Here we are at the end of Scarlett and Blizzard. Hard to believe, isn't it? I plan to finish the last bits of editing and formatting over the next little bit. Official release date is August 1. Yes, you will still be able to come here and read all the chapters, but if you want it to be in one easy spot, I will release it in print and eBook formats at the very start of August. So mark your calendars and be sure to let me know if you've caught any typos in the chapters so far. The deal still stands, I'll enter you to win a paperback copy (US only) of Scarlett and Blizzard for each typo you report. And be watching for news of the next adventure: The Sheriff and Mrs. Jannsen, starting soon right here on the blog.
It took a while for things to calm down enough to plan the wedding. If not for the storm, they would have happily gone to the courthouse that very day. As it was, we still had to go in to the police station to fill out all the paperwork and report what happened. I wasn’t sure how I felt about seeing Shorty as a criminal. He had been with us for a long time, nearly as long as I could remember. He’d always done his chores without complaint. I guess I hadn’t noticed him showing any romantic interest in Scarlett. She didn’t talk much about it. Maybe she was as surprised as the rest of us. Or maybe she hadn’t thought he was that serious about her. I don’t know and to be honest, I don’t really care. The important thing was despite all odds we were okay and Scarlett and Josiah were getting married.
They decided to plan the wedding to take place at the very end of school. They were each planning surprise honeymoons for the other and when I asked Mom if one of us should intervene, she just smiled. “Let them surprise each other. Just maybe suggest different dates for one of them.” Planning a honeymoon wasn’t the only thing they had to figure out. Scarlett would start business school in the fall, including a work-study program which would help off-set costs. She had originally planned to live on campus, but that wouldn’t work if she was married. They took a few trips out to Cheyenne with Mom acting as their chaperon to look for a good apartment. Josiah couldn’t stand the idea of twiddling his thumbs while Scarlett was busy, so he would continue to work on Starwood during the weekends and stay longer during round ups and foaling season. But that still left his weekdays open, so he started looking at classes in animal science. The two of them would stay busy, that was for sure.
As much as I wanted the months until the wedding to crawl, they didn’t. My birthday came and went so fast, it was hard to believe it had happened at all. Sixteen didn’t seem all that significant compared with my sister’s wedding plans. Not that she let my birthday be overlooked. I don’t think I’ve ever been so spoiled in my life as Teddy, Josiah and Scarlett put their mischief to full use supported by my mother. Tickets to a concert with one of my favorite artists, dinner at a fancy restaurant in Jackson, and a full-day shopping spree. Good thing my birthday happened to fall on a weekend, right? Mom might have had to call me in sick twice under false pretenses.
Spring came not long after and the snows melted. While evenings were still chilly, the days started to be warm. Flowers poked their heads up and buds filled the trees. Birds returned to their nests and the air soon filled with their twitterings. Spring fever paled in comparison to wedding fever. My days were filled with classes and my evenings with accompanying Scarlett to dress fittings, wedding boutiques for the perfect decor, meetings with vendors and planners. I was about to lose it totally when I came home to Scarlett sobbing in Mom’s lap. “Um, is everything…?”
“No!” she wailed.
Mom smoothed Scarlett’s hair and said calmly, “There’s been a hiccup. The bed and breakfast they wanted to hold the reception at has been closed for renovations.”
“They can’t do that though, can they? I mean, we already scheduled this and had it paid for!”
“They’ll s-s-send a refund,” Scarlett cried. “But now w-w-where will I have m-m-my reception? Everything else w-w-will be res-s-served.”
It was quiet for a moment as Mom rubbed her back. My eyes fell on the open window. It was gorgeous outside. The red and white roses Josiah had planted last year were starting to bud. “Scarlett, why not have your reception here? I know it’s not fancy or anything, but it’s certainly big enough. And it would be better for Teddy as he could come inside if he started feeling bad.”
“What am I supposed to do about the tables? And all the linens? They were going to provide all of that so everything would fit in with their regular decor.”
“I’m sure we could borrow tables from church and Amelia would never say no to a project. I’m sure there’s time to make some tablecloths and things. Don’t worry so much. It’ll probably turn out even better. You’ll see.”
“Trust your sister, Scarlett,” Mom said. By the way, Mom, thanks for the vote of confidence. “Everything will work out fine. I think a country reception would be perfect for you and Josiah. Not to mention, you’ll save more that can be put to your schooling.”
She sniffled and agreed. So Mom and I threw ourselves into planning for an outdoor reception at Starwood. Amelia was thrilled to learn about the change in plans. She soon had us making tablecloths, runners, napkins, and anything else she could think of that might come in handy.
The week before the wedding, Grandma came as well as some aunts and uncles and cousins. Starwood had never seemed crowded before, but with all the visiting relatives that changed. Even locking my bedroom door didn’t give me the kind of quiet I wanted, so I snuck out to my “office” on more than one occasion. The old barn was out of sight and most of the extended family didn’t know about it. One evening, I went out there with my guitar. I’d been trying to finish the song for Josiah and Scarlett’s wedding. They had asked if it was okay for them to hire a DJ so I would be able to really enjoy the reception instead of just playing for it. I appreciated them thinking of that, but at the same time I wanted to perform for them. So I’d gotten in touch with the DJ and arranged to take over just after their first dance for a quick concert. The only problem was, I couldn’t quite get the song right. Something was missing. And no matter how many times I called on Dad to help me out, he wasn’t giving any answers. What? Everyone’s got a muse. I was strumming some chords when I heard movement below me. “Blizz, are you in here?”
I shoved the sheet music under a pile of hay. “Up here, Scarlett.”
She climbed up into the hayloft. “You know it’s dangerous up here, right?”
“You gonna go back down?”
She laughed. “Didn’t think so.” Scarlett sat next to me, her strawberry blonde waves glinting softly. “You doing okay?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”
“I think you know why.”
I glowered at her.
“Look, I just want you to know I’m not leaving forever.”
I scoffed, “What am I, five? Seriously, it’s fine. You’re giving me the brother I’ve been begging for since I met Tracy Jenkins and her brothers. I’m thrilled for you.”
“Why do you keep coming out here then?”
“Have you heard the house? It’s madness everywhere I go. And if Grandma hints one more time that I should start preparing myself for my own wedding…”
Scarlett laughed again. “I get it. I just worried, you know, after what happened on my birthday.”
She had to bring that up, didn’t she? The truth was, I still hadn’t really forgiven her for just springing her intentions to leave on us. I picked at the straw sticking to my jeans. “Yeah, well, you know.”
“No, actually, I don’t.”
“Geez, Scarlett, you really want to get into this now? Okay, so you ticked me off. You really ticked me off. And I’m not ready to say it’s okay. You’ve always talked with me about everything, at least I thought so. And then you started having secrets. I didn’t know what to think. I’m not sure I do now. But whatever, you made a choice and here we are. Everything’s still good between us, mostly.”
“So, you aren’t going to hate me for making you wear the maid of honor dress?”
It was my turn to laugh. Scarlett had fallen in love with the most gosh-awful, ugly dress on the planet for me to wear at her reception. When I’d voiced my opinion, loudly and maybe with some less-than-kind adjectives thrown in, she’d opted for something more appealing. “Since you chose one that doesn’t look like a wedding cake and a fish got frisky? Nah, I won’t hate you.”
We giggled for a while and she sighed. “I never thought I’d actually be living a fairy tale. You know, like the one Mom used to read to us. Do you remember it? Two sisters, a bear who actually turned out to be a prince, and a shrewd dwarf trying to ruin everything. I guess happily ever after is for real after all.”
“Yeah, I…wait, what did you say?”
“Happily ever after is real after all?” My eyes got wide and she asked, “Are you okay?”
“Perfect. I’m perfect. Why don’t you go find Josiah and make out with him or something? Whatever it is you engaged people do.”
“But he’s out working the stock horses,” she protested as I pushed her toward the rickety ladder.
“Yeah, that’ll make it more fun.” Once she was gone, I pulled out the music. I had mere days to finish this project and one I hadn’t even started.
The day of the wedding dawned as a perfect, cloudless day. I enjoyed strolling the grounds of the Boise, Idaho temple. Franky and I scouted out the gardens for nice photo-ops while the photographer Josiah hired snapped picture after picture of the flowers and trees. “You two, come be a couple for me. I want to test this spot for pictures.”
Franky glanced at me and I shrugged. He led me to the bench. As the photographer asked us to pose in different spots, we pretty well ignored him, for the most part. “So, just two more years in high school, huh?”
“Yep,” I said.
I shrugged, “I don’t really know yet. Probably go to college and study music.”
He nodded. “Good plan.”
“What about you? I heard someone outbid you for the B.”
“Yeah, it was a real bummer too. But I figure Starwood will be a good place to work for now.”
He nodded. “I’ve, um, well, I’ve been going back to church.”
“I know, I’ve seen you.”
“Look who knows so much,” he teased. “Anyhow, I’m gettin’ ready to put my papers in.”
“Papers?” I brightened. “You’re going on a mission?”
“Didn’t think I’d ever do it, huh?”
“Well, you gotta admit you had us all going for a while.”
Franky laughed. “Yep, I guess I did.”
“Oh, that’s perfect. Now go ahead and kiss her,” the photographer gushed.
“Dude! We’re not that couple,” Franky burst.
I laughed and kissed his cheek. Before I could think of anything intelligent to say, I heard Grandma walking toward us. “They’re coming! You’d best get to the front quick or they’ll be out the door before you can get any pictures.” As everyone moved that direction she caught my hand and whispered rather loudly, “And you can explain what that was later.”
I blushed and tried to ignore her as we moved to the temple’s entrance. Scarlett looked radiant in her reception dress. In white satin with lace overlay, she looked like a fairy tale princess. That is, if princesses wore baby blue boots and white cowgirl hats. Daisies and yellow roses made up her bouquet with sprigs of mint borrowed from Mom’s garden. Grandma’s pearls glowed about Scarlett’s neck. As the photographer positioned everyone and shot photograph after photograph, I couldn’t help noticing how happy Scarlett and Josiah looked. I don’t think you could have wiped the smiles off their faces if you tried. It seemed hours before the photographer was finally satisfied with the pictures he’d taken. After lunch, we caravaned back to Starwood where Amelia and some of our other friends were busily setting up for the reception. Everyone worked together and things were soon ready as guests began to arrive.
Promptly at six, Teddy brought Josiah and Scarlett to the porch. He talked for a while about the beauty of marriage and the work that goes into it. “Now you two have already made your vows to each other. But for the sake of your friends and family who were unable to attend, we’ve planned this simple ring ceremony. Josiah, my boy, do you promise with this ring to cherish this woman in every condition, for all the days to come?”
“I do.” He slid the ring onto Scarlett’s finger with a smile.
“Sweet Lettie, do you promise with this ring to cherish this man in every condition, for all the days to come?”
“Josiah, you may now kiss your bride. Again.”
There was laughter and cheering as Josiah pecked Scarlett’s cheek and then used his hat to hide their faces. Scarlett was blushing when Josiah put his hat back on. The music started and Teddy and my mom took Scarlett and Josiah out onto the floor to dance. The song changed and Josiah took Scarlett. For much of the song they danced alone with the photographer darting around them. Then other couples began joining them. Franky nudged me. “Shall we?”
I smiled. “Why not?”
He led me out and I tried to ignore the butterflies in my stomach. Hard to do when he was looking at me that way. “Well, Miss Blizzard, what am I going to do with you?”
“I believe this is called dancing, Franky.”
The dance started to come to a close. “Sorry, I’ve got to get up there.”
“No worries, cowgirl. There will be other dances.” Maybe it was my imagination, but I’m pretty sure he squeezed my hand before letting go.
The DJ announced a special visitor and I grabbed my guitar from behind his station. He set up a microphone for me. “Knock ’em dead.”
I smiled nervously. “So, um, Scarlett and Josiah, I’m so happy to see you two together. I know you wanted me to sit out tonight and just enjoy the evening, but I guess you both probably knew I’d have a song for you. And if you didn’t, well, you don’t know me very well.”
Chuckles rang through the audience.
“Anyway, I’ve been working on ‘Real Fairy Tales’ over the past couple months and this song’s for you.” I strummed the guitar strings and took a deep breath before beginning to sing. The familiar feeling of being somewhere far away settled over me as the song continued. All that existed was my guitar and the song. When it came to a close, the cheering escalated. “Thank you. Now, that’s just part one of your present.” Out of my guitar case I pulled a leather-bound journal. “This isn’t quite done yet, since I can’t exactly write as fast as events are happening, but this is your story. Well, our story. It’s called Scarlett and Blizzard: A Starwood Fairy Tale. When y’all get back from your honeymoons, this will be finished and ready for you to take home. And yes Josiah, I’ve shared everything.” I paused as people laughed and my brother-in-law groaned. “And I promise to include the lyrics to your song in the back for you, Scarlett. Congratulations, and may the years be beautiful and the future bright.”
As I prepared to get off the stage, the DJ stopped me. “Girl, I had no idea you were so talented. You maybe interested in recording?”
Pretty sure my eyes bugged out of my head. I just stood there in shock for a moment. Somehow I found my voice again as he repeated the question. “Yes, yes! That would be amazing.”
“It might take a little time, but I’ve got some connections.” He handed me a business card. “You send me an email at that address. I’ll see what I can do for you. Good luck to you Blizzard Jannsen.”
