Authors: Angela Kelly,Lee Moore
Copyright 2015 by Angela Kelly
All Rights Reserved –
All people, places and locations mentioned are 100% fictional. Any resemblance to people, places and locations in real life are coincidental and not intentional.
Table of Contents
. I knew I was in for trouble when Bill Masterson himself met me at the airport. For a time, he’d been my stepfather for, like, all of two years? My mother’s marriage dissolved mainly because of—me.
“Cam, how’re you doing?” Bill asked, his hand outstretched to shake my hand.
I considered the gesture, remembering every argument, the old anger rising up inside me. I wasn’t a boy anymore, and it had been ten years since my mother and I had left the ranch. But here I was. Again.
“Good.” I took his hand, trying to fake a genuine smile.
“Me too. That all you got?” He motioned to my duffel.
“I don’t have anything left of my civilian life. Not anymore,” I told him simply.
I’d spent the last six years in the US Army, 10
Mountain Division. I couldn’t get away from the ranch, and the southwestern United States fast enough. I had too much anger, too many issues; many of them were actually my fault. My entire adult life from the age of 18 had been out of country. My mother gave me one last hug and words of disapproval before I shipped out. Water under the bridge, I had thought. About six months ago, I got a letter saying she had moved back to the same sleepy little town in Utah where Bill lived. Without jumping to conclusions, I didn’t think it was much of a coincidence.
I was right.
“Well, what about a hat? Your hair’s so short, yer riskin’ sunburn.”
“Naw, I’ve spent so much time in the desert.”
“I can see your tan, but we’re close to the mountains—.”
“Ok Bill, got a spare?”
“No, but let’s get you squared away first, then I’ll take you shopping.”
I groaned inwardly, not letting my annoyance show. I literally had no clue why my mom wanted me to fly home, but I was still pretty sure that Bill and my mother were about to tie the knot. Again. For a moment, I thought about Alison, Bill’s daughter. When we left, she was a 12-year-old Attila the Hun. She was difficult to say the least. It was her way or the highway. She was a dark-haired girl with pimples who delighted in making my life difficult. I hadn’t seen her in years, and darkly wondered if she looked like her favored horse, Blueballs.
Although Alison usually just called him Blue, she really had named her horse Blueballs. He was a blue roan with the weirdest pattern on his hind flanks. But the crude name fit the wild girl.
“Sounds good. How’s Alison doing?” I voiced the question, trying to make small talk.
“Dating a jackass. Wish you would talk to her.”
“How badly I don’t want to go to jail, but will if I have to.” Giving me a meaningful look, he opened the door to his white Ford F-150.
“He’s that bad of a jack hole?” I asked, reverting to language I had used when I was much younger, to avoid the calloused backhand of memory.
“Worse, he’s a fucking idiot.”
That got my attention—Bill never swore. My curiosity meter waved into the red zone. What was this trip about?
“Momma?” I called out, looking around the foyer of Bill’s house.
I knew it! I knew it!
They were getting back together.
“Yes dear, in the living room.”
It had been six years since she saw me off; I’d travelled all over the world. I’d been in intense gunfights in three different countries, and helped carry out the wounded and the dead. I wasn’t a badass, but I wasn’t a crybaby either. But dealing with my mom? Sweat pooled under my arms, and my chest tightened. I was feeling a healthy dose of fear for the first time in forever. I entered and saw her with her head buried in a trunk, stacks of picture books littering the floor on either side of her legs.
“Momma, what are you doing?” I asked, unable to stop the smile that tugged on my cheeks.
She turned, broke out into a grin herself, and quickly rose, giving me a long look before rushing to me and squeezing me in a bone-crushing embrace. I put my arms around her, and realized in all the time I was gone, Mom shrank. Or I just got bigger. Or—guilt washed over my conscience for not writing back enough or not calling when I could. My eyes leaked around the edges, Mom’s grip tightened for a moment before she released me, wiping her eyes.
“It’s great to have you back here.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” I told her truthfully, not caring about her status with Bill. Right now, I could let every moment of anger float away.
“I was worried that you’d be too busy, or—.”
“No, Mom, when you save up enough leave like I have, it isn’t all that bad. I used it all up, and I’m out.”
“Finished. Done with the Army,” I told her with a smile.
She rubbed my arm a minute, grinning like a fool.
“Either that or you shrank.”
