Cowboy take me away, p.46
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       Cowboy Take Me Away, p.46

         Part #16 of Rough Riders series by Lorelei James
 

  “You and your dad still goin’ round and round about post-high school options?”

  “We’re still going round and round about everything.”

  Poor kid. Carson remembered what it was like to be at loggerheads with his dad and all the times he’s been a stubborn jackass of the first order with his sons. “Tell ya what. Get us both a soda and we’ll see where we end up.” Carson dug in his pocket and pulled out five crumpled one dollar bills. “Damn soda here is higher priced than whiskey.”

  Kyler grinned. “Maybe we oughta be drinkin’ whiskey. I’ve got some in my truck.”

  Carson gave him a level stare.

  “Kidding. Dr. Pepper it is.”

  He returned with two bottles of soda, two candy bars…and three bucks. Carson raised an eyebrow when Ky passed the money back. “The candy is my treat.”

  “Thanks. You oughta be savin’ your money to take out all them pretty girls swarming around you. Gas ain’t cheap these days.”

  “Dad pays for my gas, so it’s all good.” Kyler cracked open his soda. Then he wolfed the candy bar before Carson opened his wrapper.

  “Why don’t you tell me what’s goin’ on.”

  He sighed. “The team’s already started football practice. Every morning from six to eight and then there’s weight training and agility conditioning every afternoon from four to six. Coach thinks we can win state this year after we’ve finished second the last three years, which would be awesome since it’s my senior year. I come straight home after practice and get chores done. Dad is passing off my evening chores to Foster, which is about time because I was doin’ way more at his age than he is. Anyway, there’s already been a couple of college scouts showing up to watch practice.”

  “The scouts are there for you?”

  A tinge of red appeared on Kyler’s cheeks. “Yeah. Anyway, I like the scout for UWYO. They’re a division one school, but they’ll never get close to a national championship. The scout who showed up last week was from Oklahoma State. He talked a good game and they’ve got the winning records to back up their claims.”

  “Did either of them offer you anything?”

  “Both did. Full rides. Arizona State University offered the same thing with the option clause of expanding their offer, whatever that means.” He wiggled the metal tab on the can. “So to throw more crap in the mix, last week, Marla called.”

  Since Cord had married AJ a dozen years ago, Ky had called AJ Mom, a fact his biological mother Marla wasn’t happy about. But since the boy visited Marla in Seattle maybe once every two years, and AJ was in Kyler’s life every day, Carson didn’t see the issue. “What’s goin’ on with her?”

  “She wants me to apply to Washington State.”

  “Huh. I didn’t realize that team was on your radar.”

  “It’s not. But as soon as Marla found out about the other teams throwing out offers, she contacted the athletic director and sent in an audition tape.”

  “Without asking you?”

  Kyler nodded. “Kinda slimy, I know. She did it because she means well, but all Dad sees is manipulation.”

  “Is WSU sending a scout?”

  “I guess.”

  “You interested in goin’ there?”

  “I don’t know. I want to base my decision on which football team has the best shot at playing in a national championship the years I’m on the team. Dad says there’s more to the decision than that.” The soda can dented after Kyler squeezed it with obvious frustration.

  “He tellin’ you where you should go?”

  “He says it’s a no brainer; I should pick UWYO.”

  “What’s his reasoning on that choice?”

  Kyler looked him in the eye. “Sentimentality.”

  Whoa. Such an astute kid for seventeen. “You wanna explain that?”

  “Because he could come to the games and because I wouldn’t be far from home. But he also knows if I choose a bottom tier division one school then my chance of playing pro ball after college is practically none.” He tacked on, “Not that I think I’m good enough to go that route now. But if I don’t choose the best possible program, then I won’t grow as an athlete.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “And the other thing? I don’t want to get a degree in Ag management.”

  “That’s what he’s suggesting you do?”

  “Yeah. But sure enough if I earn that degree and come back here and try to ranch with him, he’ll get pissy and remind me he’s been a rancher for far longer than I have and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with the way he does things and most things about ranching can’t be learned in books anyway.”

  Dammit, Cord, didn’t you learn anything from me? Pushing that boy in one direction—your direction—is gonna push him away from you.

  “Sounds like him.” Carson sighed. “Hell. That sounds like me.” He shot Kyler a look. “That’s why you want to know what happened. So it doesn’t happen between you and your Dad.”

  “I also wanna know if it’s some freakin’ pattern with McKays that I’m destined to repeat regardless of what I do.”

  “You askin’ if I had the same issue with my old man?”

  He nodded.

  “Yep.”

  He groaned.

  “It’s just one of them things. Different personalities and differing philosophies creates friction. Can’t tell you how many times when I was in my early twenties that I told my old man to fuck off and I’d never run the ranch the way he did.” Carson’s eyes narrowed. “You tell your Gran-gran I swore in front of you and I’ll deny it.”

  Kyler snorted. “I’m pretty sure after being married for almost fifty years Gran-gran knows exactly how much you swear, Grandpa.”

  “She still gives me hell about it.” More than anything in the world he wanted that woman to wake up and snap, “Carson McKay! Language!” at him.

