Authors: Ann Jacobs
“I’m coming over. You’ll probably need some help controlling Slade if he should wake up before the ambulance gets there. You do know it will take at least an hour for one to get here from Lubbock.”
* * * * *
While she waited with Buck for the ambulance, Karen managed to calm down enough to recall his comment about Pop having a good reason for hating Bye’s father. “What happened to make Pop hate Bye’s father so much?”
“You were about four years old, I guess, so you probably don’t remember. Caden’s prize bull broke through the fence onto the Rocking O. I suppose one of the cows Slade had out there must have been in heat. Your mama was out picking blackberries from that big thicket close to the fence, the one that’s grown around those two rusted-out cars. Well, the bull came after her. He gored her to death. Slade killed the bull, but that didn’t bring your mama back.”
“Nobody ever told me how Mama died.”
“Slade didn’t want you to know. It wasn’t pretty.”
Karen shuddered as she imagined her pop going after Bye’s father. “Did Pop go shooting up the Bar C? It wouldn’t surprise me if he did.” Slade Oakley had never been logical enough to reason that Byron Caden couldn’t possibly have trained his bull to break through a fence and commit mayhem.
“I wasn’t there, but from what I heard, your pa stormed up to the Bar C intending to kill somebody, but the boss wasn’t around. Mrs. Caden—the lady who just died—talked some sense into him, told him she was real sorry about that bull gettin’ loose, and said he was more than welcome to shoot the bull and do whatever he wanted to with the carcass. She even offered to send over some cowboys to shoot it, if he didn’t want to do it himself.”
“Was Bye there when this happened?” He’d have been about six years old, so if he’d witnessed that, he’d probably remember.
“I doubt it. It happened in January, so he probably would have been in school. I know I was in the tenth grade. Roy came to the school and got me early that day, so I could watch you while my mom helped Slade make the funeral arrangements.”
A siren wailed in the distance, just as Pop started cursing a blue streak and banging against the jammed door to his room. “Finally.” Karen stood and went on the porch, watching as the ambulance slowed down and carefully made its way down the rutted driveway. When Buck came up beside her and put his arm around her, she felt a little less lonely.
But she couldn’t help wishing it were Bye.
* * * * *
Bye heard the shrill wail of a siren as he was stapling barbed wire to a section of the southwest fence where he and Four had left off yesterday. He’d rather have stayed inside and waited for word about Deidre, but his father felt the activity would make the waiting go easier for both of them. Maybe he was right.
“Looks like an ambulance pulling in at the Rocking O,” Four said as he dragged another roll of barbed wire out of the Jeep. “I wonder if Slade Oakley finally got so drunk that he shot himself.”
From the looks of the splintered front wall at the Neon Lasso this morning when he’d taken Karen to get her car, Bye suspected that her father had been crazy drunk and gone there looking for her last night. “I’m going down there. Karen came with me last night, helping look for Deidre. I’ve got to make sure her father didn’t find out we were together and take it out on her.”
“You messing around with her, boy?”
Four’s snide tone got Bye incensed. “I’m not messing around with Karen. I’m in love with her. If it weren’t for this insane feud, I’d ask her to marry me.”
When Four would have said something, Bye held up his hand to silence him. “Either you take me back to the house for my car, or I’ll leave you here and drive myself down there in the Jeep.”
“I’ve already misplaced one child in the past twenty-four hours. I’m not about to risk you with that crazy drunk. Mae would climb out of her grave and give me what-for.” Four looked at Bye, a resigned look on his face. “If you’re determined to go see what’s going on, I’ll take you down there myself. If Oakley tries anything, I’ll fill him full of bullet holes.”
Bye’s father set the spool of wire down and cut a hole in the fence. As Bye looked on, not believing his eyes, Four climbed behind the wheel of the Jeep, pulled out a high-powered rifle from its holster between the seats and made sure it was loaded. “Get in.”
Shocked speechless, Bye did as he was told. It surprised him more when Four gunned the Jeep and they bounced across the Rocking O’s unkempt pasture and onto a rutted dirt road that apparently led to the ranch house. “This is trespassing,” he finally managed to say as they pulled behind the ambulance and he watched his father stop and leap out, rifle cocked and ready.
