty Spur is.”

  They found Carson’s truck. Carolyn made Cord stay in his vehicle while she went inside.

  Carson had taken a seat at the end of the bar. A full shot glass sat beside a bottle of Coors.

  The bartender caught her eye. “What’ll it be?”

  “A whiskey Coke—hold the whiskey.”

  “Coming right up.”

  Carson picked up the cigarette smoldering in the ashtray and took a drag. “You worried you’d find me fightin’?”

  “That’s been the case in the past. So I thought I’d see if you needed someone to have your back since your brothers aren’t out with you.”

  “Except Casper was. Long enough to take a couple of shots at me. Then I took a couple of shots at him. More than a couple.” He faced her.

  Carolyn winced, seeing the fat lip and the beginnings of a shiner around his right eye. “I’m assuming Casper looks worse than you?”

  “You’re goddamned right he does. I hope the asshole is pissing blood.” His feral grin sent a shudder through her.

  She’d seen Carson fight, so she knew what kind of physical damage he was capable of inflicting. But the lingering anger rolling off him was new; usually he was much calmer after a fight. She laid her hand on his cheek. “Tell me what’s going on, McKay.”

  He closed his eyes and leaned into her touch—another unusual reaction from him. “We ain’t even buried Dad yet and Casper is already talkin’ about selling the ranch. That was the first fuckin’ thing the asshole said to me after he told me about Dad bein’ gone. The first fuckin’ thing.”

  She didn’t know what to say to that.

  “Casper is a big talker. But this time he actually followed through. He contacted a lawyer about dividing up the ranch and the assets.”

  “Can he force you, Cal and Charlie to sell?”

  “He thinks he can. But the whole reason he’s doin’ it is because he knows we’ll do anything to stop that from happening. He thinks he can force us into borrowing against what we own to buy him out.” He picked up the shot and drained it. “We ain’t got that kind of cash. We’re land rich and cash poor. All of our profits go toward payin’ ourselves and payin’ off the yearly operating loan. With the way the Ag business is right now, family farms and ranches goin’ under, there’s no way any bank would risk it.”

  “So what happens now?”

  “If I had the money I’d buy him out and not give a shit if I ever see him again. But that ain’t an option. So we’re stuck with him.”

  “Sweetheart. Why didn’t you talk to me about this?”

  “Because I’ve been too pissed off. The kids don’t need to see me this way either.”

  Her heart ached for him. Because of Casper’s machinations, Carson couldn’t even grieve his father. Rather than ask more questions, she sat next to him and sipped her soda.

  Carson gestured to the bartender for another beer.

  Carolyn was about to head outside to tell Cord to go home, when someone behind them said, “If it ain’t another drunken McKay.”

  When Carolyn started to turn around, Carson put his hand on her forearm, stilling the movement.

  “You drowning your sorrows because Daddy died?”

  He ground out his cigarette.

  “Bet that puts the future of the McKay Ranch in question.”

  Carson slowly turned around on his barstool. “First of all, Timmons, fuck off. You don’t know nothin’. And I ain’t that drunk, so tread lightly.”

  She couldn’t help but spin to see who was stupid enough to taunt Carson.

  The guy was big. Easily six foot four, but skinny as a telephone pole. Over the years she’d become familiar with most of the families in the area, but she’d never seen this man.

  “I’d like to tread all over your goddamned spine. I owe you payback,” he sneered.

  “For what?”

  Timmons shuffled closer. “Don’t play dumb. You know what for.”

  “It’s been almost twenty years and you nursing a grudge ain’t my problem.”

  “Nursing a grudge over what?” popped out of Carolyn’s mouth before she stopped it.

  “None of your business, bitch. Turn the fuck around and shut up.”

  Carson’s boots were on the floor and he was in the guy’s face. “Speak to my wife like that again and I will shut that fat mouth of yours.”

  “You always did bandy around like the cock of the walk.” The guy loomed over Carson. “Too bad it don’t hold water no more. You don’t—”

  Before the guy knew what hit him, Carson’s fists connected several times in a row. The last crack to the jaw rocked him back and Carson charged him, knocking him to the floor.

  He pummeled the guy, but not without consequence. Timmons got in a couple of good shots. Which only served to infuriate Carson more.

  As she watched fists fly and blood spurt and heard the dull thud of flesh smacking into flesh, it seemed ten minutes passed before a bouncer intervened, when in reality it’d only been a few minutes.

  The bouncer shoved Carson back. “For Christsake, McKay, ain’t you old enough to know better by now?”

  Carolyn tried to hand Carson a stack of bar napkins to mop up the blood and sweat dripping down his face, but he angrily smeared his face across his shirt sleeve.

  “You keep letting assholes like him in here and I’ll keep wiping the floor with them.”

  “What the hell did he do to you anyway?”

  Carson glared at the man wheezing and bleeding on the floor. “The dumb fucker insulted my wife. That ain’t ever gonna go well for any man, no matter how old I get.”

  Carolyn wanted to blow him a kiss but she refrained.

  “Evidently he’s still got a beef about something that happened nearly two decades ago.”

  “Damn right we do. You McKay fuckers took advantage of my grandpa and bought his land right out from under us. That parcel should’ve been passed down to his family. But no. You dangled a fat check in front of him and he sold to you without discussing it with any of us. That’s sneaky shit.”

  “You’re just pissed off that your granddaddy sold his land and pocketed the money to enjoy his retirement rather than pass down a heritage none of you gave a damn about. He was happy to sell to us because he knew we’d take care of it and keep it productive. That’s what burns your ass. Your granddaddy preferred sellin’ to strangers rather than entrusting it to his own family.”

  Timmons huffed and puffed as he maneuvered himself upright. “No one around here trusts any of you McKays and we’re all laughing that Jed finally kicked it. Good riddance to that manipulative bastard. We’re all hoping the rumors are true—rumors comin’ from your own brother—that
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