The evening continued and soon we were waving goodbye as Josiah drove them off to start their honeymoon in Montana. Well, the first part anyway. Scarlett wasn’t going to tell Josiah about it, but I knew following their bed and breakfast hop in Montana, Scarlett had set up a week at the lodge in Teton Village. They were in for a fun couple of weeks, no question about it.
And did they live happily ever after? Well, as they say, only time will tell.
But I have a feeling they will.
Just one chapter left after this! Are you excited? I know I am. Make sure you answer the questions below for the final chapter in Scarlett and Blizzard. And don't forget about the paperback give away. If you find any typos, email them to me through the Contact page and you'll get one entry per typo into a drawing for a paperback copy of Scarlett and Blizzard (US only, international winner will receive a free eBook).
When I came to I had a throbbing headache and I was freezing. Someone had blindfolded me and gagged me with a smelly bandanna. More humiliating, I was hogtied with absolutely no hope of escape. I chafed against the ropes, trying to free myself. A chuckle made me stop. “You don’t really think that’s going to work, now do you?”
“Mmff-i-ee.” Yeah, real impressive, I know. But you try talking through a gag. It’s not easy.
With a glare of light the blindfold disappeared. When my eyes adjusted, I saw that I was in an abandoned barn with a familiar shrimp looking down at me with a smirk. “Sorry, darlin’, I missed that.” He pulled the gag off. “Now that there’s no danger of you bein’ heard, we can remove this.”
“Gee thanks. Shouldn’t you be in jail, McFinney?”
He laughed. “Do you think so?”
“Don’t play dumb. You were arrested. I saw you there.”
He rolled a coin around his hand. “Did you really? Funny thing about it, I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in that police station. Are you quite sure it was me?”
I wanted to argue with him, but I noticed that he seemed slightly different. His nose was less crooked and his eyes a touch darker. He was still wiry and small, but there was something different in how he held himself.
A wicked grin spread across his face as he watched me. “Yes, havin’ a brother thirteen months younger than yourself does have some advantages. Especially when you need someone to take the fall for you. But I guess you wouldn’t know that with your age gap.”
“Why do all this?”
“Revenge is a sweet thing, missy. Crushin’ a man’s heart and soul brings a certain satisfaction I don’t reckon you’d understand. But, spending time in jail for it does leave a bad taste in the mouth, don’t you think?”
“And your brother is fine taking that punishment for you? You’re a snake!”
“Oh, I won’t let him suffer too much. You see, we’ve had it all planned out. Your sister goes into court and testifies that he’s the man as threatened her and all that rot. Then I show up at his defense. She can’t tell the dif’rence ’tween us and the case gets throwed out. There ain’t a thing anybody can do to prove which of us was there and which one weren’t.”
“Wasn’t,” I corrected, realizing he thought I was Scarlett. So much for our age difference making our identities obvious.
McFinney scowled at me. “Now ain’t the time to worry ’bout how I talk.”
“If you had this all worked out, why kidnap me? Why tell me your whole plan? Kind of defeats the purpose,” I said. I hoped if I kept him talking long enough I could figure a way out of this disaster.
“Oh, now that I can’t claim credit for. Seems your friend the Bear has more enemies than he thought. Ain’t all that surprisin’ really. There are others who want to see him suffer.”
He shook his head and wagged a finger at me. “Nope, can’t tell ya. You’ll jus’ have to wait and see. He should be around shortly.” Then he laughed as though he’d told a great joke and covered my face with a cloth sack that reeked of sour grain.
“You can’t just leave me here!” I shouted. But there was no reply. “Great,” I muttered. “This is just perfect. I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with a psychopath on the way who thinks I’m my sister.” I squirmed and wriggled, but the knots were tight. I have to hand it to him, when McFinney decides to tie someone up he goes about it properly. The rope cut into my skin as I continued to struggle. Panic was building inside me. How long would it be before someone noticed I was missing? What would happen when McFinney or the mystery psycho discovered I wasn’t Scarlett? Where was Rooster? “Rooster, here boy.” I whistled. No yips, no response. Just silence. I sent a little prayer up, hoping our puppy was all right. And another one to beg for some help.
I heard a door open and shivers raced down my spine with the blast of cold air that swirled into the room. “Miss Scarlett? Miss Scarlett, don’t you worry. I’ll have you outta here in no time.” I felt a hand grab the bag covering my face. I’d never been so happy to see Shorty in all my life as he looked down at me. “Blizzard?”
“Shorty, thank the Lord! Please, you’ve got to help me. McFinney…”
“What? She’s at home in bed, probably toasty warm and I’m freezing here. Untie me, would ya?”
“This is all wrong. That dagblasted idiot,” Shorty fumed, standing and kicking at a nearby pile of hay.
“Yeah, kidnapping is a crime. Anyway, about the ropes…”
“Think you’re going to be a hero, Shorty?” McFinney sneered, coming into view.
Shorty cursed. “You got the wrong girl, John. First you leave that fuel can at our barn and I have to cover for you, now this? What am I supposed to do with her? Can’t you do one simple thing right?”
McFinney shrugged. “Ain’t my problem. I got what I wanted outta the bargain. You can do as you like with her.”
It was like being doused in ice water. I felt numb and horrified and angry all at the same time. “Shorty, please tell me you are not working with this slime? This is just a joke, right?”
Gone was the carefree, hovering wrangler I’d grown up seeing around Starwood. The look Shorty gave me wasn’t quite hate, but it was darn close. “You see anything funny?”
“Nope, but I see a couple idiots who are gonna be real sorry when Sheriff Henley finds me. Mom knows I went out to check the generator. She will have called him by now and he’ll be on his way.” It wasn’t much of a bluff, but it was the best I could do.
Shorty laughed, and it wasn’t at all pleasant. “I ain’t that dumb, Miss Blizzard. You wouldn’t have woken your mom up for something as simple as turning the generator back on. But you do present a problem for me. Maybe I can turn that around.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“I had to make her see me, didn’t I? We were makin’ progress, Scarlett and I. Oh, she still didn’t wanna date me or nothin’, but we were talkin’ at least. It was a start. Then everything went wrong. Josiah Meddleton came back. As soon as that rotten cowboy came to town I knew she’d fall again. She never had eyes for anyone but him. Couldn’t see that he was no good for her. Slinkin’ around with them fan girls of his. I would never treat her so badly. She was my princess.”
He pulled a lighter out of his pocket and I watched in horror as he started flipping the switch. I heard the stone grind against the spark wheel. “Scarlett’s everybody’s princess, Shorty, but she will never forgive you if you hurt me.”
“She wouldn’t know it was me. McFinney’ll take the blame just like we planned. Meddleton will leave ’cause he ain’t got a ranch no more. If that ain’t enough to convince him he don’t belong here, well… But I’ll stay by her. I’ll comfort her when you’re gone.” The lighter clicked again and this time a flame appeared.
“Shorty, this is madness. Don’t do it! We can talk with Scarlett. We can make something work.”
“Oh, but I think this will work,” he said, touching the flame to the hay. “I am sorry, Miss Blizzard. I never wanted to hurt you.”
“Yeah, yeah, let’s get outta here,” McFinney retorted.
The two ran out of the barn. At first, nothing seemed to be happening in the hay. Then I saw the smoke begin to curl towards the ceiling and a yellow dance of flames appeared. The panic which had been building in my chest escaped as a terrified scream. A voice inside me shouted at me to calm down and think. I had to get out of the barn. There was no way to free myself from the ropes. I heard indistinct yelling outside, but I ignored it as I tried to wriggle around to find an escape. It didn’t take long for the fire to begin spreading. I rolled as best I could toward a back door. Soon I heard a voice calling my name. “Blizzard? Blizzard where are you?”
“Josiah, I’m back here!”
“Keep calling, Blizz, I can barely see.”
“I’m over here.”
Like the bear he was nicknamed for, Josiah barreled toward me when he saw me. He lifted me up like I was nothing and ran outside as flames climbed up the walls of the barn. He ran around the side of the barn where his truck was parked and Scarlett was tightening the ropes around the would-be escapees. I don’t know what Shorty said to her, but she decked him so hard his head flew back and hit McFinney. Josiah set me down as we heard sirens wail. Snow swirled around us as he gently untied me. Scarlett pulled the ropes on our prisoners tighter again.
“You’re gonna strangle me.”
“Don’t tempt me you vile…”
I’m not sure what she finished her sentence with, because the fire engine chose that moment to blast its horn, but Josiah was looking at her with a rueful grin. “I thought ladies didn’t swear.”
She glared at him, though she blushed. “Times of great duress can be forgiven.”
He laughed and kissed her forehead. “Don’t make a habit out of it, huh? I rather like my prim and perfect lady.”
As soon as Sheriff Henley had Shorty and McFinney in custody, Scarlett ran to me. “Are you all right? Did they hurt you at all? What happened?”
“Which question should I answer first?” I teased.
She laughed. “I guess you must be okay. You are okay, right?”
“Terrified, a little sore from being tied up, but I’m fine. Is Rooster…” Suddenly I couldn’t bring myself to finish the question.
“He’s fine,” Josiah assured me. “He woke me up. For a dog that small, he sure has a big bark. I guess McFinney didn’t think anyone would hear him over the wind.”
“I woke up because your light suddenly came on and was shining into my room. I went to see if you needed anything and realized you weren’t in your room. I searched the house and couldn’t find you. I tried to wake Mom up, but couldn’t get her up. So I called Sheriff Henley. He said she had probably been drugged and that he’d send over an ambulance to check on her.”
“How did you guys find me?”
“It wasn’t easy,” Josiah admitted. “But we saw the two of them hightailing it out of the barn and figured this was where we’d find you. Then it was just a matter of making sure they couldn’t go anywhere.”
“You roped them?”
“Hey, I haven’t been a champion at the rodeo for nothing,” Josiah winked. “But I wasn’t about to let your sister run into that barn with the fire, so I went in once she had control of the ropes. I knew she wouldn’t let them loose.”
“Hate to interrupt, folks, but this storm ain’t gonna get any better out here,” Sheriff Henley said. “Come by the station tomorrow to give your statements. For tonight, you go on home and check on your mother. Let me know how she is, okay?”
“We’ll do that, Sheriff, thank you.”
We got in the truck and Josiah drove us in silence. There really wasn’t much to say. The puppies crowded us as we came into the house. We immediately went to Mom’s room where paramedics were checking her. “Blizzard? Scarlett?” Mom cried. We ran to her outstretched arms. For a long while we sat and cried, holding each other like we never wanted to let go. After declaring that Mom would be fine, the paramedics left. Josiah sat in the old armchair and waited patiently for us to regain control of our emotions.
It was dawn before we were all calm enough to do much other than sniffle and hug. Josiah left to take care of the barn chores with the other hands. Mom ordered us to get cleaned up and dressed for the day. The warm shower felt good and helped to wash away some of the fear I’d been carrying. I went downstairs to find Josiah setting a box on the dining table. He held a finger to his lips with his mischievous smile. “Shhh.”
I nodded with a grin as he moved around into the shadows where Scarlett wouldn’t see him. Soon she made her way down and noticed the box on the table. “What’s this?” she asked.
I shrugged, though I couldn’t quite keep the smile off my face. “Dunno.”
“Liar.” She unwrapped it and pulled out the model of Zander Josiah and I had found at the county fair all those months ago. Her hand went to her mouth as tears filled her eyes. Mini Zander was wearing a green blanket with a ring sewn on and the words Will you marry me? stitched across it. I beamed as Josiah walked out of the shadows and knelt next to Scarlett.
“Well, Lettie, what do you think?”
She placed Mini Zander on the table slowly, deliberately even. Somehow she kept her face blank and for a horrible moment I thought she might turn him down. Then she threw herself into Josiah’s arms, knocking both of them to the floor. “Yes!” She cried as she kissed him. “Oh, yes!” Then she kissed him again and again.
It might have been embarrassing to watch them that way had Mom not come into the kitchen right then with the puppies. They were not happy to be left out of the fun and were soon crawling and climbing over the couple as Mom asked, “Did I miss something?”
“Just a proposal,” I replied with a smile.
“Ah, that explains it then. Well, I suppose I’ll make breakfast for everyone. Scarlett, dear, when you’re done kissing your fiance, perhaps you could start some cocoa?”
Wow, readers, I'm a week late! I'm so sorry. Life has been a bit crazy with the farmer's market and summer vacation. So, here's the fourteenth chapter of Scarlett and Blizzard. Just two more to go after this. To celebrate being almost done, and to help me through the editing process, I'm going to have a little contest. If you read through the chapters and find any typos, email them to me. Each typo you find will give you one entry for a chance to win a paperback copy of Scarlett and Blizzard. Good luck!
When we arrived back at Starwood, Wyoming seemed to suddenly remember it was still winter. Granted the weather hadn’t exactly warmed up all that much to begin with. Winters storms popped up over the county and those on our staff who lived elsewhere either called in for vacation time or moved into the bunkhouse until the storms passed. Josiah chose to stay at the bunkhouse after Sheriff Henley came by to let us know he’d finished questioning McFinney and couldn’t find any ties to the fire. “I’m sorry, Tabitha,” he told Mom. “I know y’all want to be done with this whole mess. We couldn’t even get him to admit to Blizzard’s run-in. Kept sayin’ it was their word against his and danged if he’s not right. Blizzard’s going to have to come in and identify him if we want to nail this guy, and even then he might get off. I just don’t know what else to do.”
