Authors: Ann Jacobs
Karen knew the Bar C had airplanes. Most of the big ranchers around here did. She hadn’t realized Bye piloted them, though. “I’m not too comfortable in small planes. I should be finished in plenty of time for us to drive to Lubbock before the facility’s business office closes.”
Four cleared his throat. “The Bar C’s Learjet isn’t all that small. If you need to use it, Bye, Mike or I can go with you two. You wouldn’t need to be afraid. That plane rides like a dream, and just in case, I don’t let it go up without two qualified pilots on board.”
“That’s okay, Dad. We’ll drive. It shouldn’t take much more than an hour. That way I can spend some quality time with Karen. If we flew to Lubbock, I’d have to rent a car once we got there.”
“No you wouldn’t. The caretaker at the private hangar keeps an old car at the airport for customers to use. It’s not much, but it would get you to the hospital and back.”
Four seemed determined to be cordial to Karen, now that Bye had told him how he felt about her. “Really, Four, I appreciate the offer, but I may have to do some shopping for Pop once I get him signed in. I have no idea what they’ll want him to have in the way of clothes and personal items. It really would be better if we drive over there. I need to get some things from inside and make it to court on time, so please excuse me.”
She felt Bye’s arm tighten around her. “Come here first. I was so damn scared something had happened to you.” Bending, he dropped a gentle kiss on her lips, right in front of his father—and Buck, who was next to his truck, making phone calls. “Get finished quick, baby. I’ll be waiting for you at the house.”
As she threw a few things in a suitcase, Karen wondered why she wasn’t fretting over Pop the way she’d thought she would when he finally flipped out enough that she had no choice but to have him committed. She knew, though. Seeing him as he was before they took him away, she finally accepted what people had been telling her for years. Her father was a danger to himself and others, and he had to be locked away unless he was able to quit the drinking. She’d done the right thing.
When she went outside to her car, Bye and his father were gone, but Buck was still on the phone. While she came up to him, he finished his call and spoke to her. “Three days for the toilet—the plumber is in the middle of a big job over at the Wolfe ranch. The glass folks will come in a little while to replace the bathroom window with plain frosted glass. You go on. I’ll wait for them.”
“Thanks. I’ve got to go or I’ll be late for court.”
“Be good, cousin. I hope it works out all right with you and Caden.”
* * * * *
So did Karen. The next three hours went slowly, until she pulled up her car in what she guessed was a paved area for guests’ parking in front of the Bar C’s impressive main ranch house. She didn’t spare more than a glance at the two-story white brick house she recalled having heard was a great example of Greek revival architecture, because half a dozen gorgeous limestone-bordered beds full of colorful flowers captured her attention.
“Mom loved her flower beds,” Bye said when he came up beside her and wrapped his arms around her. “She collected native plants and put them here so we could enjoy them all at the same time. Come on, I’ll take your stuff inside, and then we can head on over to Lubbock.”
Karen walked with him through the foyer and up a beautiful curved staircase to what she supposed was one of a good many guest rooms. The room was too feminine to belong to Bye. “I hope you and your dad didn’t go to a lot of trouble.”
“None at all. I wanted to have you bunk in with me, but Four thought you might like having your own room. Maria—she takes care of the house—always has one or two of the guest rooms made up in case somebody ends up staying over unexpectedly.”
“All right. Do I have time to change before we go? I’d like to put on something a little more casual than my lawyer suit.”
“Sure.” Bye looked her up and down then grinned. He looked good enough to eat in dark-blue dress jeans and a light-blue Polo shirt that accentuated his tan and his light eyes. “Want me to leave?”
“You probably should. After all, we need to get to the hospital before their admissions people leave.” She shot him a smile full of promise. “I doubt either of us is capable of a quickie.”
He dropped a light kiss on her cheek. “You’re probably right. I’ll meet you downstairs. Don’t take too long or I might have to come get you.”
Quickly Karen opened her suitcase and found lightweight jeans and a pair of tank tops, one pale-blue and one yellow. She changed quickly then remembered how Bye liked her hair loose, so she went into the adjoining bathroom and unpinned the simple twist she usually wore for work. Hurrying, she went downstairs, followed the muted sounds and found Bye in a room full of computers and desks, sitting at one of them and scowling at something on a monitor. Four was at the other desk, talking on the phone.
