Authors: C. J. Carmichael
Tags: #holiday, #christmas, #small town, #American romance, #Series, #Montana, #cowboy, #Family
A Cowgirl’s Christmas
© Copyright 2014 Carla Daum
The Tule Publishing Group, LLC
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
This e-book is licensed for your personal reading enjoyment only.
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No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Thank you to everyone at Tule Publishing—such a creative and supportive editing and publishing team. Jane Porter, Meghan Farrell, Lillian Darcy, Lee Hyat and Lindsey Stover, you’re all amazing.
or Callan Carrigan the day started like thousands of others on the Circle C Ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana.
She spent two minutes in the bathroom brushing her teeth. Then she was pulling on a shirt and some jeans, threading her belt as she walked down the stairs, meeting her father, Hawksley, in the kitchen where they grunted “morning” at each other. Side by side they downed a cup of coffee each, while looking out the window to the west. From here they could see most of the outbuildings, painted white with green metal roofs. Beyond them the pastures, the rolling hills, the mountains. Five minutes later, in the mud room, they put on their boots, jackets, and in her case, a red down vest.
The air in the latter half of October was icy, despite the extended sunny period they’d been enjoying. Soon they would be moving the cattle in for the winter. But not today. There were still too many fences needing repairs. Her sister Sage’s wedding, held here at the ranch a little more than a week ago, had put them behind schedule.
Dawn was breaking as Callan strode across the yard with her father. In the soft morning rays, Callan noticed Hawksley’s grey complexion, the stoop in his tall, strong back, the slowness of his gait. These changes, signs of age, had appeared suddenly, starting about a year ago. Until then, her father had seemed invincible, tower of strength, who could work around the clock, when he had to.
Lately, he was struggling to get through a twelve-hour day. The few times Callan suggested slowing down, seeing a doctor, he turned defensive and angry, like a wounded animal biting the hand that wanted to help.
They went about their morning business as usual, and when chores were finished, met back in the house. Callan washed up in the mudroom before padding in sock feet to the large kitchen. Her father stood at the coffee pot, filling the enormous ceramic mug he’d been given when he purchased his last all-wheel-drive SUV. That had been ten years ago. The SUV was still running and the mug was okay, too, though it did have a chip on the handle.
But God forbid she throw it out.
“The men say they need another three days to finish with the fencing,” Hawksley said.
“Should I help them?”
“No. I need you to come with me to test out those three-year-old colts. We’ll take them up to Four Corners and see if they’re ready to work the round-up this year.”
Callan smiled at the prospect of a beautiful October day spent on the back of a young horse. Her father had just offered her the equivalent of a snow day to a grade school student. The views up at Four Corners—where their land bordered on the Sheenans’ at the point where two creeks merged into one—would be beautiful at this time of year with all the autumn colors.
The coffee smelled great. Nothing beat it when you’d already been out working for an hour in the cold. She’d moved in behind her father, expecting him to fill her mug, too, the way he usually did, when his hand unexpectedly started trembling. He dropped the pot to the counter, then used both hands to lean against the granite support, as he gasped for air.
“Dad? What’s happening?”
One second his face was contorted with pain, the next he was frowning at her. “Just a touch of heartburn. I told you last night that cabbage salad was a bad idea.”
She wasn’t satisfied with his answer. “Let’s scratch the ride for today. You need to see a doctor.”
“Like hell I do. Stop nagging.”
He won the argument. He always did. Callan scrambled eggs for breakfast, then packed up ham and cheese sandwiches and a couple of apples. Normally she hated cooking or any sort of food prep. In the old days, their mom, Beverly, had done all the cooking at the Circle C. Callan had only been eight when her mom was killed, helping her husband deal with a heifer in the throes of a difficult birth. After that, Hawksley had hired a housekeeper who cooked meals and kept the place clean. But Nora Stevens’s hours had been cut back drastically the spring Callan finished high school, so now she just came in once every two weeks to do a thorough cleaning.
“We’ve only got the two of us,” Hawksley had reasoned. “You should be able to handle meals from now on.”
Trouble was, Callan worked a full day on the ranch and the meals were an extra, unwanted burden. But she tried not to complain.
Certainly today, with the prospect of a nice, long trail ride, she wasn’t going to.
As she filled up their water bottles, she kept a close eye on her father. He finished his eggs, toast and orange slices for breakfast and drank all his coffee. As he put his dishes into the dishwasher, she had to admit he looked a lot better.
Maybe it had been just a touch of heartburn.
If only Dani were here. Dani, a professor of psychology at the same college Portia attended, had a calm, logical way around her. Maybe she could talk Hawksley into seeing a doctor.