“You’ve done everything you could, Sam,” Mom replied, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I appreciate that. Blizzard and I will come by the station whenever you need.”
It wasn’t exactly the most thrilling thing I’d ever done. We walked into the station and Sheriff took us to a little back room with a windowed partition between us and the line-up. John McFinney was easy to place. There aren’t a lot of weasel-faced guys in Wyoming, I guess. He sauntered in, a smug grin on his face. The scary thing? It didn’t leave when I identified him and he was taken away. He just followed along like he expected it. And was pleased.
As we got ready to leave, we saw Josiah enter. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Just follow-up,” he said quickly. “Were you able to identify him?”
“Not hard to do,” I said, though I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right.
Sheriff Henley came before I could ask anything else. “Ah, Mr. Meddleton, could you join me for a minute?”
“Guess I’ll see you ladies tonight.”
“Bye Josiah.” I followed Mom out to the truck. For a while, only the country station Mom liked broke the silence. “Mom?”
“Why did McFinney look so smug? I mean, I just identified him as one of the perpetrators of a crime. Shouldn’t he look more guilty, or at least mad? I guess I expected them to haul him off screaming his innocence and that I was crazy or something.”
Mom frowned and she suddenly seemed to age ten years. “I don’t know, baby girl. I wish I did. I haven’t been able to get that look out of my head. Granted, this isn’t a sitcom, so the yelling and screaming might not be a realistic expectation,” she added with a small grin. “But, there was definitely something off about what happened back there.”
We continued home without speaking. When we arrived, Scarlett asked how things had gone. After we related our story, her brows furrowed. “That’s weird. But, we haven’t got time to worry about that right now. The weather radio’s been blaring for the last twenty minutes. The snowstorms are escalating and the affected region keeps growing. I’ve been out to the bunkhouse to make sure the hands had plenty of blankets and such.”
“Did you check the generators?”
“Yep. Got all the emergency kits set out, so we should be fine if this gets as bad as they’re predicting.”
“Well, let’s go check on the animals. I’m sure the puppies could use a potty break before we bunker in for the night.”
Mclintock, Cogburn and Rooster barreled out of the house to play in the yard. Mclintock tended to be more aloof in their games. I wasn’t sure if it was because he recognized how much bigger he was than our two Scotties or if he just didn’t feel like wrestling. Ears were tugged and tails chewed as the puppies scampered about. As we made our way to the barn, the pups followed along yipping and barking. The barn cats watched in disgust before slinking away to quieter parts of the barn. I checked on Winter’s Folly and Skipperdeen while Scarlett took care of Zander. Most of our stock horses were out in the round corral. There wasn’t a barn big enough to put them all in and they’d be safest together in a small space where they could share each other’s warmth.
I heard Scarlett’s voice and looked over as it was sharper than I’d ever heard her use when speaking to Zander. I realized Shorty had come in the barn at some point after us and was talking to her in low tones. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I heard Scarlett loud and clear. “No, thank you, Shorty.”
His face fell and he left the barn.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“It’s nothing,” Scarlett replied, though she frowned.
“It’s nothing,” she insisted. “Please, just don’t worry about it, okay?”
Snow fell in large, fluffy flakes when we finished our chores and headed inside with the pups. Mclintock barked and tried to catch the flakes in his mouth as Cogburn and Rooster ran in circles around his feet. I swear dogs think they’ve never seen snow before each and every time it falls. It’s hilarious. Josiah crunched through the snow to us and Cogburn ran to him. “You be good tonight, buddy,” he said rubbing behind the puppy’s ears. He then looked up at Mom, “Hey, I think I’m going to crash in the bunkhouse tonight if that’s okay with you. I was planning on going back to Franky’s, but this storm is picking up faster than I anticipated.”
“Not a problem at all,” Mom smiled. “It’s why we have the bunkhouse. Would you like to join us inside for dinner?”
“Normally I would, but I promised the guys burgers tonight. If I don’t deliver…”
Mom laughed. “Say no more. We wouldn’t want you to disappoint them.”
He tipped his hat and winked. “Good night, all.”
“Burgers sure sound good,” Scarlett said wistfully.
Mom chuckled, “Better than my chili?” The wind picked up and the flakes swirled around us. “We better get in. This storm is just getting started.”
Once in the house we helped Mom set the table and we sat to our dinner. Mom led us in grace and as she prayed I heard her ask for our hands and animals to be safe as well as those who had to travel through the storms. “Help us to weather the storms in our life. In thy Holy Name, amen.”
We chatted lightly as we enjoyed our meal. Seriously, Mom makes the best chili. Even though the wind howled and snow piled up outside, we were warm and cozy in the house. Mom got a fire going in the grate while Scarlett made her signature hot chocolate, this time with mint and vanilla. Despite the fact that mornings are always early on a ranch, we stayed up late into the night giggling around the fireplace. When Mom finally yawned and said she was going to bed, Scarlett and I agreed that we’d been up far too late as it was. “I’m going to miss this,” Scarlett sighed.
I felt like I’d been doused in ice water as I remembered that she would be leaving in only a few months. “Thanks for the reminder.”
She looked at me, her gray eyes flecked with green. “I know you’re still upset about everything, but I’m not abandoning you. I’ll come back to Starwood.”
She sighed again. “When I’m done with school. This is a chance for me to live out some of my own dreams, Blizzard. I wish you could understand.”
“What about Josiah?”
Scarlett blushed. “We’re taking things one step at a time. Besides, he’s not exactly tied down anywhere. Maybe he’ll come with me.” Then she shrugged. “Or he’ll forget all about me and we can both move on.”
I snorted. “Sometimes you’re the stupidest girl I know. Seriously, ‘he’ll forget all about me’? Do you not realize how much you mean to him?”
“I’m not blind, Blizzard.”
“Coulda fooled me. He’s been crazy about you since he came back.”
“I know. But things are more complicated than you would like to think in your little fairy tale mind.”
I should have kept my mouth shut. I knew I should. But I didn’t. “Maybe because that’s because you have overcomplicated everything with your unrealistic demands for perfection. Prince Charming is a myth, unless you want to count one very sweet, somewhat mischievous and definitely charming cowboy who can’t take his eyes off you.” I didn’t wait for her to respond. Instead I went up to my room with Rooster. I ignored Scarlett knocking on the door. That was my first mistake.
Rooster woke me up at some unmentionable hour needing to go outside. “Seriously? Couldn’t you have waited an hour?” I asked, shivering as I pulled my blankets back. The temperature in the house had dropped drastically. We must have lost power. I flipped my light switch and nothing happened. “Great,” I grouched, fumbling in the bedside table for my flashlight. Normally I just used it to finish books late at night without Mom knowing I was still awake. Normally our generator just kicks right in when the power goes out. I wasn’t sure why it hadn’t. That’s when I made my second mistake. I should have woken Mom up and had her go with me to fix it. But I knew she was tired and worried. She needed her rest. I knew generally how to work the generator. “Come on, Rooster. Let’s get some heat back in the house.”
Snow fell heavily around the house and I could barely see in front of me. I put a hand on the side of the house and felt my way to the generator. Rooster stayed close to me, shivering in the cold. “Go on back to the house if you’ve done your business, boy. It’s freezing out here.”
He whimpered and cuddled closer to my leg.
“Have it your way,” I muttered. I examined the generator. “This has been shut off. Who would turn off the generator?”
“I would,” a voice replied before something heavy hit the back of my head.
I hope you've been enjoying Scarlett and Blizzard as much as I have. This has been one of my most fun projects to date! I love the interaction with you readers and making you a bigger part of my story-telling process. Surprisingly, Scarlett and Blizzard is starting to reach wind-down time. Don't worry, there are still a few chapters to go. Just not enough to get us all the way into November. The good news in that is Scarlett and Blizzard will be available in its full form sooner than I thought. The "bad" news (if you can call it that) is I'll have to find a new project to do on my blog. I've got some ideas and as we get closer to finishing this project, I'll clue you in. But I wanted to take a moment to say thank you to all you awesome readers for participating and enjoying this project. If you'll be near Liberal, KS tomorrow morning, I'll be at the Farmer's Market from 8 - 12 and I'd love to see you there!
P.S. Don't forget to answer the questions below!
The tension over the next few days was so palpable you could cut it with a knife, if you’ll pardon the cliche. The pups seemed to catch our fear and were never far from sight. Mclintock would whine outside the bathroom door when Mom was in there. Cogburn and Rooster began pacing in front of the doors as though keeping constant guard. Everyone was jumpy and there didn’t seem much we could do to assuage our paranoia. After a late night talking, Mom sent Scarlett and I to bed with the instructions to not think about anything for the night. "You two need to get some rest. Stop worrying for now." Yeah right, Mom.
Rooster followed me to my room and hopped around my bed. “Give me a sec, boy,” I said. I picked him up one-handed and dropped him gently on the blankets.
He scouted out the softest patch of quilt and curled around it a few times before finally settling down. I flopped down next to him after putting on my pajamas and he eyed me with as close to a glare as a dog can get.
“What? It’s my bed.”
He yowled and began his circling ritual again.
I smiled. Careful not to disturb him, I turned and crawled under the covers. My mind was racing. Scarlett never relocated the gas can. Shorty promised to keep an eye out for it, but he hadn’t been able to tell us anything helpful about the whole situation. While Scarlett refused to accept that someone on Starwood may have been involved, I was beginning to wonder. It did seem awfully strange that the gas can would show up after McFinney set his thugs on me. I felt guilty for suspecting any of our hands. They’d been with us a long time and it didn’t seem likely that any of them would have tried to hurt Josiah. Nothing made sense. For several hours my mind circled ideas like Rooster circled a blanket. When I finally did sleep, my dreams were broken-up repeats of all the things which had gone wrong that winter.
Sunlight was streaming through my bedroom window by the time I woke up, which was odd because I never sleep in. You can’t when you live on a ranch. I rolled over and glanced at my clock. My eyes popped as I bolted from bed. “8:45? Snap!” I thundered around my room to get ready for the day before barreling down the stairs. “Mom! Mom! I don’t know how it happened, but I slept through my alarm…”
“I know,” she said calmly. “I turned it off last night.”
“Do you know when the last time we had a girls’ day was?”
My mind was still trying to wrap around the fact that I was an hour late for school and my chores weren’t done. “Uh…”
“That’s what I thought last night. So I called the school already and told them that you have unfortunately become very ill and won’t be in school today.”
“Wait, you lied to Mrs. Perkins?”
“Not exactly,” Mom said with a smile. “I simply told her I couldn’t see sending you to school with how you’re feeling.”
“But I’m not sick.”
“Maybe not physically, but I think we’re all getting a little heartsick. A weekend away from the ranch would do us a lot of good. Shorty and Josiah will be in charge while we’re gone and I’m sure when we get back everything will still be in good working order.”
“You should consider yourself lucky,” Scarlett added as I tried to digest this. “When I was in school, Mom never called me in sick if I wasn’t.”
“You need to pack a weekend bag, “Mom interrupted. “Things that are comfortable and cute would be best.”
“What about the puppies?”
“They’ll be fine. Josiah will take good care of them. Now go on, get your bag packed. I’ve got breakfast ready to go with us.”
“And my chores?”
“Already done,” Scarlett beamed. “Josiah and I finished them up over an hour ago.”
“Well, I guess I’m fresh out of arguments.”
“Good, get packing.” Mom grinned and pushed me toward the door.
Thirty minutes later with fresh donuts in hand, we waved goodbye to Starwood for a weekend getaway. Not long after getting in the car Scarlett asked, “So, where exactly are we going?”
“Well, I was up late looking at some different things and first on the list is a visit to the spa in Teton Village.”
Scarlett and I gasped. “How were you able to get appointments?”
“Luck was on our side.” Mom shrugged as though this was to be expected. “After that we’ll drive to Twin Falls and spend the rest of the weekend there. We’ll go to the theatre, hit the malls, just have fun for the whole weekend. Then we’ll come back home and try to remember how to work a ranch.” She winked at us. “Then again, maybe we won’t want to.”
We laughed and the rest of the drive was spent chatting. As we walked into the lobby at the spa, my eyes had a hard time deciding what to stare at first. Everything about it exuded luxury and relaxation. Waterfalls splashed nearby and it was all I could do not to stick my hand in one. I felt like I should whisper if I needed to say anything as we waited. Once my massage started, I sank even deeper into the feeling of absolute luxury. “Gracious, what happened here?” the masseuse asked, touching one of the bruises on my back.
“Oh, uh, got into a fight,” I replied.
“Honey, that looks awful! No wonder you have so much tension. But don’t worry, I’ll be gentle and we’ll work everything out. Sound good?”
For the next eighty minutes I basked in the serenity of the spa. For the first time in weeks I just let my mind wander. I stopped worrying about what was going on at home. I didn’t think about Josiah or the Double Rocking B or anything else. Everything was at peace and life was oh so good. I could tell Scarlett and Mom were feeling just as relaxed as we floated out of the lodge and back to our truck. We drove up to Twin Falls and stopped at a salon. Scarlett and I had already done our hair recently, so we had our nails done while Mom tried to decide what to do with her hair. “You should try some streaks, Mom, it would be fun.”
“Oh no, sweetie, that’s for young people.”
Scarlett giggled. “Don’t tell that to Mildred.”
“She’s young at heart,” Mom replied with a smile.
“Are you saying you’re old? Come on, Mom, it would be fun,” I said.
“I don’t know…”
“Give it a try, Mama. I bet some blue would look really cute.”