“Cameron!” She exclaimed in mock anger, and playfully swatted at my shoulder. “Besides, I wanted you here for the news.”
“News?” I knew what was coming. I had to let go of any annoyance or anger, especially with Mom by my side.
“Bill and I have been back together for a couple of years now and—.” Her voice trailed off, and she took a couple of steps back so she could look me in the eye. “And we’ve decided to adopt a baby.”
Adopt? Back together a couple of years?
I mentally flipped through my mom’s letters she had sent to me. None of them mentioned this.
“Wow, Mom, that’s great news.” I swallowed the surprise in my throat. “When does it happen? Is the kid anybody I’d know?”
“No, it’s a baby from China. The adoption is happening in a week, so we have to fly out again to pick her up. We’d like you to be around next week when we get back. We’re going to have a party, and all of my old friends will be coming out. You will be around next week, won’t you?”
“Yeah,” I told her. My confusion mixed with shock and a touch of happiness. I didn’t know what to say so I sat down next to her.
“Good, then you’ll be ready for the wedding. Which is tomorrow.” She turned and put picture books back into the trunk.
“Surprise.” I could hear the smile in her voice and I almost fell over.
“Wow.” I guessed at their reunion, and I read every letter faithfully, even writing back when I could. But a wedding? Tomorrow? The announcement floored me.
“Bill has your outfit picked out. Maybe you and Ali can help us out by picking some stuff up while you are getting fitted?”
“Wedding?” I asked again. Things progressed too fast for me to process.
“Seriously, Cameron. Try to be happy for me, can’t you?” Mom didn’t hide her hint of annoyance.
“I’ve been gone forever, Momma, and this is a lot to process all at once. Why didn’t you tell me about it before?”
“How would you have taken it?” She rubbed my arm for a second before handing me a book.
“Not too well, I guess. It’s just such a shocker.”
“I know it is. Here, take this picture book to the kitchen for me. I’m making a board with old and new pictures for the reception. Oh, and find Ali so you two can run into town.”
“Sure, Mom. Can I use one of the trucks?” At least two or three of the pickups I saw coming into the ranch must belong to her or Bill with the rest left to the ranch hands.
“Oh, that’s the other surprise.” She dug into her pocket and pulled out an old key ring, one I hadn’t seen since I pressed them into her hands the day I shipped out.
It was my Jeep’s key. A wave of nostalgia washed through me. I thought she had sold it.
“Where is Alison?” I asked, putting my Jeep key in my pocket.
“Probably the barn, or back by the horse stables. Ask Jackson if you can’t find her.”
“Jackson’s still around?”
“As old and ornery as ever.”
I laughed and hugged her hard before dropping the picture book off, and walking out of the ranch house.
In most ranches, the main barn sat close to the house, but not at Bill’s place. The Masterson ranch house was the newer house on the property, constructed after the old one burned down when Bill was just a kid. Instead of building on the charred remains, they dug a new foundation, drilled a well, and placed the main house on the hill, overlooking the valley. The view of the mountains in the distance had always captivated me as a kid. As I walked outside and gazed around the familiar place, I wondered what had caused my anger as a kid—my father dying young or Mom dating and marrying Bill within a year of his burial and moving us here.
I never gave them a chance together. My anger always lurked just under the surface, sabotaging everything in sight. My body changed, but my anger didn’t. During my time away, I’d done a lot of growing. With the passage of time and tempered by some of the things I’d seen, I accepted that my childhood here, as short as it was, wasn’t horrible.
I walked to the horse stables and enjoyed the feeling of long grass brushing my legs as I strayed off of the worn path. A horse that had been running with another along the fence line stopped dead and stared at me, approaching with curiosity.
He chuffed air out of his nose and took off towards the barn. In theory, I knew Blue would still be here, but seeing him unchanged over the span of all the years made me smile. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Despite the increasing use of trucks and ATV’s, horses and riding would remain a part of the western tradition. Any self-respecting cowboy rode a horse. I hadn’t added “cowboy” to my resume yet, but I understood how things worked out here.
New siding and steel roofing panels spruced up the barn. I tapped on the siding, feeling how solid the structure was underneath it, and opened the door. The strong smell of horse and dung hit my nose, but I recognized other subtle smells that many folks would miss. Hay, sweet feed, and molasses stirred in the air with an occasional sharp tang of ammonia mixed in. Although unpleasant to some, the familiar aromas existed as part of life here. I walked down the center aisle way, counting all the troughs that separated the walkway from where the horses came in from the outside. Blue waited for me at stall #7, just like always.