  “What did your dad say when you told him you didn’t wanna be a rancher like him?” Kyler asked.

  “Told me to pull my head outta my ass and get my work done because he knew I was bluffing. Sounds like sappy bullshit from an old man, but the truth is ranching is in my blood, although some years I’da happily traded in the hard work and low pay for a steady job workin’ in the auto department at Sears.” He sipped his soda. “Does Cord know you wanna do something else with your life?”

  “That’s the thing. I don’t know if I do. Maybe four years away from here and my family will make me miss it.”

  Cord lasted almost three years in Seattle before he returned to Wyoming—not that Carson planned to mention it. “You have options. No one’s gonna fault you for lookin’ into them.”

  “Thanks, Grandpa.” Kyler stood. “It’s about time for your hourly visit with Gran-gran so I’ll let you be.” He jammed his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. “Will you, ah, tell her I miss her and I can’t wait until she’s better?”

  Carson didn’t trust himself to speak so he just nodded.

  “Later, Gramps.”

  He cleared his throat. “I thought you wanted to hear about the big fallin’ out between me’n your dad?”

  “I do. But I’ll ask him.” He offered a sly grin. “Maybe it’ll help him remember what it was like to be the one wanting to get away.”

  “Good plan. But remind him I told you that the way I handled it was wrong. All wrong. Maybe that’ll prompt him to do things the right way.”

  After his grandson left, Carson pushed out of the chair, grimacing at the pain in his lower back. Getting old sucked. But at least his hip wasn’t bothering him.

  He stared out the window without really seeing anything, his thoughts focused on the fight he’d had with his oldest son right before he left Wyoming…

  “No.”

  “Jesus, Dad, will you just listen to me?”

  Carson reined his horse around. “So you can tell me that I’m an idiot? That you know so much more about what we oughta be doin’ in this section?”

  “It’s not like I’m demanding we switch to raisin
g all Angus or something. All’s I’m sayin’ is we oughta look at planting a different kind of grass mix here. We ain’t had the yield we ought to in the last two years since we bought this acreage and you damn well know it.”

  He did, but how was he supposed to admit he’d been wrong?

  Encouraged by his silence, Cord railed on. “And while we’re talkin’ about it, I don’t think because that’s the way we’ve always done it is the only damn answer you ever give me. But every time I’ve tried to talk to you, you shut me down.”

  “Then you’d think you’d learn to keep your opinions to yourself.”

  “You’re an asshole and I’ve had enough of it.”

  “Because I won’t listen to you?”

  “You won’t listen to anyone, Dad. When was the last time Uncle Cal asked for your opinion on anything?”

  Carson dismounted. “Am I supposed to be keepin’ track of that?” He sent his son a hard look. “Guess I don’t need to since you seem to be doin’ it for me.”

  “I can tell you even your own brother says you’re bein’ a stubborn fool—just like your dad—about some of this stuff.”

  “So you’re polling my brothers now? I’ll bet Casper weighed in heavily on the I’m an asshole side, didn’t he?”

  Cord’s spurs jangled as he walked over to stand in front of Carson with his hands on his hips. “I think there are days when even Mom would be on that side.”

  “Watch what you say or you might find yourself eatin’ dirt, boy. You may be younger, but I got a lot of fight left in me when it comes to people talkin’ shit. And that’s exactly what you’re doin’ right now.”

  They glared at each other. They’d been snarling and snapping at each other for the better part of a year. Cord working around him. Undermining his authority. If they weren’t arguing about what type of grass to plant, they were arguing about the breeding program, the field rotation, land lease issues, what shoes to put on the horses and what color to repaint the barn. If there was something to have an opinion on, guaranteed Cord would have the opposite opinion of his father’s. It’d gotten tedious and the back and forth was getting them nowhere.

  “Real nice, Dad. Real helpful.” Cord jabbed a finger at him. “You wanna know the truth? No one wants to work with you. Colby is off rodeoin’ because he’d rather be anywhere than stuck here under your thumb. Cam joined the service as soon as he graduated from high school because he’d rather get his ass shot off than get his ass chewed every fuckin’ day of his life by you. Carter is goin’ off to college and you can bet your ass he ain’t majoring in Ag management so he can return to the fold and help you out.”

  “What about Colt? You left him off your roll call of people who wanna get the hell away from me and my stubborn ways.”

  Cord snorted. “Colt gives a shit about two things: pussy and booze. He’ll be the obedient son doin’ whatever you say as long as ranching don’t interfere with his afterhours pursuits.”

  Because Colt was easier to work with than Cord, it was also easier to ignore the similarities he saw between Colt and himself.

  “I work my ass off. For years I’ve been tryin’ to prove I’m worthy of the almighty Carson McKay’s stamp of approval. But I’m never gonna get it. So I’m done.”

  “Done what? Done for the day?”

  “No, done for good. Jesus, Dad. Half the time you don’t even bother to listen to me. I think you suffer from old timer’s disease.”