Mom shook her head firmly. “Oh no, if I’m going to do streaks they’ll be a natural color. No one has naturally blue hair.”
“Pink then? It would blend well with your color.”
“This from my daughter who never dyes her hair?” Mom asked with a laugh.
The bantering continued until the stylist took Mom to his chair. Scarlett and I laughed as we chatted easily with the manicurists. It seemed like no time at all when Mom’s stylist called us over. “Well, girls, what do you think?”
Mom turned to us with a smile. Her strawberry blonde hair was cut into a short bob and the stylist had woven platinum and pink into it.
“It’s adorable, Mom,” I squealed.
“Very chic,” Scarlett agreed.
We stopped at a diner for lunch before then hitting downtown Twin Falls. While I wouldn’t call Mom stingy, normally she was very careful about spending. But with this trip careful Mom went out the window. If we saw something we liked, she added it to our cart or picked it up. After a particularly expensive stop Scarlett finally asked, “Mom, are you sure we can afford all this?”
“Of course,” Mom replied. “I wouldn’t have brought you here if we couldn’t. I’ve been putting away for a special weekend with you girls for a while. I just kept putting off actually planning it.”
The day continued and after checking in at our hotel, Mom checked the weather reports for the next day. “It should be warm enough we can go to Shoshone Falls tomorrow. We’ll do some hiking, look around and just enjoy the day. After dinner, we’ll go the movies. There’s a cute kid’s movie out that would be fun to see.”
“Sounds good, Mom,” Scarlett replied. “How did you manage to do all this planning yesterday?”
“Sleep is for kids, right?” Mom teased. “I stayed up most of the night looking at what options were available. Which is why tonight I’m heading to bed early.”
“I thought you said sleep was for kids,” Scarlett teased.
“I can be a kid if I want and this kid needs her sleep,” Mom retorted with a smile. “You girls can stay up if you want, just keep the volume down.”
Scarlett and I went into the parlor of our suite and chatted quietly. Just as we were getting ready to call it a night, Scarlett’s phone buzzed. She looked at it and then frowned.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Josiah just texted me. Sheriff Henley caught John McFinney. He’s holding him overnight for questioning in relation to the attack and the fire.” She looked up at me with a slight smile. “This whole nightmare might be over soon.”
I wanted to believe her, but something inside me whispered that we weren't in the clear yet.
I've had so much craziness the last couple of weeks, so I am very sorry that I'm behind on the video readings. Now that school's out here, I should be able to get those up faster! Hopefully by the end of next week I'll be all caught up. Comment below to let me know what kind of bonus video you'd be most interested in watching. I can do an art talk, book talk, just about me talk, I'm pretty open. Also, don't forget to stop by Facebook Monday morning for a chance to chat with Nerissa! She'll be giving some insider views at what's going on in Sanalbereth and she's put together some fun little prizes for those who attend.
Mom met me at the police station after I’d finished writing up my report for Sheriff Henley. “I’m so sorry, Blizzard, I should have been there to pick you up.” Tears filled her eyes and I hated the guilt I saw furrowing her brow.
“Mom, I’ll be fine,” I said, trying to smile but failing. With a split lip and my eye swollen, it must have looked pretty bad.
She wrapped her arms around me, holding me like she’d never let go. “I’m so, so sorry. It’s always been safe. I should have been there.”
“Really, Mom, I’m going to be okay. The doctor says everything will heal fine. It looks worse than it is, really.”
“Miss Jannsen, I am going to need you to come back to testify should they go to court,” Sheriff Henley said, his face grim. “I would guess they’re going to try for a plea deal, using the information they have about Mr. McFinney to lessen their charges. In that case, there might not be much for you to do. But, if it goes to court are you willing to come in and testify?”
“Absolutely,” I said, my chin high. “I’m not scared of them.”
“You’re sure a ball of spitfire, Blizzard. I think that’s all I’ll need. You ladies have a nice evening.”
“Sheriff, those men, they’re going to be in jail for a long time, right?” Mom asked.
He sighed, “I don’t have a good answer for you, Mrs. Jannsen. All it would take is someone posting bail for them to be out. But, they won’t be allowed anywhere near your place and I personally will be monitoring your road for any threats. Go home, try to rest and get your girl feelin’ better. You should be proud of her. She knocked them just about as good as they did her. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go finish up with the other two witnesses.”
“They’re not going to be in trouble, are they?” I asked. “I mean, Josiah and Franky were trying to help me.”
“Sometimes, honey, the law is a complicated thing. Beatin’ people up, deserved or not, tends to be on the illegal side of things. They should be just fine though, seeing as they were defending you. In any case, they won’t be spending the night in jail if that’s what you’re worried about. Now you go on home and get some rest.” He tipped his hat and then walked away.
Mom walked with me out to the car, noticing every limp and wince. “Do you need any help?”
“Nope, I got it.”
The way Mom looked at me reminded me of the movie I’d seen in eighth grade about a woman giving birth. I’d always thought it was a myth that people counted all the fingers and toes on new babies. But it’s true. She sat there and counted those little fingers and toes, kissing them and cooing at her baby. Mom was looking like she wanted to count my fingers and toes just to make sure they were all still there. I wished there was something I could say to reassure her that I was going to be fine, but nothing came to mind. As we came up our driveway, I could see Scarlett pacing in front of the window. She saw the car and disappeared from sight, soon throwing the front door open and coming to help Mom get me inside.
“I’m not dying, for Heaven’s sakes!” I complained as the pair of them fussed over me.
“But you might have,” Mom cried and I suddenly wished I’d kept my mouth shut. “Blizzard, I don’t know what I’d do without you here.”
“Mom, I don’t know how to help you realize this, but I really am okay. I hurt everywhere, I’m tired and I feel half-starved. But I’m okay.” I took Mom’s hand. “Really.”
She wiped at her tears and nodded. “I know, baby girl. But, I don’t think I’ve been so scared in my life as when we got the call.”
My stomach growled loudly and Scarlett chuckled. “Well, that’s something we can take care of right away. I kept dinner warm waiting for you. Potato soup and fresh salad. I’m afraid the pumpkin pie ended up a little burnt though. Mom rushed away just as the timer went off and I was in such a daze I didn’t take it out until it was far darker than it’s supposed to be.”
“I’m sure it will taste fine anyway,” I smiled.
That night, once Mom and Scarlett were finally convinced I was okay, I crawled into bed. The details of the attack played over and over in my head. I was supposed to be a message for Josiah, but it didn’t really make sense. If they’d wanted to deliver a message of that sort to him, why me? Why not corner Scarlett? Not that it was easy to do and maybe that was the real reason. Maybe Scarlett had been the one they wanted but since she so rarely leaves the ranch, I became an easy target. The other question nagging me was why not just beat up one of Josiah’s hands? Someone at the ranch would be missed if they couldn’t work due to injuries. It would create more work on the others, making it more likely that Josiah and his father would be forced to sell. If they were trying to destroy Josiah’s business, that would be the best tactic. Unless they weren’t interested in the ranch and were just trying to inflict as much pain as possible. Which brought me back to Scarlett.
My thoughts continued to jumble themselves into a confusing mess. I finally succumbed to sleep as a dimpled smile and brilliant green eyes rose in my memory.
The next few days were challenging. My wrist had been broken and while it was a relatively minor break, all things considered, it made doing my chores difficult. Josiah started coming back to Starwood regularly to help out. I knew no one had asked him to and his visits were fairly short. He would check on me and say hi to Cogburn, then walk out to the barn to take care of the horses. I saw him with Scarlett a few times. While part of me wanted to listen in when they sat out on the patio together, the other part decided maybe they needed a little space to work out their feelings. Mom caught me watching them from the window and she smiled. “Looks like things are going well for them, doesn’t it?”
“Do you think maybe Scarlett will stay, if they decide to get married or something?”
Mom frowned. “I don’t know, Blizz. I suppose she might. Then again, I don’t think I’d want her to.”
“Well, Scarlett has dreams of her own. It took a lot of gumption for her to decide to chase them. I don’t want her to give that up. And from the last time I talked to Teddy, the Double Rocking B isn’t going to be theirs for much longer anyway.”
“They did decide to sell it then?” I asked as I watched Josiah and Scarlett walk towards the barn.
She nodded. “It was a hard decision, but with Teddy’s health the way it is I think it’s for the best. Josiah talked to me yesterday about working for us full-time.”
I couldn’t stop the giggle that bubbled up.
“What’s so funny?”
“I just think it’s a little ironic that after all the help they gave us so we could keep Starwood, now he’s going to be working for us. I wish it didn’t have to be that way. I can’t imagine life without the B.”
“Oh it will still be there. I guess a bunch of Josiah’s hands are coming together to purchase the ranch. Franky was at the front of the pack, from what I’ve heard.” Mom glanced over at me. “He’s a good young man, isn’t he?”
“Don’t you start too,” I said, my expression sour. “Aren’t you supposed to remind me that I’m still too young to be worried about boys?”
She laughed. “I suppose I could, but it wouldn’t be very fair of me. I fell in love with your dad at a young age. Not that you should start making any plans, but don’t cut yourself off from him either. He’s a good friend to have.”
Scarlett interrupted us by bursting through the door. “You’re not going to believe this,” she said, her face white.
“What is it?”
“I think I found something in the barn that will help Sheriff Henley with his investigation.”
“Wait, in our barn?” Mom asked, horror on her face.
“Yes, back by the shower stalls I found a gas can. It struck me as odd since we never store gas in the barn and I went to take a closer look. Guess whose name was on it?”
“John McFinney?” I asked.
“Bingo. I asked Shorty if he recognized it at all and he told me he’d never seen it before. I’m going to call Sheriff Henley and have him come get it.”
“Why would that have been in our barn?” Mom said slowly, voicing the question screaming in my mind.
“I’m not sure. I can only think that he must have brought it here to keep it out of sight after he set the B on fire. I told Shorty not to touch it though, because it is definitely evidence that something was going on and will give them reason to question McFinney, right?”
“It’s certainly suspicious as he doesn’t work for us, but it’s still rather unusual. I can’t imagine why it would be here and I’m not sure Sheriff Henley will be able to pin anything on him based on a gas can in our barn. Think of the other implication.”
“What?” Scarlett asked.
“It being here could lead to suspicion here,” I said. “Think about it. Everyone knows McFinney isn’t on our staff. It would be easy to argue that someone wrote his name on it in order to throw blame off the real culprit.”
“You think one of our men could be responsible for this?” Scarlett snapped.
“No,” Mom replied, “but Blizzard is right. It looks suspicious. Especially since this is just now showing up. Why wouldn't it have been seen sooner? I realize we don't use the shower stall often during the winter, but I've been in that area of the barn and never seen anything. Call Sheriff Henley, but don’t tell him exactly what is going on. I’d rather be able to discuss this with him face-to-face.”
When he arrived, Mom and Scarlett took him out to the barn. I followed behind, taking the puppies with me since they needed a potty break anyway. Then I heard Scarlett’s shrill voice. “I don’t understand, I swear I left it right here.”
I walked in, the puppies playing in front of the stalls. “Scarlett, are you sure it was here?” Mom asked.
“I’m positive. Ask Shorty, he’ll tell you.”
“Where is he?” Sheriff asked.
As though he’d heard us talking about him, Shorty came in holding the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, Miss Scarlett, I don’t know who done it, but I left that can there like you said. I heard someone messing around and I came to see what was going on. Then someone clobbered me from behind. I didn’t see no one.”
Sheriff Henley frowned. “I’m going to need you to come to the station to make an official report, Shorty. Can you manage?”
“I can be there this evening, it that’s all right. I got chores to finish up and my head aches somethin’ awful.”
“We’ll take care of it, Shorty,” Mom said. “You go on down and make that report. We don’t need anyone else getting hurt. Sheriff, before you go, can I speak with you a minute?”
“Certainly, Mrs. Jannsen.”
I followed around silently and listened to them speak. “Sheriff, you guaranteed me no one would come near the ranch.”
“I did and I can tell you right now, Tabitha, somethin’ doesn’t add up. There hasn’t been a soul on the road today except me.”
“Does that mean what I think it does?”
“I’m afraid so, darlin’. If someone attacked Shorty, it was someone already on the ranch.”
I felt the blood drain from my face as the words sank into my mind. Someone already on the ranch. Starwood wasn’t as safe as we’d thought it was.
All caught up! At least on writing Scarlett and Blizzard. This weekend I'll work on getting the video readings caught up too. Did you know today and tomorrow I'll be part of a fantasy giveaway party on Facebook? Be sure to come! There will be lots of fun prizes, games and adventure to be had by all. See you there!
School was back in session by the time I spoke to Scarlett again. I couldn’t believe she’d gone behind our backs to find a way to leave Starwood. I was especially hurt that she’d left me out of the picture entirely. When I got home one afternoon, Josiah was standing on the patio with Franky. They were talking in hushed tones and when he saw me, Franky called out, “Hey, cowgirl. How’s school?”
“Meh.” I kept walking. I just wasn’t in the mood for chatting or anything else.
“What, no hello?”
“Drop it, Frank,” Josiah warned.
I turned with as icy a glare as I could muster. “Hello.” I let the door slam behind me.
I heard Franky whistle. “Dang, she’s mad. But yeah, I got it worked out with my landlord. You can stay for a while, but do you really think it will help?”