What a fucking hell of a way to show up at his lover’s place for the first time! Bye sat, transfixed, and watched his old man take rickety stairs two at the time and pound on the front door. Another time Bye might have tried to count the dozens of empty bourbon bottles stacked next to an oak rocking chair by the door, but all he could do was watch Four and pray he wasn’t about to witness a reenactment of the killing that took place long ago.
It wasn’t Slade Oakley but Karen who answered the door. Bye breathed easier, knowing she seemed unhurt.
He let out a sigh of relief when he saw Four set the butt of his rifle on the porch floor and look Karen over. “My son’s out in the Jeep. When he saw the ambulance coming here, he was determined to make sure you’re all right. I don’t approve, but I wasn’t about to let him become a target for your father. We’ve lost too many Cadens lately.”
Bye could hardly believe Four. The man sounded almost conciliatory. He got out and went to join them in time to hear Karen explain that nobody was hurt but the ambulance was here for her father. “He has a drinking problem that’s gotten out of control,” she told Four quietly. “The EMTs are trying to get him calmed down and off to that new drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility over in Lubbock.”
“You’re having him committed?” Bye asked as he joined them and put his arm around Karen.
She laughed, but she looked so sad, Bye wanted to hold her tight, give her the comfort he sensed she needed. “I don’t think we have a choice, any longer. It was Pop who shot up the Neon Lasso last night, and this morning he came in the bathroom and shot at me while I was trying to get dressed for work. The Oakley men seem to have a lot of trouble holding their liquor. At least my dad does. According to Buck, so did my grandpa.”
“Slade found out you were with me. Didn’t he?” Bye wished he could get his hands on the miserable old drunk and shake him until his teeth rattled. Then he felt guilty. He should have known when Karen had left the Neon Lasso with him last night that some loudmouth might tell her father and stir up a wildfire. “Damn it, I’m sorry. If I’d had the balls to do it, I’d have walked right up here as soon as I realized I care about you and had it out with your father.”
“It’s not your fault.” Karen rested her head on Bye’s chest, and he hoped that meant she wanted to accept his protection. “I was the one who offered to go with you to look for Deidre.”
“So you could keep me from tearing whoever she went off with limb from limb if we found him, right?”
“I guess so. Or maybe it was just because I wanted to be with you.”
When she took Bye’s hand, he brought it to his lips. Then he met her gaze. “Karen, I’d like to introduce you to my dad. Dad, this is the woman I love.”
Four scowled. Then he managed a wry smile and held out his hand. “I can’t say it thrills me saying this, but I just lost my wife. My daughter’s run off. I don’t want to lose my son. You look like a nice enough girl, no matter what I think of your father. Hello, Karen Oakley.”
“Hello, Mr. Caden.”
“Four. That’s what my friends call me.”
Bye thought then of the three Byron Cadens who’d come before his father, and of the Oakley gunfighter who’d killed Luke so long ago. “I think Dad wants to be your friend, love.”
He’d never called her that before. Karen looked up at Bye and his father, an older version of Bye except for the graying hair and deeply etched lines on his rugged face from a lifetime spent out in the sun. “I’d like that, Four.”
She was about to let herself believe everything might work out for the best when the paramedics came outside, her father strapped on a gurney and cursing a blue streak. “Gimme my guns. Nobody’s gonna tell Slade Oakley he can’t drink what he wants and shoot whatever he takes a mind to. Karen, tell these fuckers to let me loose.”
Buck followed alongside her father, trying hard to calm him down.
One of the paramedics said, “Be quiet, Mr. Oakley, everything will be okay.”
Karen knew nothing would be okay with her pop unless he got off the booze he’d been pickling himself in for as long as she could remember. She looked him in the eye. “Pop, you’ve got to get help. You’re lucky you didn’t kill anybody at the Neon Lasso last night. Do you realize you nearly shot me this morning, twice?”
“Sorry I missed you. Gotta go over to the Bar C and shoot myself the rotten bastard you’ve been carryin’ on with.” He shut up, blinked and shook his head. “Fuck. You’ve gone and let your lover and his daddy dirty up my property.” He scowled at the two Cadens. “You two get your lousy asses off my land.”