“What the hell do you mean, you can’t bring her home?” Four’s face turned as red as a beet. Karen backed out of what she assumed was the ranch office, not wanting to eavesdrop.
When Bye saw her, he got up and drew her back inside. “The rangers caught up with Deidre down in Midland. She’s still with the cowhand who left here with her. It sounds to me like Dad may need some legal advice. The rangers are refusing to escort the two of them back here unless Deidre agrees.”
“I don’t know what I can tell him, Bye. Your sister may have been awfully sheltered, but she’s of age. If she isn’t willing to come back, the rangers can’t drag her back here by her hair.”
“Travis Rodgers is a bad dude, baby. I was just checking the personnel record we have on him, including a background check Four must not have looked at too closely before signing him on. The man has a record for criminal fraud—he bilked an old lady from Lubbock out of thousands. For God’s sake, the man has never worked on a ranch before—he’s been a rodeo bum ever since getting out of prison five years ago. Besides that, he’s nearly forty years old—way too old for my innocent little sister.”
Karen turned away from Bye and listened to Four, who was practically yelling into the phone now. “By God, if you stay with him I’ll disinherit you. Trust me on this. You won’t get one penny from me as long as you’re with him.”
He paused, his hand clenched around the phone so tight she thought the phone might burst in two. “No, by God, you can’t marry him. Believe me, Rodgers won’t marry you once he finds out he’ll have to support you instead of the other way around. Use your sense, Deidre. Come home now. Think how this would hurt your mother.”
Another pause. Karen watched a lovely brass lamp tip over when Four slammed a fist into his desk. Bye hurried to his side. “Calm down, Dad.”
“Let me talk to Travis,” Four practically screamed into the phone as Bye set the lamp back upright. “Now.”
Bye took the phone from Four. “Deidre, give the phone to Travis. We’ll see just how much he wants to be with you.” A long pause followed. “No, little one, I’m not going to threaten him.”
Four laid his head on his hands, as though the fight had bled right out of him. Karen watched Bye listen to someone—Travis, she supposed. Then Bye spoke, his tone deadly calm, his expression fierce. “Marry her if you want. If you do, she’ll be cut off without a cent. We’ll see that you can’t sign on at any decent rodeo in the country, in case you think you can support Deidre that way.”
Shaking his head, Bye listened to whatever Deidre’s would-be husband was saying. “Forget it. My sister may think she’s willing to live on what you can earn, but she doesn’t have a clue. She spends more on her clothes in a month than you can make in a year. Walk away and we won’t mention this to anybody who may call us for a reference. Don’t, and you’ll be sorry you were ever born.”
Karen had never heard Bye talk this way. She wouldn’t have thought he had it in him, but she should have known. The man was a Caden, heir to the Bar C. Caden men hadn’t become and stayed so successful by being soft. She watched Bye’s lips curl upward in a triumphant smile. “I thought you’d see it my way. Let me speak to the ranger now.”
In less than five minutes, the crisis ended. Four was going to Midland in the Learjet, with the Bar C’s mechanic-slash-pilot and Maria, the housekeeper, aboard. The ranger was to deliver a crying Deidre to the airport there and wait with her until Four arrived to escort her home.
“I’m counting on you to be Deidre’s friend when she gets back,” Four told Karen as she and Bye were about to leave. “God knows she’s not very happy with either me or Bye. Good luck with getting Slade settled in. I’m sure it’s hard on you, but it’s the best thing for him.”
“I know. Thank you for letting Bye take me there.”
Four winked. “I doubt I could stop him, even if I wanted to. Drive safely. I’ve got to go bring Deidre home.”
Bye turned to Karen and placed a hand on her knee when they finally got away from Lubbock’s rush-hour traffic and onto the highway toward home. “How’d it go with the psychologist?” He hadn’t particularly enjoyed cooling his heels in the facility’s lobby while the shrink had questioned Karen, but he understood he wasn’t family. Not yet. Bye wasn’t even sure Karen would marry him unless Slade got to the point that he could be trusted not to blow everybody named Caden off the face of the earth.
“She wasn’t particularly encouraging about the prospect of getting Pop sober on a permanent basis, but she mentioned that he was babbling about a feud when she tried to talk with him after they got him out of the ambulance and settled in his room.” She covered his hand with hers and laced their fingers together.