As curious as I was, I quit listening and headed straight for my room. If Josiah was going to be leaving Starwood, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, things with Scarlett would doubtlessly become less tense. But on the other hand, I’d gotten used to him being there. It was like having a brother for the first time in my life. A big, goofy brother who would do my chores so I could sleep an extra ten minutes. Okay, so maybe he was really doing them to impress my bone-headed sister, but can you blame a girl for dreaming? It’s not every day you get someone who will muck out stalls without complaining.
Anyway, I tossed my backpack on the floor and sat down at my desk. After turning on my computer I started digging books out of my bag. I had a ton of homework to do. Within a few moments, Mom came upstairs. “Sweetie, are you okay?”
Tears I’d been stubbornly clinging to threatened to spill over my eyes. “I’m fine. I just want to be left alone.”
“Look, I know you’re upset about Scarlett’s pronouncement…”
“Why didn’t she talk to us?” I shouted. “Why didn’t she have the common decency to let us know she was unhappy? Or tell us she was thinking about leaving? She didn’t think of anyone but herself and it’s not fair.”
“You’re right,” Mom said calmly.
I gaped at her. I’d expected a rebuttal, not an agreement. My eyes narrowed. “And you’re okay with that? She’s just leaving us, Mom. She’s leavin’ us with the ranch and havin’ to figure everything out on our own.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time I was left to run a ranch by myself, sugar,” Mom replied, a mist of tears blurring her blue eyes. “I can manage it again. And we’re not totally helpless without her. We’ve got a great team here at Starwood.”
“It ain’t the same, and you know it.”
I growled and threw my hands in the air. “Are you seriously more concerned about my grammar than the fact that we’re being abandoned again?”
“That’s what this stems back to, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t hold them back anymore. The tears flowed and I flopped on my bed. “It just isn’t fair. First Daddy and now Scarlett. Everyone leaves me. What did I do wrong?”
Mom sat next to me on the bed, her soothing hand running over my messy tangle of curls. “Baby girl, Scarlett isn’t leaving us forever. And you haven’t done anything wrong. Right now she’s upset and hurting in a different way than you are. Honestly, I’m surprised it’s taken her this long to want out. Scarlett’s always been my restless girl. She wants to be out in the world, chasing her dreams. And that’s how it should be. I always knew the day would come when she would leave Starwood. I just hoped it would be under happier circumstances.”
“What are we going to do without her?”
“Same thing we did with her. Run Starwood, go to school, live life and learn. But tears and tantrums aren’t going to keep her here. Perhaps it would be good for everyone if Scarlett went back to school.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because I know my daughters, Blizz. Come on now, dry those tears and let’s take the puppies for a walk. Mclintock’s got his energy back and I’m not sure I can handle all three pups on my own.”
A smile teased the corner of my mouth and I wiped the tears from my face. “I bet you could, but I’ll come with you anyway.”
As we walked around the house with the puppies, I tried to forget about Scarlett. Instead I focused on the snow-covered pastures. I could see our horses pulling what graze could be found and standing around a hay bale. Chickens strutted through the yard. The puppies, having finished with leash-time, were wrestling in the yard and chasing each other. It was soothing to see that at least some things had remained unchanged. I glanced toward the road and noticed the rattler wasn’t anywhere to be seen. In fact, I couldn’t remember having seen the car in a few days. Maybe he’d finally given up.
I should have known it wouldn’t be that simple.
A few days later, I was walking back to the house from the bus stop. When the weather was clear and beautiful, our bus driver would often just drive me straight to Starwood. But with the snow starting to melt and the threat of sleet and more snow, the school assigned mud routes which basically meant I’d get dropped off at the end of our road. I didn’t mind though. It was only a couple miles’ walk anyway and I needed the quiet to sort my feelings. My boots crunched in the snow and I tightened my scarf. The cold Wyoming wind bit my skin and tousled my hair, making it even messier than normal. Under the flurry of thoughts chasing themselves around in my head, I trudged home. I heard the sound of a car engine coughing behind me. When the car didn’t go around, but slowed down, I stopped to see who was on our road. The driver swerved and in a panic I leapt to the side, forgetting about the ditch along the side of the road. I landed in a heap, my ankle twisting under me. I struggled to get back to my feet as three men got out of the car.
“Well, what have we here?” I recognized the speaker as the man Josiah had identified as John McFinney. He was short and thin with a pointy face. It was like seeing one of Santa’s elves, only with an evil smirk instead of a cute grin. “What’s your name?”
“Like I’m really stupid enough to tell you that,” I snapped, hoping he wouldn’t catch the quiver in my voice.
The men laughed and I found myself backed into a fence. “I don’t suppose you are, but it don’t matter. I know who you are, Blizzard Jannsen, and your pretty sister too.”
An icy finger of fear traced up my spine. “What do you want?”
“Scared?” John sneered.
“Of a measly shrimp like you?”
Apparently, little man syndrome is a real thing because John scowled at me and I swear I saw sparks in his eyes. “Who you callin’ a shrimp?”
Hoping I could get him distracted enough to make a break for it, I said, “I’m just sayin’ it like I see it. You’re not exactly built like a bear.”
“So, you think your pal the Bear can save you from me?” he asked. He was close enough I could feel his breath on my face. I cringed as he took one of my curls in his hand and tweaked it. “I have a message for Mr. Meddleton and you’re going to deliver it for me.”
“Do I look like a mailman to you?”
John grinned again, a malicious smile that took the warmth from me. “Don’t worry, honey, this ain’t the kind of message you can forget.” He turned to the thugs next to him. “Don’t do nothing you can get arrested for.”
As John walked away the other men closed in on me. “Hey, you do know assault and battery is a crime, right?”
“Only if you get caught,” the bigger one retorted with a smirk.
Right, because that totally makes it okay. My mind was racing as I tried to think of an escape. Maybe I could force my way between them. I could probably outrun them. I hoped. As the smaller one swiped at me, I jabbed an elbow in his side and started to run, but I didn’t get far. The other tackled me to the ground. I screamed. A blow to my stomach knocked the wind from me and I struggled to regain my breath. “Help!” I cried as they tore at my winter coat, down feathers scattering over the snow. I kicked and hit, but knew I was no match for them. They knocked me around between them. Pain racked through me and I prayed desperately that someone, anyone, would come to my rescue. Spots swam before my eyes and I felt myself slipping out of consciousness. “Someone please help!”
“There ain’t nobody around to help you now, missy.”
I vaguely recognized the new voice talking and heard the sound of someone fighting off my assailants as a strong pair of arms wrapped themselves around me and pulled me out of the fray. I heard the coughing car engine sputter and roar as John drove off. “He’s getting away!” I moaned.
“Don’t you worry about him, Sheriff Henley should be here soon enough. We got his license plate number. We’ll catch that…”
I ignored the last word as I looked up and saw who was holding me. “Franky?”
He grinned, the merest hint of a dimple appearing in his left cheek. “Well, at least they didn’t knock the memory out of you. Come on, cowgirl, let’s get you in the truck and warmed up.”
“Who’s fighting out there?”
“Josiah has it well in hand. Quit worryin’.” He opened the door to Josiah’s truck and set me inside. The warmth of the cab surrounded me. “Now then, where are you hurt?”
“Everywhere,” I replied.
“Did they?” Franky blushed.
I shook my head. “No, they were told not to do anything they could get arrested for.”
Franky snorted derisively. “Assault and battery is a crime too.”
I grinned and winced as my lip split. “That’s what I said.”
“Well, let’s get you cleaned up. Your poor mother is going to have a heart attack when she sees you.”
“It wouldn’t be my mom you’d have to worry about,” I replied remembering our recent visit from Grandma.
Sirens blared in the distance and Franky turned his attention to me. “Let’s start getting you cleaned up. I gotta hand it to you, you did a fair amount of damage on those two yourself.”
“Really? I didn’t think I was making any difference.”
“Happens when you’re outmatched. But they’re gonna have bumps and bruises of their own. And that was before we showed up.” He held my chin gently as he wiped away the blood trickling from my lip. His eyes stayed focused on my injuries, but I couldn’t seem to focus my mind on anything. I tried to tell myself it was because I’d just had the crud beat out of me, but the more honest part of me knew it had a little to do with the handsome cowboy taking care of me. Concern darkened his eyes to a stunning shade of emerald. His work-roughened hands were gentle and warm. But I mentally shook my head. Franky was too old for me and wouldn’t be interested in a little country girl like me anyhow.
Readers, I owe you so big! This is way later than I had wanted to get it up and I am so grateful for your patience with me. I've been absent from Facebook, from Twitter, from here, and I definitely owe you guys for being out of it so long. So, instead of this chapter's poll being about the next chapter (because it's due in two days), this poll is going to be asking you how I can make up being gone for so long. Pick as many of the options as you like and be sure to watch my Facebook over the next couple of days for ways you can take part in the next chapter. Much love to you, readers!
We had barely gotten in the house from our trip to the Double Rocking B when Scarlett cornered Josiah. “Why is there someone stalking our road?”
Grandma sucked in a gulp of air and Mom pushed her to the kitchen. “I think the three of you can handle this discussion on your own. Mom, why don’t you help me make some chicken noodle soup? I’m sure that would be just the thing to make Josiah feel better.”
Once they were gone, Josiah glared at Scarlett. “Really know how to make a grand entrance don’t you?”
“You’ve known about this for a while, haven’t you?” she accused.
“What makes you say that?”
“Why else would Franky have told us to warn you about a rattler?” I asked. “It’s far too cold for snakes to be a problem this time of year. And after a look at the junk heap that guy drives, rattler is a fitting pseudonym. Why didn’t you tell us sooner?”
“Because I’m an adult, dagnabit,” Josiah snapped before rising from the couch. “I would never forgive myself if something happened to you or to Starwood. It’s bad enough Dad and I are having to have serious talks of selling the B.” His voice caught and I could see the emotion swirling in his brown eyes. “Do you think I want you ladies to have that conversation?”
“So you thought keeping that information to yourself would protect us?” Scarlett demanded, her arms crossed over her chest.
“I’m not an idiot, Scarlett, much as you seem to think I am,” Josiah retorted. “I told the sheriff and I’ve had Franky and Shorty taking turns watching out for him. We can’t prove he’s done anything beyond just drive up and down the road. But I’m not going to let him hurt you girls.”
“We can fend for ourselves,” Scarlett countered.
Josiah laughed and then fell back on the couch in a coughing fit.When he could breathe again he said, “You have no idea what this guy is capable of. He’d chew you up and spit you out faster than you could blink.”
“Then I suggest, Mr. Meddleton, that you start giving us a real clear picture of what we have going on here.”
“Who is that guy?” I asked.
Sighing, Josiah ran a nervous hand through his already tousled hair. “His name is John McFinney. He used to run a tack store in Oregon.”
“Used to?” Scarlett pried.
“Just after I went back to the rodeo, you know after my accident?” Scarlett nodded and he continued, “John approached me about accepting a sponsorship from him. He was tired of being just a local business and thought he was ready to go wider. I told him I wasn’t comfortable accepting a sponsorship from a company I didn’t know much about. At first he was understanding and agreed to give me some samples of his work. He was convinced if I used the products, I would be happy to accept the sponsorship.”
“But you didn’t.”
He shook his head. “The quality was terrible. Halters fell apart after only a few uses, reins snapped. I asked around and he didn’t have a lot of repeat customers. Everyone seemed to believe the price was too high for the quality. A few people related accidents caused by defective equipment. I told him I wouldn’t accept the sponsorship of a company I couldn’t support. He promised to improve things if I took the sponsorship, but I refused. I didn’t trust him to make good on his word. I made it clear things would have to improve first. It wasn’t just his company that would be affected. My career would be as well. If people were going to look to me for products they should get, I wanted those products to be ones I could proudly use myself. Just last year his company went bankrupt and he blames me for his failure.”
“Could he be the one causing your ranch trouble?”
Josiah sighed and ran a hand through his hair again. “It doesn’t appear that he is. Sheriff has already investigated and as far as we can tell, he has a solid alibi. While it’s possible he hired someone to do it for him, there’s no proof of that.”
“But why would he be stalking the road if he’s not involved?”
“I don’t have an answer for you, Lettie. I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. Something tells me he’s involved in what’s going on, but I haven’t been able speak to him since the rodeo in July.”
“He is the man you were arguing with.”
“Yes. He came to demand restitution for his company’s failings. Since I had no contract with him, I legally have no responsibility for what happened. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on, but it hasn’t stopped him from blaming me and sending some threatening letters. And before you ask, yes, I’ve already shown them to Sheriff Henley.”
“Maybe we can help you find out how he’s involved,” I said.
“Well, you’re not having any luck yourself,” Scarlett pointed out. “Blizz and I can help you.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Josiah scowled at us. “Whoever is responsible for this is willing to see people hurt or killed to get what he wants. If McFinney is involved, you girls would be next on his target list. I’m not going to have you on my conscience.”
“I hate to break it to you, but you living here pretty much already puts us on that list.”
Josiah stood and took Scarlett by the arms. “Do you think I haven’t already thought of that? If there was anywhere else for me to go, I would do it in a heartbeat to keep you safe.”
“Quit worrying so much about me. I’m a big girl. I can hold my own.”