  “Old timer’s?” Incensed about the low blow, Carson snapped, “I’m fifty-two years old and a long goddamn ways from old timer’s. Just because what I tell you ain’t what you wanna hear don’t mean I’m some foolish old man rambling about nothin’.”

  “Well you can ramble on to someone who gives a shit. As of tomorrow, that ain’t me. I’m gone.”

  “Yeah? Where you goin’?”

  “I’ll know when I get there. But it’ll be a long way from here.” Cord took off his gloves and threw them on the ground before he stormed off. Then his truck tires spit gravel as he tore off. Again.

  Carson didn’t say anything. He just hung up his tack and brushed down his horse. Then to calm himself down and clear his head, he set about straightening the tack room. Carter popped in to let him know he’d finished chores.

  He had no idea how long he’d been in the barn until Carolyn showed up. “You missed supper.”

  “Sorry. Not really hungry.”

  “Carson, honey, what’s going on? Keely tracked you down and said you were throwing stuff and swearing so she ran the other way.”

  He said just one word: “Cord.”

  “Ah. That’s why he took off like the hounds of hell were on his boot heels.”

  “Yeah, well that fits since he all but called me the devil himself.”

  That’s when she moved in and wrapped her arms around him. She didn’t say anything, she always knew what he needed, even just a simple touch. Immediately everything was better in his world.

  She kissed the side of his neck and purred, “Mmm. Dust and sweat and cowboy. My favorite.”

  “I’m a little more ripe than usual.” From angry sweat—not that he’d tell her that. Then again, she probably already knew.

  “Come inside. Once you get scrubbed clean let’s see how dirty we can get.”

  Carson lifted an eyebrow. “On a Tuesday night with the kids home?”

  She shrugged. “Why not? It’s not like they’ll notice.”

  Great plan. Things hadn’t been spontaneous between them in a while… His eyes narrowed. “Hey. Wait a second. Is this a pity fuck? You tryin’ to take my mind off me’n Cord havin’ words?”

  “Maybe. Besides, don’t you always say a fuck is a fuck? And be honest, you won’t be thinking about anything else when your dick is in my mouth.”

  He smacked her butt and she yelped. “Sugar, I love that dirty mouth of yours. Now march that fine ass of yours up to the bedroom.”

  The next day Cord hadn’t shown up to work, which left him to do everything by himself since Carter and Keely were both in school. By the time he’d returned home, he’d found his wife staring aimlessly out the window. The breakfast dishes still in the sink, the house a bit messy; she always tidied up after Carter and Keely left.

  “Caro? What’s wrong?”

  Without facing him, she said, “Cord is gone.”

  His gut clenched. “What?”

  “He stopped to say goodbye.” Her voice broke on a sob. He went to her to pull her into his arms but she waved him off. “Don’t.”

  “What did he say?”

  “That he’d had enough. He needed to find his own way. Find a way not to hate you.”

  That knocked the breath from his lungs. He reached for the back of the dining room chair to keep himself from passing out. He couldn’t believe it’d come to this. That he and his son couldn’t work this out. Carson figured Cord would go on a bender for a couple of days and things would go back to normal. That’s what he’d done when his old man had pissed him off.

  And how did that go for you? How many years did you spend resenting your father until you realized the man wasn’t half the idiot you’d made him out to be?

  “Cord told me what’s been going on.”

  Carolyn’s voice was quiet and controlled.

  “I want you to know that I’m not taking sides. But to be honest, I don’t want to hear your side. I thought—maybe I should say I hoped—that because you dealt with this very thing with your own father over the years, that you’d handle it differently when it came to your sons.”

  The silent, unspoken accusation lingered between them. He’d been married to this woman long enough that he knew what she was thinking, almost as if he was inside her head.

  You swore to me you’d never have the kind of relationship with your children that you had with your father. And when the boys were growing up, you were there for them, teaching them, encouraging them. But as soon as Cord decided he wanted to ranch with you, you’ve slowly turned into t
hat man. Nitpicking everything he says or does. Rarely listening to his ideas. Reminding him you’re in charge and he’d better fall in line. And I’ve seen you acting the same way with Colton. How long before you chase him away too?

  At that point he knew he’d fucked up in the worst possible way. And wasn’t it a kick in the ass that the doomed to repeat the same familial pattern stuff that Keely yammered on about from her psychology class wasn’t bullshit; he’d gotten sucked into it because it was familiar.

  Yet even knowing that, he didn’t know how to change it. What if he couldn’t? What if his boys ended up hating him because he was too fucking stubborn to admit that he wasn’t the infallible man they’d looked up to? Had that man ever really existed?

  He’d never walked away from his wife when she was distraught. But she wanted nothing to do with him so he left the house, choking on a cloud of guilt.

  That first year Cord was gone had been rough on everyone. Especially since Cord had joined a fishing crew based out of Seattle and spent months at sea and called home only twice. Carson suffered most of all because he’d had to do Cord’s work and his. Colt, determined to prove his worth in the face of his brother’s defection, worked hard enough for two ranch hands. But it still wasn’t enough.

  When Colby realized things were falling apart at the McKay ranch, he’d backed off on his rodeo travel schedule and helped out. But Colby
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