“Apparently the philosophy of the facility is to treat the underlying causes of addiction instead of treating addiction itself as an incurable illness. I told her what I know about the feud, which isn’t much. She seems to think that if we can give her an accurate account of what happened to start it and what has gone on over the years to fuel the hate and resentment, she may be able to help Pop work through it.”
Bye hoped so. Springing Karen on Four had gone a lot better than he’d dared to hope for. Buck, the only Oakley who still lived around Caden except for Slade and Karen, gave Bye the impression he wasn’t interested in continuing the feud. So that just left Slade. “We can spend the next few days searching around the old homesteads at the Rocking O and Bar C, see if we can come up with a diary or book or something written in real time 1883 when Luke got killed. I want to put this whole nonsense to bed so we can get on with planning a future together.”
“I’d like that. I already searched my house, though. There’s nothing there.”
“What about that old, deserted cabin close to the road that goes between our ranches? Might the Oakleys have lived in it at one time?” Bye was no expert, but his guess would be that the house where Karen lived hadn’t been built until sometime in the twentieth century.
“I’d thought so, but Buck thinks the old homestead burned down when he was a boy, so I guess that cabin may have been a storeroom or something. I peeked inside, and I don’t think there’s anything in the place that the rats haven’t eaten.” She paused a minute. “Your house isn’t old enough to have been around at the beginning, either, is it?”
“No. Four built it for my mom when they got married.” The house where Bye thought the feud might have started stood empty now, since the present assistant ranch foreman didn’t have a family and chose to stay in the bunkhouse with the guys. “I’ll have to ask Four, but I think the house close to the cemetery where Luke is buried dates back to the late 1800s, because Four had to have indoor plumbing and electricity put in before the last assistant foreman who had a family moved in.”
Karen giggled. “You’re probably right. I can’t imagine a twentieth-century Caden living without indoor plumbing and electricity.”
“Neither can I, but there used to be another house not far from where we live now. My grandfather built it when he brought my grandmother home. Nobody lived in it after they died, but Mom fixed it up as a playhouse for me and Deidre when we were little. The place got hit by lightning in a storm about fifteen years ago and burned to the ground.” Bye hoped nothing that might help them had been stored inside the place, because the fire had destroyed the house and everything inside it.
“We also can search records at the courthouse,” Karen said as Bye turned onto a farm road that crisscrossed the Bar C. “There also may be some old folks still alive who can fill us in on some of what happened after the killing to keep the feud going. What are those bright lights over to the right of us? And what’s the big, silver building?”
“The building’s a hangar where we keep and maintain the Bar C’s airplanes. The floodlights illuminate the runway. They’ll stay on until the jet lands. It gets tricky, trying to land that plane on a short airstrip, particularly in the dark.” When he felt Karen tremble, he laughed. “Don’t worry, Four’s a damn good pilot and Mike’s even better. My old man won’t let anything happen to his latest toy.”
“The Learjet and two twin-engine Cessnas. We use the newer one for short flights and trips to places where the jet can’t land. The old Cessna isn’t equipped for passengers. Mike uses it for dusting crops and dropping feed to cattle in wintertime. There’s also the old, single-engine crop duster that I learned to fly on. It’s a relic that hasn’t been taken up for years. It wasn’t worth much in trade, so Four decided to keep it.” For the first time in his life, Bye thought maybe he ought to apologize for his family’s overabundance of grownup toys. “I’m qualified to fly the jet, but I like the Cessna better. It doesn’t require a copilot. You’ll have to dredge up enough courage to let me take you up on a tour of the neighborhood.”
“I don’t know, Bye. Buck took me up in his plane one time, before he sold it to buy playroom equipment for the Neon Lasso. He scared me out of a year’s growth.”
Bye figured it might well have been the plane itself rather than Buck’s flying that was scary, if proceeds from selling it hadn’t stretched to cover more than the club’s very ordinary BDSM equipment. “I won’t frighten you, baby. I promise.” He recognized the roar of the Learjet’s powerful engines gearing down in preparation for a landing. “Listen. That’s Four bringing the plane down now. Let’s hurry to the house so we’ll be there when they arrive.”