“Hey, fella, you haven’t changed much, have ya?” I asked, giving his nose a good rub. “Where’s little sister gone off to?”
Of course I didn’t expect an answer while talking to the roan. I walked to the galvanized trashcan at the center of the barn. Opening the lid, I smiled as I opened the old grain storage and got out a small handful of sweet feed. I held my palm out, trying not to flinch when Blueballs ate it. The rough surface of his big tongue barely missed any seed as he lapped the feed in.
“Ewww. You slimed me.” I laughed, wiping my hand off on the side of his neck.
He chuffed at me again, obviously begging for more, but I didn’t know how much he’d had that day, and I didn’t have more treats. Maybe I’d bring him an apple back later, but first I had to find Alison. I looked around the barn again. Half the stalls filled with horses as they sensed a human who could feed in the building, probably hoping to cage a treat like old Blue here. As the only one in the barn, I patted Blue once again and headed out, walking to the hay barn.
I stayed on the trail this time, smiling as Blue and another horse paced me along the electric fence that separated them from the rest of the land. When their fence ended, they stood at the corner of the field, staring at me. I gave them a half-hearted wave and looked ahead to the big red structure. As a 16-year-old, I lugged hay into that barn, filling it top to bottom. It held hundreds of round rolls of hay, and even more of the smaller square bales. Bill was somewhat modern, using tractors to stack and move the hay as needed, with large forks to spear the round bales and taking them to the field as needed. But my manual labor sculpted my body and hardened my muscles.
This time of year, the barn would be mostly empty since the harvest wouldn’t come for another couple of months. The empty space sheltered my Jeep, parked out of the way with other unused cars and trucks. Hopefully, it would start up. Lord knew how long it had been sitting, but knowing Bill, he had kept it in great shape the same way he kept all of his vehicles. The Jeep sat outside the main doors of the barn, its black paint gleaming in the sunshine. Other than a ding in the bumper, Bill had kept the Jeep flawless and wonderfully preserved. Sun-bleached fuzzy dice hung from the rearview mirror. I peaked inside the open window and noticed the recent detailing.
“Wow,” I reached in and gripped the steering wheel with one hand. My thoughts filled with memories revolving around that Jeep. When I left for boot camp, I knew I wouldn’t be stateside long, as the nation had been at war or in some sort of armed conflict since I was in middle school. Leaving suited me, and if it got me away from the ranch, that suited me even better. I didn’t need a car overseas and paying for insurance or storage hadn’t made any sense. I handed the keys and title over to my mom, expecting her to sell it. Yet, here it was.
“Tim, I said stop!” A female voice broke the silence, and I heard a slap and a gasp from within the barn.
Training kicked in. Although unarmed and unaware of the full situation, I approached the door as I would any potentially hostile building. I entered low to make myself a smaller target, squinting and trying to force my eyes to adjust to the darker interior of the barn faster. A broad shouldered guy gripped a young woman by the shoulder. He tried to kiss her as she swung wildly with the arm that wasn’t trapped against her body. The top three buttons on her shirt were torn open, and a red mark rose on her left cheek. Tears brimmed on her cheeks, ready to fall. Checking my periphery, I made sure there was no one else about, and approached stealthily, walking as quietly but as quickly as I could. At the last moment, the woman saw me approach. Her eyes widened and she quit struggling.
The guy must have thought the girl gave in. He pressed his lips against hers, and his hand relaxed in that moment. My fist crashed into his kidney. His whole body clenched in pain as the woman tore her body out of his grip. Agony covered the guys face, and with a start, I realized he couldn’t be any older than a high school student in his senior year. Still, he had brought this trouble and I’d already started the dance.
He took half a second and looked at me, sizing me up. Judging opponents by their looks could be deceptive and downright stupid in a fight. I knew he took in my lanky six-foot frame and wondered if his bigger bulk could overpower me. Within a heartbeat, he decided that it could. He swung a haymaker, counting on putting me out. I’d had insurgents jump into the fox hole with me that had more power and finesse than this loser. I ducked from his wild swing. Off balance with his right side exposed to me, I punched him hard in the gut, and he doubled over. A quick knee to the face put him down hard on his back.
“Don’t kill him,” the woman’s voice behind me begged, as I had my boot poised over his stomach ready to stomp his ribs.