Bye stepped around Karen and glared down at Pop, who strained at his bonds as though he intended to get up and tear into all of them. “I don’t like hearing you say you wish you hadn’t missed Karen. She means an awful lot to me, and I’m going to come here any time I feel like it, as long as she wants me to. If you don’t like it, I’ll fight with you any time after you sober up—but we’ll fight fair. I’m pretty sure my dad dislikes you as much as you do him, but he won’t take his ill feelings out on Karen.”
The string of incoherent profanity out of Slade’s mouth gave Bye the impression his words hadn’t done anything to calm the man, so he saved his breath while the attendants loaded him into the ambulance. One of them turned to Karen once Slade had been restrained.
“Miss Oakley, do you want to ride in the ambulance, or will you follow us over to Lubbock?” the younger paramedic asked her. “We need to get going, in case we get another call from out this way.”
She was about to reply when Bye shook his head. “I’ll bring Miss Oakley over to Lubbock later today to complete whatever paperwork they’ll need at the facility. I don’t want her riding in the ambulance with her father, not when he’s in a state like this. Go ahead and take him. He obviously needs more help than he can get here.”
“Yes sir.” It was obvious the paramedics deferred to Bye and his father—and they didn’t necessarily know the Cadens owned the biggest ranch around here. Karen guessed it was their size, and the air of supreme confidence she imagined came from having had their power and wealth passed down through generations.
Having Bye’s arm around her gave her strength to watch them take Pop away. She hadn’t thought about the bathroom and the damage the bullets had done until Buck came up beside them. “You want me to call a plumber to come and replace the toilet? I already went down to the pump at the well and turned the water off, so the house won’t flood.”
Then she remembered the window. “I’ll need a carpenter as well, I guess. Pop shot out the bathroom window, the one over the tub.” She’d loved the small stained-glass window some female relative must have ordered years ago, with its vivid yellow roses and dark-green leaves. It was gone now, beyond repair, like so many things she imagined other relatives had once treasured that Slade or his father had destroyed. “I can’t stay here until the water’s back on.”
“You can bunk in at the Neon Lasso,” Buck told her. “It’s not fancy but it’s got hot and cold running water—and a few beds you can pick from. I’ll take care of getting the toilet and the window taken care of. You’ve got enough to worry about right now.”
Bye drew her closer. “Karen can stay with us. We’ve got plenty of room, and I’m sure she’ll be welcome. Right, Dad?”
To her surprise, Four grinned and nodded. “Maybe she can help us track Deidre down, if she doesn’t decide to sue us for tearing up her pasture.”
“Dad cut the Bar C fence and drove across your pasture in his hurry to get us here,” Bye explained when Karen shot him a questioning look. “I don’t think he killed any of Slade’s cows, though.”
“I didn’t. I didn’t damage any of the pumpjacks, either. They were harder to miss than the few cows I saw.” The lines at the edges of Four’s icy blue eyes deepened. “I took out a few blackberry patches. Couldn’t miss ’em. Send me a bill for what you think they’re worth.”
“I doubt we’ll miss them. You obviously didn’t run over the big patch where most of the berries grow, because if you had, you’d have messed up your Jeep.”
“I saw that one. I also saw the carcasses of some old cars peeking out from it,” Four told her.
Karen knew she should take Buck up on his offer of a temporary stay at the Neon Lasso, but she wanted to go with Bye. His father and he might not be close and Four might be a bastard for having kept a mistress and a secret child for all those years, but she sensed the older man cared a lot for Bye and Deidre—enough, apparently, to let the feud go by the wayside if she could persuade her pop to do the same. “If you’re serious, Bye, I’d love to stay with you and your dad for a few days, and I’ll be really glad to let you drive me to Lubbock to take care of getting Pop admitted.”
“Good. Run grab whatever you’ll need, and you can ride back home with us. If you need to go to your office before we head to Lubbock, I’ll drive you to town.”
An hour ago Karen wouldn’t have dared to drive up to the big house at the Bar C, but enough had changed to assure her she’d be safe. “I’d better drive my car. Fortunately I didn’t have any appointments this morning, but I need to be in court at one o’clock. It shouldn’t take long—it’s just a disorderly conduct case the judge will probably dismiss. I can drive over to your house afterward. That way you won’t be having to cart me wherever I need to go while I’m staying with you.”
Bye smiled. “I wouldn’t mind. Do you think you’ll be ready to leave early enough for us to drive to the hospital, or should I plan to fly us over there?”