The next few days were fairly quiet. We didn’t discuss matters again. In part, Josiah got sick enough that he totally lost his voice. The other problem was the puppies took up a lot of our time. House-training one pup is tough, but three? I thought many times as I cleaned up messes that I should have just gotten Mom a new halter or something for her horse. But I have to admit it, those three rascals got themselves all sorts of wrapped up in our heartstrings. They each had different personalities too. Mclintock had taken it upon himself to be Mom’s personal guard dog. You rarely saw her without him at her side. Rooster had immediately become his deputy. The two were inseparable. If someone came to the door, Rooster would bark and bark until he heard Mclintock stop. Cogburn was quieter and attached himself to Josiah. Half the time, he didn’t seem to know what to do with the tiny pup. Cogburn would paw Josiah’s legs until he was picked up before curling up on his chest. Normally that wasn’t a problem, except when the one time he had an accident. That was amusing, I mean unfortunate. When I wasn’t taking care of the puppies, I was working on Scarlett’s birthday presents. Mom had hidden most of them in my room, knowing that Scarlett rarely went in there. As I had time, I was responsible for getting them wrapped.
Two days before school started, I woke up early to the sound of arguing. “Can’t even give it a rest on her birthday?” I slowly got up, knowing that if I was awake the puppies would be too. As I got down the stairs I could hear Cogburn yipping and the others barking too. There was a gagging sound followed by a snort of disgust. “What’s going on?” I asked as I came into the kitchen.
“Mclintock is sick and did what sick dogs do,” Scarlett snapped, wringing a cloth out over the sink.
“Oh.” I said, noticing the mess on the floor. “And we’re arguing over that because?”
“Because poor Josiah’s coat got yakked on.”
“What am I supposed to wear to the ranch? It’s cold out Scarlett,” Josiah barked.
“Wash it off. He didn’t get it that bad.”
“That still leaves me with a wet coat.”
I could tell she was getting ready to fire back and I interrupted, “Woah, time out. First of all, Mom’s still sleeping.”
“No she’s not,” Mom said blearily as she walked in. Her hair was spiked out from sleeping and I tried not to laugh. Bed head is a curse in our family, especially if you get Mom’s genes. Mclintock whimpered and sat at her feet, gagging on the floor in front of her. She gently picked him up. “Oh, you poor baby. Come on, Mama will get you taken care of. Blizz, can you?”
“No problem,” I said. I took the cloth from Scarlett and wiped up the puddle. Rooster trailed Mom yipping to Mclintock and trying desperately to reach him.
Cogburn had curled himself by Josiah and was watching with a look of confusion. I was with him. What was the big deal anyway? He whined and pawed Josiah’s leg.
I saw his coat on the table. Scarlett was right, it wasn’t a bad mess. I wiped off the vomit and handed the coat to Josiah. “If you toss it over the towel rack, it’ll be dry before you have to go anywhere.”
He scowled at me and muttered, “If it hadn’t been on the floor there wouldn’t be a mess to clean up.”
Scarlett growled and pushed past me out of the room.
Cogburn whimpered again.
“Have you taken him out yet?” I asked.
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll take that as a no. Come on, boy, let’s go potty.”
The puppy waddled to the door and I led the way outside. “Those two. I’m not sure how we’ll survive until the B is rebuilt, do you?” I asked Cogburn.
He barked at me and seemed to smile.
“I’m afraid we’re not all as adorable as you are.” I watched him prance around the yard for a few minutes. Oh to be so carefree. I glanced towards the front of the house. There was no sign of the rattler. Maybe he’d determined Josiah had been put through enough. In the back of my mind I knew that wasn’t the case, but I decided not to worry about it. There would be time enough to find out what was going on. Especially if we could find out what Sheriff Henley knew about the guy.
Snow was falling gently, covering the pastures in a blanket of white. The horses whinnied and pranced. I watched yearlings dance together, blowing the flakes and chasing each other. It was a beautiful sight and so peaceful, I wished I could have infused it into the house. There wouldn’t be much peace until we figured out what was going on. I whistled and Cogburn came back. “Shall we go inside? I’m freezing!”
He yipped and we went back in the house. Just as we came in, Mom returned with Mclintock and Rooster following behind her. She set up an old pillow for Mclintock and cuddled him until he fell asleep. “Poor baby has an upset stomach. I wonder if he doesn’t like the food we’ve got for him.”
“I can ask Dad what type he’d had before if you’d like,” Josiah said.
“Thanks, I’d appreciate that. He didn’t leave me with an actual package to go off.”
Scarlett came back into the room and Mom turned to her with a smile. “I’m sorry to have your birthday start this way but…”
“I have something to say,” Scarlett interrupted.
The room went quiet and everyone stared at her. My heart started thundering in my ears. Something in the way she said that didn’t bode well. “Scarlett?”
“I think you should know that I have accepted a work study position at the University of Wyoming in their business school. It will start next school year. But in order to get myself settled in at Laramie and ready for my education, I’ve decided to leave in June. As soon as Blizzard is out of school for the year, I’m packing up and leaving.”
It was so quiet a pin on the floor would have been loud. Mom looked like Scarlett had slapped her and I know I probably looked like a fish out of water. I couldn’t wrap my mind around what she had just said.
“You’re what?” Josiah thundered.
“I’m leaving,” Scarlett repeated, tears streaming down her face. “I can’t keep doing this and it’s something I’ve been considering for a while anyway. Mom’s got a good handle on the ranch and I need to escape.”
“Escape from what?” Josiah demanded.
“You! I knew as soon as you came back I would never get any peace with you here. I kept hoping your dad would get better and you would go back to the rodeo. But that’s not happening, so I’m going to go.”
“What happened to having a second chance? What happened to trying to make things work?” Josiah was holding her at arm’s length, searching her face as though he’d find a reason locked in her gray-green eyes. “Talk to me, Scarlett. Quit hidin’ in that head of yours.”
“We can still make it work, but I want to know it’s because I matter to you.”
“What do you think I’ve been trying to prove, woman?”
“No,” she argued, “it hasn’t just been you. You talk about what everyone else expects of you. I want to know that our relationship is your choice because you want it. Not because your dad wants it or you think the town wants it. Every little thing ends in an argument. I can’t handle that any more. And I can’t handle the gossip and the pressure. If you want to make things work, make things work. But I’m not going to sit around here the subject of everyone’s lunchtime gossip.”
There was silence. Mom finally found her voice and said, “If that’s really what you want, Scarlett, I will support you in it. But I do hope you’re not making a rash decision.”
“I’m not. Happy birthday to me,” Scarlett cried and then ran out of the room.
Well readers, here we are! Thank you for being patient with me. As a reward for being so amazing and just 'cause I love ya, here's the full cover to Scarlett and Blizzard. This is what will be used when the book is completed and released in November. Gorgeous, isn't it? Charlene did a great job and has a wide selection of premades available for those of you in the market for a great cover.
Be sure to vote in the poll below when you finish reading this chapter. I'll get the video up just as soon as I can. It's been a crazy week here. Speaking of crazy, Scarlett's birthday is coming up and things are going to get wild. What's the craziest thing (good or bad) that ever happened on your birthday? Comment here or on my Facebook page and your memories might make it into the story.
Grandma didn’t stay long after Christmas. She declared three puppies yapping all the time was too much for her sensitive hearing. Personally, I think the decision to go was based more on a second argument with Scarlett. Realizing she couldn’t force her own way, Grandma told us three days after our Christmas celebration, “My dears, it has been a wonderful visit, but I believe I have stayed too long. I haven’t been to Sarah’s house in a while. I think I’ll just drop in on her.”
“Oh, Mom, please call her first,” Mom begged. “You know she’s got her hands full with that new baby.”
“Exactly. She needs me there,” Grandma replied.
Unable to talk her into some semblance of reason, Mom reluctantly helped Grandma pack her bags and set up a flight for her. She grabbed my arm when Grandma was out of earshot and said, “Call your aunt and let her know Grandma’s dropping in.”
I nodded and grabbed the phone from the kitchen before heading up to my room. I could hear Scarlett’s voice coming from her own room and I paused. “Yes, I did receive the email and am considering it. There are several factors I need to look into before committing. Yes, I understand that the position may not be available if I wait too long. Yes. Thank you.”
What position? I wondered. I knew I couldn’t ask her about it. So I continued to my own room, worry gnawing at me. What was Scarlett up to? I tried to clear my mind before calling Mom’s youngest sister, Sarah. She lived in northern Utah with her husband and large family. I’d always felt pretty close to her. Perhaps because she, like me, was the baby of the family. She was also just fun and had a heart of gold. She and her husband had just adopted a little baby girl and I knew from emails that she was struggling with colic. I hoped I was calling at a good time for her. When my aunt’s tired voice answered I said, “Hi, Aunt Sarah. It’s Blizzard.”
“Hey, Blizz. How’s our little country star?”
“I’m doing well. Listen, Mom asked me to call because…”
“Don’t tell me. My mother has decided it’s been too long since she visited and is going to be dropping in unannounced soon.”
I laughed. We were all pretty used to Grandma’s flighty nature. “That’s about the size of it.”
Sarah sighed, “Mother. Do you have any idea of when she’ll arrive?”
“Mom’s helping her set up the details as we speak, so I would guess it’ll be tomorrow at some point.”
“Great. Well, I suppose I’ll tell Roy to skip lesson planning and we’ll get the house prepared. Thanks for the warning, Blizz. Tell your mom I owe her one.”
“She probably wouldn’t say no to a box of cookies. Just sayin’.”
Sarah laughed. “I’ll see what I can do about that. Have a great day, Blizz.”
“You too, Aunt Sarah. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
The line went dead and I took the phone back downstairs just as Josiah was coming out of the second guest room. “Well, good morning,” I said brightly.
“Mornin’,” he yawned. “What time is it?”
“D’you really wanna know?”
“I can’t have slept that late,” he murmured, running a hand through his sleep-tousled hair.
“It’s nearly ten.”
He almost swore, but caught himself. “Horses are prob’ly half-starved.”
“No, I took care of them,” Scarlett said, appearing next to me. “I figured the fact that you weren’t out there meant you’d either decided to sleep in or were busy doing something else. You doin’ all right?”
Without answering, Josiah went into the kitchen. I looked at Scarlett and she shrugged. We followed and found Grandma fussing over Josiah. He turned to Scarlett with a pleading look. It was clear he was trying to be rescued from our overanxious grandmother.
“Grandma, do you need me to help you pack up your Christmas presents? I’d be happy to,” Scarlett said.
“Oh no, dear, your mother already helped with that. But just check this boy’s temperature. He’s definitely feverish. He shouldn’t be out of bed.”
“I’m sure he’s fine, Grandma, see?” Scarlett replied, placing her hand on Josiah’s forehead. Then she frowned. “Actually, Joe, you are feeling kind of warm. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” he growled.
“I’m going to make him some herbal tea. Then you’d best lie down, Josiah,” Grandma demanded.
“I said I’m fine. I have too much to…” A racking cough interrupted him and I fought down a giggle. He glowered at me. “Just what is so funny?”
“Josiah, you sound awful and you look worse. Take a day off.”
“There’s no such thing as days off on a ranch.”
“Sure there are. Blizzard and I will run by the B after we do some shopping in town. We’ll make sure your hands have taken care of the cattle and see if there’s anything they need.”
“I can do it myself.”
“Oh no you can’t,” Grandma retorted, pushing him back into his seat even though he hadn’t actually moved to get up. “You’re going to rest and get yourself well again. Until I leave for the airport, you are under my command.”
Josiah sent one last pleading look in Scarlett’s direction. “Don’t look at me,” she said with her hands up. “I can’t trump Grandma when you’re actually sick. Don’t worry about the ranch, we’ll check up on things and I’ll give you a full report when I get back.” She kissed Josiah’s forehead. “Promise.”
After helping Grandma get things set up and seeing Josiah was comfortable, though irate, Scarlett and I took the puppies out for a potty break before heading to the truck. “Poor Josiah,” Scarlett laughed. “He was probably feeling henpecked enough before getting sick.”
“Poor you. Depending on how long he’s been sick, you might fall next,” I said.
“Don’t you start on that again,” she warned. “I’ve had just about enough of everyone asking about what happened Christmas Eve. It was just a kiss.”
“A peck on the cheek is just a kiss, Scarlett. Even a brief touching of lips is just a kiss. Making out isn’t just a kiss. There’s more to it than that.”
“Blizzard, drop it.”
“No, Scarlett. You need to be a little more honest with me,” I said, irritation rising in me. “You need to quit keeping secrets.”
Her face blanched and then flushed. “Who says I have any secrets?”
“Don’t play dumb, Scarlett. You’ve been holding a lot back recently. I get that you’re an adult and you don’t have to answer to me or anyone else, but the least you could do is let us know what’s going on in that head of yours.”
“You wouldn’t want to know,” she replied quietly.
I was about to retort that I would actually love to know how her infuriating mind worked when she frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“That car,” she said, tipping her head towards her window, “do you recognize it?”
Turning in my seat to look at the car she was referring to, I gazed back. A nondescript, rusty car was slowly driving down the lane. “Hmm, no. Maybe one of Josiah’s hands is using it. He’s been saying that Franky goes through cars like a woman goes through shoes.”
“What would Josiah know about women’s shoes?” Scarlett muttered. “Anyway, Franky is upgrading his cars and he’s only done it twice. Stupid for a guy working on a ranch, but how he spends his money isn’t any of my business.”
“Maybe he finally decided a junker would be better.”
It wasn’t until we got to town that I realized Scarlett had effectively gotten me off topic long enough that bringing it back up would be awkward. Dang her, I thought as we walked through the aisles of the supermarket. I knew she had something going on that I was pretty sure even Mom didn’t know about. What made me nervous was the fact that I was also pretty sure that if we found out about it, it would not be pleasant.