Should Callan give Dani a call? But Hawksley hated when they worried and nagged. And she didn’t want to spoil the beautiful day before them.
It was past nine o’clock by time they’d curried and saddled up the two stud colts. Callan took hers for a few quick turns around the corral before heading out through the open gate. She waited until her father had followed suit, then circled back to close the gate.
She felt a rush of exhilaration at the prospect of the day ahead. The air was crisp, the sunshine warm, the sky blue and the wind calm. October days didn’t come better than this.
Ahead, the mountains were topped with their first layer of snow, but the larch were still golden and at lower elevation so were the cottonwoods. The huckleberry bushes had turned a deep orange and the bear grass had gone red. The color palette couldn’t have been more pleasing to Callan’s eye.
She glanced at her father and caught a rare smile. She didn’t need to exchange words to know he was thinking the same thing she was. Glorious moments like this made all the long days and hard work of ranching totally worthwhile. Together they rode up the first hill, where there was another gate to open and close, before they could advance to the ridge that would lead them to Four Corners.
The sun was high enough now that Callan could feel the heat on her face and shoulders. She wished she could store the UV rays and bring them out come December when she would really need them. Coming round a thicket of huckleberries, she noticed a few mounds of bear scat. Looked fresh.
“Hey, Dad,” she called out. “Look at this.”
He’d been right behind her five minutes ago. But when she swiveled in her saddle, she couldn’t see him. With a tug of the reins, she had the colt pivoting and retracing their steps. In less than a minute she found her father prone on the ground, his mount nowhere to be seen.
“Dad! What happened?” She slid off her colt and rushed to her father.
Hawksley’s legs were drawn up to his chest. His right hand was pressing against his left arm, and he was gasping.
Callan touched his forehead, which felt slick with sweat. He groaned and pulled away, clearly in a lot of pain. She whipped her phone from her back pocket, thankful they were high and clear of trees so would probably get service. Two bars showed up, and she dialed Red’s number.
“Something’s happened to Dad. Might be his heart. Get the ATV up here to the ridge. We’re about two miles west of Four Corners.” And then, unnecessarily, she added, “Hurry!”
Her father grimaced as another wave of pain punished his body. A few seconds later he seemed calmer and Callan tried talking to him.
But his eyes, while open, wouldn’t focus. He seemed to be looking at something in the distance. And then he gasped out a few words. “I kept my word, Bev. I kept my word.”
“About what Dad?” She was spooked by the mention of her mother’s name. Her father rarely mentioned her. Why would he do so now?
And then his eyes closed.
“Dad?” She gave his shoulders a slight shake. “Stay with me, Dad!” She checked to make sure he was still breathing, then pressed her fingers to his neck and found a faint pulse. Nothing changed after that until Red and Derek rode up on ATVs.
She could see the shock and worry in their faces as they took in Hawksley’s condition. Both had worked with her father for years, Derek the longest. She saw them exchange a look, then Red squeezed her arm reassuringly. “He’s a tough bugger. Don’t count him out. The ambulance is on the way from Marietta. They’ll be waiting for us by the time we get him down.”
Callan was thankful that Red and Derek were able to lift her father without her assistance. She felt so weak she could hardly manage to get to her own feet.
“Okay, we’ve got him as comfortable as we can make him,” Red said minutes later. “Callan, hop on back of Derek’s ATV and hang tight. We’ve got to make tracks.”
“The colts,” she said faintly, knowing her father would want her to make sure they were okay.”
“I’ll send Jim and Tyler up here to find them. Don’t worry, they’ll be fine.”
The ride home was a blur to Callan. Flashbacks from the morning fired randomly from her brain. How beautiful the day had seemed. How happy she’d been feeling. Then that moment in the kitchen when her dad had seemed to be in pain. Clearly it had been a warning sign. And she’d failed to act on it.
True to Red’s word, an ambulance was waiting near the barn when they arrived. Two paramedics rushed out to meet them. Her father was laid out on a stretcher and given a quick exam. Within minutes he was hooked to an IV and being loaded into the ambulance.
She scrambled up beside him, put a hand on her father’s arm. “Dad?”
His eyes flashed open and he seemed to be looking right at her when he said, “Bastard.”
She flinched. Of all the times to let loose with a cuss word. Was it the pain talking?
“Excuse me, Miss,” one of the paramedics said. “We have to get your father to the hospital.”
Callan jumped back, out of the vehicle. She wanted to say something to her father, but her throat felt as if it had been jammed shut with cotton balls. Red led her gently back to the ATV. “Sit down, Callan. Let the experts do their job.”
But it was to no avail. Red and Callan followed the ambulance to the hospital in Marietta, where her father was pronounced dead on arrival.