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Authors: R. C. Ryan


BOOK: Jake
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For my three sons, Tom Jr., Patrick, and Mike,
who make me so proud and happy.

And for my darling Tom, who hung the moon.


Conway ranch—The Devil’s Wilderness


Quinn. Josh.” Big Jim Conway’s voice had his two grandsons looking up from their chores in the barn.

“Yes, sir?” Quinn paused, and the hose in his hand continued spilling water across the floor of the barn.

“Watch what you’re doing there, boyo.”

“Oh.” The boy turned off the spigot and dropped the hose. “Sorry.”

“Where’s your little brother?”

“Don’t know.” Quinn glanced guiltily toward his brother Josh, and the two boys waited for the explosion they knew would follow that admission. Since the day their mother, Seraphine, had vanished without a trace two years earlier, they had been charged with keeping a close eye on seven-year-old Jake. Not an easy job on a ranch this huge, especially since their youngest brother had a habit of wandering off to find all sorts of mischief.

“Sorry, Big Jim.” The boys never called their grandfather by anything other than that. There were no warm, fuzzy nicknames for this tough rancher, even by the youngest members of his family. “Last I saw Jake, he was out behind the barn.”

The old man walked away, muttering in frustration. A search of the area behind the barns came up empty, and Big Jim climbed the hill to the spot where a gleaming headstone stood, with five smaller stones forming a semicircle around it.

As was his custom, the old man lay a gnarled hand on the headstone that marked the resting place of his wife, Clementine, who had borne him six sons, five of whom had died in infancy. “I swear, Clemmy, that boy will be the death of me. He’s too damned independent for his own good. Do you have any idea where he’s gone this time?”

As if in answer a small head popped up from the far side of the hill. Jake was carrying something in his arms that appeared to weigh more than he did.

“What’s that you’ve got there, boyo?” As the boy drew closer Big Jim’s jaw dropped. “Is that what I think it is?”

“It’s a cougar, Big Jim. He’s just a little one, and he’s hurting.”

The old man’s growl was a combination of rage and fear. “Put that critter down before he devours you.”

The boy merely continued toward his grandfather. “I can help him, Big Jim.”

“I said put him down.”

The boy halted, then knelt in the grass before depositing the animal gently on the ground.

The old man ventured close enough to see that the young cougar was bloody and mangled, but still alive. “Looks like he tangled with something big and ornery. Probably a mother bear, and the bear won.”

“His ma was dead.”

“You know that for a fact?”

The boy nodded. “Looks like she fought hard to save him. He was lying beside her, licking her face. Can I take him to the barn and doctor him?”

“Listen to me, boyo.” The old man’s voice lowered, hoping to soften the blow. “It’s a fine thing you want to do. But this is a wild critter. He may be too weak to keep you from doctoring him now, but if he should survive, once he’s well and strong, he’ll do what wild things do. He’ll try to kill you. It’s his nature.”

Jake turned those wide, trusting eyes on his grandfather. “I know, Big Jim. But I still have to try to help. Look at him. He’s hurting something bad. And he doesn’t have a ma either.”

And he doesn’t have a ma either.

The little boy’s words were a knife to Big Jim’s heart. How could he possibly refuse a motherless boy’s request to help a motherless creature? Besides, there would be plenty of time for the lad to learn that nature could be cruel as well as beautiful.

“All right, boyo. I’ll help you build a cage and lend a hand with the doctoring. But you’re not to forget that he’s a wild thing that sees other creatures as food. As soon as he’s strong enough, he’ll bite the hand that doctors him.”

“I won’t forget, Big Jim.” With great tenderness the boy lifted the heavy animal.

“Let me give you a hand with him.”

As the older man reached out, Jake shook his head. “I can do it.”

He carried the big cat toward the barn. Inside, he applied ointment to the worst of the bite marks, and then went in search of Ela, an Arapaho woman who cooked for their family and had been with them since Big Jim’s wife, Clementine, had died some thirty years earlier.

Ela showed Jake how to use a needle and some fine thread to close the gaping wounds and stem the bleeding until they could heal.

For the next week Jake slept in the barn beside the cage his grandfather had made, and he even took his meals there, hand-feeding the cougar and applying ointment whenever its curious tongue weakened the stitches and opened another wound. Jake’s father, grandfather, and brothers reported hearing the lad talking to the animal late into the night.

A week later, when the young cougar had passed through the crisis and began to grow restless, Jake persuaded his grandfather to load the cage into the jaws of their front-end loader and drive it out to the range, near where the animal had been found.

Once there, they deposited the cage on the ground and then sat trying to figure out how to open it without risking their own safety.

“I’ll just lift up the door,” Jake said calmly.