When we’d finished shopping, Scarlett and I got back into the truck. We dropped by Starwood long enough to have Mom help us take the groceries in. “I can’t believe you allowed my mother to adopt Josiah as a patient, Scarlett.”
“Hey, it’s keeping her busy, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but if Josiah doesn’t get some relief from her soon, one of them might die.”
Scarlett and I giggled. “Don’t worry, Mom. We’re just going to run by the Double Rocking B and check on things before coming back. I’m sure we’ll get here before the house explodes.”
We drove down the road laughing and as I looked out my window, I saw the old car again. I took a longer look at it this time. It wasn’t one we’d seen before that day. Everyone knows when you live in a small town, you know everybody. You also know everybody’s vehicle. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got two in the same make and model, you’ll know which one belongs to John and which belongs to Jane. It’s just sort of the way things are. This car didn’t belong to anyone in town. I tried to get a look at the driver, but we’d already passed by. “Scarlett, is that…”
“The same car? Yeah, pretty sure it is.” She was frowning. “Look, I know we try to be open with Mom and all, but I don’t think we should tell her about this. At least, not with Josiah in the room.”
“Why? He’s the one having trouble with strangers.”
“Exactly. If he hears about a strange car being on the road, he’ll shut us out again. Besides, maybe it’s just a coincidence.”
“Sure,” I said. “Because random cars show up on our road all the time.”
She glared at me, but I could see the worry in her eyes.
“Scarlett, this isn’t something we can just keep secret. We’ve got to figure out who’s been targeting Josiah before they do something to our ranch. At this point, it’s got to be common knowledge that he’s staying with us. This is a small town and there aren’t exactly tons of apartments at the ready.”
“I know.” Scarlett chewed on her bottom lip as she parked the truck in front of Josiah’s ranch. “But what else can we do?”
We got out and were silent as we looked at the ruined remains of the barn and ranch house. I thought of the memories and treasured heirlooms which had gone up in smoke. In my mind, I didn’t see the green-trimmed, white house of the B. Instead I saw our own creamy ranch house, its blue trim like a piece of the sky. Imagination set it ablaze and tears filled my eyes as I wondered what would happen if the attacker decided to come after Josiah again. “Scarlett, we can’t let this happen to Starwood. Josiah would never forgive himself. He already can’t forgive himself for what happened here.”
“It won’t happen to Starwood,” she said, determination in her voice. “We’re going to catch the jack that did this.”
I gaped at her. That was the nearest to swearing I’d ever heard from my sister. “How?”
“I don’t know yet, but somehow or other we’re going to. Come on, let’s find Franky and see how things are going.”
We walked past the rubbled and towards the pastures the cattle were kept in. We could see a large crowd of them around a strewn bale of hay. Out in the fields, men on horseback were driving more into the pasture. A tall, wiry young man was leaning on the fence post barking orders. He heard us approaching and his handsome face broke into a grin. “Hello, ladies. What brings you to the B?”
“Josiah’s not feeling well, so we came to check things for him,” Scarlett replied.
Franky rolled his eyes. “I told him to stay home yesterday, but would he listen to me?”
“You noticed he was sick yesterday?” I asked.
“Not hard to tell,” Franky replied. He took a long look at me and I felt my cheeks go red under his scrutiny. Franky wasn’t much older than me, just nineteen. But he worked harder than most and after disappointing his parents with no desire to attend college, had come to the Double Rocking B without a place to call home. Teddy had immediately taken him in and though he no longer lived at the house, having an apartment in town, he was still considered part of the family. I wondered why we didn’t see him more often, but my thoughts were interrupted when he asked, “Winter break ought to be over soon, huh?”
“School starts again next week.”
“Bummer for you. Enjoying the break?”
“Good to hear. I heard you at the diner the other night. You’re sounding real good.”
I blushed again and could see Scarlett grinning. “Thanks,” I mumbled, looking away from Franky’s sparkling green eyes. There was a little too much mischief in that smile.
“So, anything for me to report to Josiah?”
“Just tell him the rattler is back.”
“Rattler?” Scarlett repeated. “It’s too cold for snakes.”
“Wrong kind of snake. Trust me, Josiah’ll know what I mean.”
“Franky, do you know anything about a car that’s been up and down this road?” I asked.
“You’ve seen it too, huh? Josiah’s been watching it for about a week and a half now. Ever since the fire, he’s been seeing that junker. Most times it’s just parked outside the B, but he’s seen it driving down the road too. He’s called the sheriff out a couple times, but Sheriff Henley’s never seen it once during his patrols. You gals be careful, got it?”
Scarlett nodded and thanked him. “We’ll see you around.”
“Yep.” I looked up again and Franky winked at me. Blushing furiously, I turned away and walked to the truck as fast as my legs could carry me, Scarlett still grinning that fool grin of hers. “What?” I demanded.
“So, how long have you been making moon-eyes at Franky?”
“Can we not discuss it please?”
“Ha! Not so fun when the tables are turned, is it?”
I glared out the window and saw the rusty old car sitting outside Josiah’s place. As I looked at the driver, he smirked at me and my mind took me back to July. “Scarlett, I know who’s driving that car.”
“The man we saw arguing with Josiah at the county fair.”
First off, thank you everyone for all the input for this chapter. It gave me lots of great ideas and I hope you'll enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. And for the first time in a long while, I actually have the video ready on time! Huzzah! So be sure to check the end of the chapter for the video and you can listen to me read. It was actually surprisingly hard to do because I had to keep a straight face while reading the...well, you'll see for yourself. Be sure to vote in the poll and let me know what you think of this chapter. Here's another peek at the official cover. Not going to reveal it all just yet. But soon...
“If you used more mistletoe, your daughter wouldn’t be single,” I heard Grandma say as Scarlett and I came in from the barn. Scarlett immediately retreated back outside, slamming the door behind her.
“Mom, please, give it a rest. There is enough stress and tension around here without you adding to it,” Mom replied. She saw me and smiled, “Everything okay?”
“Yep, Josiah’s horses are fed and watered as are ours.” Mom had offered to let the surviving horses stay with us until Teddy and Josiah could rebuild. Josiah would be staying with us too, at least through the holidays. Teddy was in a hospice care center and would remain there indefinitely. “Do you want me to hang some of those garlands for you?”
“Yes, please,” Mom said, handing me an armful.
Grandma wasn’t going to be so easily deterred. “Well, don’t come crying to me if you never get to hold your grandchildren.”
“Mom, I’m warning you…”
“Geeze, Grandma, do you honestly think Scarlett and I are both going to stay single forever?” I interrupted, trying to lighten the situation.
“No of course not! But…”
“There’s plenty of time for Mom to hold grandbabies. I plan on giving her a house-full.”
“Besides, Mom, I seem to recall you telling your own mother to let me alone when I was young and single.”
“That was different, you at least had young men around to date. If you ask me…”
“She didn’t,” Scarlett interrupted. None of us had heard her come back in from the barn and now she was standing in the doorway, her eyes going tornado green. “When and where and to whom I get married is none of your business and if I hear so much as one more word on the subject…”
“I’ll leave,” she finished, ignoring Mom’s warning. “I’m sick of you hounding me about it. I’m sick of feeling like I have to justify my decisions. I’m sick of you reminding me that I’m not getting any younger. This isn’t the middle ages. I’m not an old maid, or stuck on the shelf, or a spinster or any of those other stupid phrases out of your idiotic romance novels. And before you think that I’m just perfectly happy in all my single glory, understand that no one in this room is more acutely aware of how lonely my life is than I am. Just leave me alone.” Without giving Grandma a chance to respond, Scarlett turned on her heel and stormed out of the room, running into Josiah on her way out.
He looked around the room and seeing my grandmother’s eyes fill with tears asked slowly, “Did I screw something up again?”
“No, you’re not at fault this time,” I said. “Here, help me with these garlands, would you?” While I felt bad leaving Mom to deal with Grandma’s meltdown by herself, the last thing Scarlett needed was for Josiah to weigh in on the problem.
“Is she always like this?” he asked as we took the garlands outside.
“Scarlett or Grandma?”
“I already know Scarlett,” Josiah pointed out. “Your grandma.”
“Yeah, pretty much. In high school it’s all about having perfect grades and making a future for yourself. Then somehow at eighteen the gears in her head shift to matrimony. Scarlett has been disappointing her for years.”
Josiah nodded as he plugged the garland in. “I’d help her out, but she doesn’t seem to want my help in that department.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure, but do not tell her I said that.”
He gave me one of his heart-melting, mischievous smiles. “Not a word.”
When we’d finished, we went back in the house. Scarlett was still nowhere to be seen and I decided to go up and check on her. I knocked on the door. “Scarlett? Can I come in?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
I opened the door and watched her turn from her desk, her laptop closed but blinking. She had been using it recently.
“I suppose Mom sent you to make me apologize.”
“Good, because I’m not going to.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” I replied, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of her.
She slid out of her seat and joined me with a hug. “I know.”
“Would you really leave?”
For a moment she didn’t respond, which was answer enough by itself. “No, Blizz,” she said after a long while. “I don’t exactly have anywhere to go. I was just mad, that’s all.”
“You know we need you, right?”
She smiled and ruffled my hair. “Don’t worry, sis. I’m not planning on just running out on you.”
Somehow I didn’t feel totally reassured, but I let the subject drop. “It’s gonna be a crazy day.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. I guess we ought to go help Mom finish decorating. The Lesters will be here before we know it.”
The Lesters were a family from church we knew. I often babysat the five boys, especially in recent weeks as their parents were going through an unpleasant divorce. Mom had invited them over for a Christmas Eve party.
Promptly that afternoon, the doorbell rang. Five exuberant boys between the ages of five and nine came barreling into the house. Grandma fussed over all of them as Mom hugged her friend. “It’s so good to see you, Leslie.”
“Thanks for inviting us over. The boys have talked about nothing else for a week!” Leslie said with a laugh. She then turned to her boys, “Remember the rules.”
“Yes, Mom,” they said in unison.
“Who wants to decorate cookies?” I asked. Soon I was leading the giggling group into the kitchen.
The day grew wilder as the hours went by. Hyper with excitement and sugar, the boys were soon playing a rough and tumble game of tag throughout the house. I was glad I’d closed my door, but soon heard the unmistakable sound of discordant notes. I ran upstairs to find the five boys had invaded my room. The twins were jumping on the bed throwing my stuffed animals around while two other boys were playing the guitar (or attempting anyway) and the other had pulled out my neon pink sports bra and was wearing it like a crown on his head. “Get out of my room!” I shrieked and the boys went scrambling out, laughter ringing through the stairway. “Don’t you dare come back or you’ll be sorry,” I warned. An idea came to mind and I went into the kitchen. Finding Mom’s biggest leftover container I filled it with ice before then adding enough water to cover it. Then I went back up and got it situated on the door frame. “That should deter anyone from coming back in.” But as it turned out, they never did and I soon forgot about it.
After dinner, we went into the living room for caroling. I asked Scarlett to get my guitar for me. Soon a crash and blood-curdling scream filled the air. Everyone ran to the stairs. Scarlett, dripping and obviously cold handed me my guitar. “Think you’re funny, huh?” She shivered as the boys howled with laughter.
“Scarlett, I am so sorry. I totally forgot. I put that there for the boys…”
“Do I look like a boy?”
“Nope, definitely not a boy,” Josiah replied, staring at her soaked shirt for which he got slapped.
“Excuse me while I change,” Scarlett hissed.
The rest of us went downstairs and began caroling. Scarlett joined us and Josiah wrapped his arms around her. She said something to him and looked mad, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying and I noted that she didn’t move away from him. Then Josiah disappeared. Within moments, Santa Claus came into the room carrying a large sack over his shoulder to the astonished joy of our guests. Leslie’s eyes filled with tears as Josiah, I mean Santa, picked each boy up in turn and set him on his lap while Grandma snapped dozens of pictures. He emptied his sack, giving each child the carefully selected presents. Mom passed out steaming mugs of hot cocoa as Santa instructed everyone to have a seat. Then he began reading reverently from Luke the story of Christ’s birth. Sleepy little boys dozed and I have to admit I started feeling a bit drowsy myself.
I started awake when Mom said, “Let’s thank our visitor and get your treats before you go home.”
The boys hugged their Santa before skipping after Mom to the kitchen. I followed them and helped get everything packed away and ready as Leslie expressed her thanks over and over.
Mom hugged her around the sleeping boy on Leslie’s shoulder and said, “I remember that first Christmas as a single mom and while my children were older, it didn’t make it easy. You keep doing what you’re doing and keep your chin up.”
We heard hushed giggles and looked to see the boys pointing into the living room, shaking with laughter. Josiah had gotten Scarlett under the one bit of mistletoe and they were now locked in a passionate embrace. But unlike make-out sessions I’d witnessed in high school, there was real tenderness in the way they held each other. I tried valiantly not to giggle as the boys commented on the scene.
“What’s he doing to her face?”
“He’s kissing her, I think.”
“That doesn’t look like a kiss.”
“I thought the song said Mama was kissing Santa Claus, not Scarlett.”
“I don’t think that’s actually Santa. His beard’s half-off.”
It probably would have continued if Grandma hadn’t arrived at that moment and clutched her heart with a loud gasp. “Merciful heavens! I hope you have a shotgun handy because that’s the type of wedding you’ll be planning if this keeps up.”