“Wasn’t planning on it.” I put my foot down beside the kid’s head.
I glanced back at her. She couldn’t have been much older than the asshole on the ground. Her hair was auburn, and freckles were generously sprinkled across the swells of her ample chest. She attempted to get her shirt closed, trying to hide the black lace bra, but the clasp on the fabric was torn.
“You ok, miss?” I tried to keep my eyes locked on her face, and mentally kicked myself for checking her out the way I did.
“You’re going to need to ice that,” I gently touched the red spot on her cheek. The bottom of her eye already swelled a bit.
“Yeah, I -Look out!”
The douche bag behind me had gained his feet while I checked on the girl. I looked at him before he tackled me to the ground. His face colored to a dark purple in rage, and blood from his nose smeared sideways from contact with my knee. I hit the ground hard with the guy on top of me, knocking the wind out of me. He swung wild punches to my head, but he was no fighter. I held up my free arms, protecting myself. Slowly, my breath returned. My arms and shoulders would be bruised from his hits, but I waited for him to tire out or slip up. He slowed slightly, and I shot out a quick rabbit punch to his throat.
He choked, and his weight lessened on my chest. He tried to get up, but I wrapped my right leg around his chest as he held his throat and pulled him sideways off me. I rolled onto his chest and pinned his arms with my legs. I paused for a half a second, and then rained blows down on his face, much in the same way he wanted to do to me. I ignored the hell it’d be on my hands, but perhaps it was the only way he’d understand. I’d either choose to hit him into submission or I could just kill him.
A pattern of pounding emerged—eyes, nose, ear, side of the head, in the head. When I tired of throwing punches, I stood up and watched him roll back and forth. Blood poured out of his split lips and nose, and his eyes already swelled shut. Since he didn’t learn a lesson the first time, I threw in two good kicks to the lower part of his ribcage, gauging the pain by the expression on his face.
“No, no, no, no.” The girl’s small voice begged off to the side, and I turned to find her crying.
“Shhhh…Here,” I pulled my flannel shirt off and handed it to her so she could cover herself.
“You killed him,” she whispered.
I looked behind me, thinking the worst but finding I hadn’t. He was just passed out by the pain, and his chest rose and fell slightly.
“He’ll live for now,” I told her, rubbing my arms against the cold air. My thin tank top and the absence of my flannel chilled me.
When I turned back to her, she had my shirt on. It hung big on her to a comical effect. The sleeves hung down past her hands and almost to her waist. She hugged herself and shuddered, but I guessed it wasn’t from the cold.
“Does Bill still have a working line out here?” I asked, and she nodded.
I walked to the other side of the barn, keeping the still form of the guy in my sight. I put in a call to 911 and reported the attempted rape. As an afterthought, I suggested they might want to send an ambulance too. The 911 operator sounded shaken by my matter of fact tone, but I didn’t care. They got the information of where to come, and confirmed that I’d wait for them. The girl cried harder now.
“Shhhh.” I walked up close and put my arms around her. She leaned in, put her head on my chest, and sobbed. I breathed in her scent of strawberries and vanilla, which tickled my memory. I patted her hair softly, kissing the side of her head. It was the only thing I could think to do, my heart and body were suddenly ready to defend this woman from any man. I’d never felt this strong of a pull for a woman in my lifetime. Then I heard the sirens. She stiffened in my arms at the sound and I held her closer as she trembled.
“It’ll be over soon. Just be strong,” I told her gently, soothingly and trying to ignore the effect she was having on me, she wrapped her arms around me, burying her face in my shoulder.
“He was going to rape me.”
“He didn’t,” I murmured, not sure if it was a question or a statement.
“No. He would have if you hadn’t come when you did.”
“He’s going to be gone for a long time. I’ll protect you from him.” I promised, she sobbed and squeezed me tighter. I wrapped my arms around her, holding her tight.
When the sirens approached, a new sound blared over them. The buzz of ATV’s closed in. I heard the crunch of gravel as they stopped outside the main doors. The big door rolled open letting in a shaft of light, and three figures hurried through. It took me a moment to take them all in. Bill, Mom and Jackson stood stock still as they analyzed the scene.
“Dammit, Cameron. I told you I’d like you to talk to him, not kill him,” Bill almost shouted, his face a mask of surprise and anger.
“Daddy.” The girl hurried from my arms and buried her face into Bill’s chest.
“Alison?” I asked, stunned.