“Like hell you will, boyo.” The old man shook a finger in his face. “You’ll stay up here on this machine with me, and we’ll figure out a way to snag the door with a rope and hook.”

While his grandfather was pondering the situation, Jake jumped to the ground, walked to the front of the cage, and lifted the door before stepping back.

For a moment the cougar stared at the boy, and then at the man, who was swearing a blue streak.

With a last look at the boy, the cougar calmly stepped out into freedom, before sprinting off.

Big Jim hurried to stand beside his grandson as the cougar made a great leap onto a rock ledge, where it lay panting in the afternoon sunshine.

Before they could turn away, the cougar lifted a paw and began licking it. It seemed, to the old man, that the animal wasn’t so much grooming itself as waving to the one who’d saved his life.

Or maybe, the old man thought, he was merely getting a bit dotty in his old age. After all, this predator would probably thank them by killing off more of their cattle.

Still, he’d swear that young cat was smiling and purring. And all because an innocent lad with a passion for healing couldn’t bear to see another living creature suffer.

Chapter One

Paintbrush, Wyoming—Present Day

Thanks, Jake.” The grizzled rancher pumped Jake Conway’s hand hard enough to have him wincing. “Figured old Scout here had seen his last sunset. I tried every home remedy I could think of.” The old man grinned. “Hated having to give in and pay a vet. You know how it is.”

Jake nodded in understanding. Every rancher in these parts knew how to birth a calf, treat a lame horse, and cure the hundred-and-one things that could go wrong with ranch animals. A veterinarian was called only in extreme circumstances, or when an animal had to be put down and its owner couldn’t bear to do the deed.

“Looks like I’d better start calling you Doc.” The old rancher winked at his teenage granddaughter, who was practically swooning over the handsome young veterinarian as though he were a Greek god.

His wife, standing beside their daughter, thrust a covered plate into Jake’s hands. “Brownies,” the older woman said with a shy smile. “Our Tina here baked them herself.”

“Thank you, Anna. And thank you, Tina. How’d you know about my sweet tooth?” Jake turned that famous Conway smile on both females, who audibly sighed.

The old rancher couldn’t suppress a grin. The women in his household were all smitten with Cole Conway’s youngest son. Word in the tiny town of Paintbrush was that Jake Conway had the same effect on every female there from sixteen to sixty. It had been that way since Jake was twelve or thirteen, and still trailing his older brothers around town wearing a sweaty T-shirt, dusty denims, and one of his grandfather’s cast-off frayed, wide-brimmed cowboy hats. As he’d matured, he’d grown into a tall, muscled cowboy, whose rugged good looks were enhanced by a spill of curly black hair always in need of a trim, and devilish blue eyes that sparkled with unmistakable humor. A big part of his charm was that good-natured, roguish smile. Women just gravitated to him like bees to honey.

“I guess what I’ve heard around town is the truth. You’re some kind of miracle worker.”

“Not me. I’ve got miracle drugs.” Jake smiled and patted his pocket before tucking away the syringe and vial. “Just doing my job, Will.”

“The way I see it, thanks to that fancy vet school in Michigan, you’re doing it even better’n old Doc Hunger did. And that’s saying something.”

Jake couldn’t hide his pleasure at the compliment. It meant the world to him that the ranchers accepted him without question. Not an easy task when they still thought of the youngest Conway son as a lightweight compared to his father, grandfather, and two older brothers.

At his truck, the two men shook hands again before Jake climbed inside and started toward home.

As he drove along the dusty road he played back his phone messages. One from Phoebe, their housekeeper, reminding him that Ela was baking her famous corn bread to go with the ham she’d put in the oven, and he’d better not be late.

His mouth was watering as he played the second message, this one from his brother Quinn, reminding him of dinner Saturday night as a surprise for his wife’s birthday, and that if Cheyenne had so much as an inkling of what was planned, he’d know it was all Jake’s fault for having a big mouth.

Jake was still grinning as the third message began. A woman’s breathy voice, sounding either stressed or annoyed.

“This is Meg Stanford. I’ve just arrived at my father’s ranch to dispose of his estate, and there’s a colt out in the barn that appears to be lame. I’m not sure there’s anything you can do for it, but I’d like you to…” The voice paused for so long, Jake thought the call may have been interrupted. But then the message continued. “…do whatever it is you do with animals that are beyond help.”

Unsure of what he’d heard, he played the message a second time before dismissing all thought of Ela’s corn bread and ham from his mind. He made a sharp U-turn and headed toward the Stanford ranch.

As he drew near, it occurred to Jake that though Porter Stanford had been his family’s nearest neighbor, he’d never before set foot on the property. He and his brothers had been warned when they were just boys that they were to stay clear of the rancher, whose volatile temper was well-known around these parts.

BOOK: Jake
12.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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