Scarlett jumped away from Josiah like she’d been burned while he replied nonchalantly, “Well, Mrs. Samuels, you are the one who advocated mistletoe. I’m just putting it to good use.”
The noise had wakened the sleeping child in Leslie’s arms and one of the brothers said, “You missed the grossest kiss ever, Timmy!”
“Aw, I always miss the good stuff,” he whined as tears welled in his eyes.
Grandma marched up to Josiah and demanded he announce his intentions and Leslie turned to Mom. “I think I’d better take my hooligans home. Looks like you’ve got enough on your plate for tonight.”
Mom rubbed her temple and replied, “Normal for me. Have a merry Christmas.”
Once Leslie and her boys were gone, Mom practically dragged Grandma from the living room begging her to leave Josiah and Scarlett alone.
The next morning I woke earlier than normal. It was Christmas at last! I couldn’t wait to see Mom’s face when she opened my present for her. She was going to be so excited. And yeah, I was excited to see what I got too. I went down to the kitchen on quiet feet. I could smell Scarlett’s cocoa before I even arrived. Scarlett drinks cocoa like other people drink coffee. We never had coffee in the house, but one year Scarlett just fell in love with cocoa. I’m not talking about the stuff out of a packet. Mom taught her how to make real, old-fashioned hot chocolate and Scarlett got hooked. She started experimenting with flavors and it was always a treat to taste her latest combination. I could smell citrus and something a little spicy though I couldn’t place what it was. I saw Scarlett sitting with her back to me and could hear the tapping of her keyboard. I silently walked in, hoping for a peek at what she was being so secretive about. On the screen, I saw the words, School of Business Work Study Opportunities, just before the mystery spice registered in my head. “Cloves!” I said aloud.
Scarlett jumped and snapped the laptop shut. “Hey, Blizz, merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas to you.” I walked to the pot of cocoa sitting on the stovetop. “May I?”
“Of course. Tell me what you think. I added a few different things this time.”
I ladled the steaming beverage into a mug and took a slow mouthful. “Mmm, orange, cloves and cinnamon?”
“Mmm-hmmm, do you like it?”
Nodding I said, “It’s very festive. I like it a lot. How did you get the orange flavor? I thought we’d run out.”
“We did. I melted a couple slices from a chocolate orange.”
“That’s why it’s so creamy today. It’s delicious though. Maybe you should open a specialty shop in town.” I winked.
Scarlett beamed at me. “Maybe someday.” A wistful look crossed her face followed by a frown. “It would be a lot of hard work, though. Besides, there’s too much to do here.”
“Hey, a girl’s gotta have a dream, right?”
She smiled at the words she had told me months before. “Right.”
Almost at the same time, Josiah and Teddy came in from the kitchen patio door and Mom walked in. “Good morning and merry Christmas,” she said, hugging each of us.
“Mornin’, Mama,” Scarlett replied.
Mom turned to Teddy and Josiah, “Merry Christmas.”
“And to you,” Teddy replied, accepting her hug. “Thanks for inviting us over.”
It wasn’t long before Grandma joined us and soon we all went out to the barn. I’m not sure exactly when opening presents in the barn became the thing to do in the Jannsen house. It may have stemmed from the year Daddy gave Scarlett her first pony. Or it may have been done to prevent a very curious, and very sneaky, Scarlett from discovering all her stocking stuffers early. In any case, we always opened our presents out there. Soon stockings were emptied and we were opening presents. I was purposely waiting to give Mom my gift until last. But then I watched Mom open a plain box from Teddy and stared in disbelief. The most perfectly adorable German shepherd puppy barked and wagged his little tail. “Awe, Teddy, he’s adorable!”
“Check his collar for his name,” he said gleefully.
Mom managed to get a hold on the wiggling puppy’s tag and read, “Mclintock.” She laughed, “That’s so perfect, Teddy. Thank you.”
“You’ve been saying you wanted a dog. I thought he would be a good help to you on the ranch as he gets bigger.”
Scarlett noticed my dismayed expression and said, “Blizz, what’s wrong? You like dogs.”
“Yeah, I do, and Mclintock is cute but…” There was only one thing to do. I went into the empty stall I’d been storing my presents in and carried out a large, plain box with a green bow. Mom didn’t even have a chance to open it before the occupants pushed their way out. Two wheaten Scottish terrier pups began prancing about Mom’s feet. “A friend of mine from 4-H breeds Scotties and I remembered you saying you’d always wanted one…”
“But Daddy said only work dogs were allowed on a ranch,” Scarlett finished for me. “House dogs are too much of a hassle.”
I nodded. “She had these two left from her litter that hadn’t been sold yet. Everyone wanted the females.”
Mom laughed through tears as she said, “Oh, Blizzard, you sweetheart! I don’t know what I’ll do with three puppies to train, but we’ll make do. Do they have names?”
Shaking my head I replied, “No, I thought I’d give you the honor.”
“I suppose we better keep with our theme. Any suggestions?”
“Look at that one strut about,” Grandma giggled.
Grinning, Mom watched the pup walk with his chest puffed out before picking him up. “We’ll call you Rooster and your brother Cogburn.”
There was one last package under the tree to Scarlett from Josiah. Grandma started to get that matrimonial gleam in her eye, but Mom squashed it with a look. Scarlett opened the small box to find a palomino stallion with a jewelry box tucked under his belly. Her cheeks turned as red as her Christmas sweater as she picked up a small card. “Hello Lettie,” she read aloud, her voice quivering slightly, “my name is Promise.” She opened the jewelry box and pulled out a delicate locket with an intricate, braided design around the edges. “Is that…”
“Horsehair?” Josiah finished for her. “Yep, the braid is from strands of Goliath’s tail. I hoped it would help you feel close to his memory.”
“What about you?”
“I guess I’ll just have to see you wear it.”
“A horsehair locket?” Grandma burst, ruining the moment. “In my day, a young man gave you a diamond ring with his promise, not horsehair.”
Scarlett snapped the box closed with a glare. “I guess in your day people were less appreciative of heart-felt gifts too, weren’t they Grandma? This isn’t the kind of promise you’re thinking.” She then left the barn. Josiah soon followed after, looking strangely disappointed. I had the feeling Grandma was closer in her assessment than Scarlett realized.
“Mother,” Mom sighed. “We talked about this.”
“Well, really. Horsehair.”
“Goliath was born here and was Josiah’s horse project when he and Scarlett were in school,” Mom said. “He died a couple months ago and this was Josiah’s way of mending some broken fences and giving Scarlett something to cherish that had meaning for both of them. Much better than diamonds. Come on, Teddy, let’s get you back inside so you don’t relapse. Your nurses would never forgive me if I sent you home sick.”
I watched the adults walk away as the three puppies played in the hay. Taking them outside for a potty break, I then walked inside with them. I couldn’t help but think that this had been one of the most up and down Christmases we’d ever faced. And I wasn’t all that sure how merry it had actually been.
I'm going to need some extra help for this next chapter. Christmas is coming and there are going to be some humorous mishaps. So, enjoy this chapter and then comment below with your memories of Christmas traditions gone wrong. Did you burn a turkey? Did someone discover all the presents early? Did one of your carolers forget to mention they couldn't sing? Let me know and you just might see your memory immortalized in Scarlett and Blizzard Chapter 8 - An Unmerry Christmas. And enjoy this sneak peek at the beautiful cover Charlene Raddon made for Scarlett and Blizzard. If you're a writer in need of a beautiful cover, be sure to check Charlene's work out.
In the weeks following the break-in, nothing happened. The sheriff didn’t see anyone unusual and no one was ever caught. The few suspects Josiah and Teddy had been able to think of turned out to have solid alibis and after a while, everyone in town just sort of forgot about it. Mom brought Jake back to our ranch for the fall harvest and winter preparations. But even with everyone believing that things had returned to normal and this was probably just some weird fluke, Mom still wouldn’t let me drive myself to the diner or school. She insisted I ride the school bus, which was more practical since she and Scarlett needed the truck at home for work. But I was starting to get tired of getting a ride into town for my job. Scarlett was usually the one to take me and while she never complained about it, I knew she would have been much happier staying at home. Word had somehow gotten out that she and Josiah were seeing one another, of course after their explosive break-up, and no one believed her when she said otherwise. I was surprised one evening when she brought her laptop with her to the truck as we were getting ready for the drive to town. “What’s that for?” I asked.
“Work,” she replied. Her tone was hesitant and I had the feeling she was trying to keep something from me.
“What kind of work?”
“Just stuff, Blizz. It’s nothing important.”
“Then why bring it along?”
“Because sitting by myself for three hours gets boring,” she snapped.
I stared at her for a minute, trying not to let her words hurt. But they did. A lot. “I can go on my own, if that would be better.”
Scarlett glared at me and then her expression softened. “Oh, Blizz honey, I didn’t mean to make it sound like I think you’re boring, because you’re certainly not. I love being there to hear you sing. You’ve got real talent and I’m sure you’ll be famous someday.”
“More famous than the Bear?” I asked with a small smile.
For a moment, I saw something dark in Scarlett’s eyes. Something between anger and pain. “Infinitely more famous than him. Look, I just have some things I need to work on, okay? And since I’ve got a few hours relatively distraction free, I may as well use them. All right?”
Scarlett took my arm before I could move away from her. “I really do love coming with you, Blizz. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
I smiled. “It’s okay.”
We finished loading the truck and drove into town. When we arrived at the diner I followed Scarlett to our usual booth. There was a box sitting on the table. “Hmmm, someone must be sitting here already,” Scarlett mused.
“No, that was left for you, sugar,” Tammy said as she went around us to serve a nearby table. “Someone knew you’d be here.”
Scarlett’s eyes narrowed as she looked at the box.
“We may as well sit down, Scarlett. People are starting to stare.”
She took a seat before scrutinizing the box. We both knew who it was from and I could tell Scarlett was battling the impulse to throw it out and the desire to open it just to see what was inside. She slid it down the table before taking out her laptop and setting it in front of her.
“Are you going to open that?” I asked.
“No.” She hesitated a second too long. “I’m not interested in it.”
I knew it would be opened by the end of the evening as I said, “Okay, well, wish me luck.”
Scarlett smiled. “I always do. Break a leg, just not literally.”
Winking, I grabbed my guitar and went up to the stage. As I started my performance, I glanced around the room. I saw Scarlett start working on her computer. It struck me as odd that she was so careful to keep the screen out of view from anyone else. Anytime Tammy stopped by her table to refresh her drink or bring something to her, Scarlett kept the screen turned toward the wall. While I knew she wouldn’t be involved in anything overly suspicious, I was curious what was so important she had to keep it hidden. I watched Josiah walk into the diner just before my first break for the evening. He smiled and held a finger to his mouth. I smiled in return. I had no reason to be unpleasant and honestly, I was beginning to see why Mom and Teddy were so eager to see Scarlett forgive him. Josiah was a pretty good guy. When the song was finished, I took a bow and went to the table Scarlett was sitting at.
She closed the laptop with a snap before I could even attempt to see what she’d been working on. “You sounded great, Blizz,” she said with a smile. “Is that last song a new one?”
“Yeah, just finished it about a week ago.”
“It’s great, I really loved it.”
“So, what have you been up to?”
I noticed the box was opened. “Mind if I see what your admirer left?”
Scarlett’s cheeks reddened, but she shrugged. “Go ahead.”
I pulled the box closer to me as Tammy put a glass of water down for me. Inside was a lovely model of a dainty gray Arabian. I read the card.
Dear Lettie, My name is Misty Oasis. I’m from a far away place that no man has ever seen. I am quiet and shy, but loyal to the end. Because of my gentle nature, I am often used to deliver messages. Someone would like to know if you’ve forgiven him yet. I think you know who sent me. A response would be appreciated.
“Someone seems to be working awful hard to get your attention, Scarlett,” I said. “Maybe you should…”
“Maybe I should what?” she asked, her tone dangerous.
“Nothin’.” It wasn’t worth getting on her bad side again. I glanced at the clock. I still had a couple minutes before my break would be over. “I’m going to walk around for a bit.”
I left the table and watched as she pulled the box back towards her. Her fingers brushed the Arabian’s smooth neck. Then she opened the laptop again. I turned my attention to the table I’d seen Josiah sit at. “Hey,” I said as I came closer.
“Hey, Blizz. Wanna seat?”
“Nah, I’ve only got a couple minutes. Just thought I’d see how you’re doing.”
“I’m over here and your sister is over there. I think that’s a pretty good sum-up.” I’d never seen him look so dejected. His hair was in need of a trim and it was obvious he hadn’t shaved in a couple days, though that wasn’t too surprising. A lot of ranchers tended to let their facial hair grow out during the winter months. But the sparkle was gone from his eyes. I was pretty sure my sister had no clue just how much she meant to Josiah.
“Did she open the box?”
Nodding again, I said, “Yeah, she opened it. Don’t know what to tell you though about a response.”
Josiah muttered something under his breath that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap. “What does she expect me to do?”
Just two weeks before Christmas things started to go downhill again. First, my grandmother showed up and before you get mad at me for thinking that’s a bad thing, let me explain a little better. Grandma coming isn’t bad in and of itself, and she always comes to spend Christmas with us. The problem was more in the fact that she arrived a week and a half early with the announcement that she wasn’t sure when, if ever, she would return home. While we all love her to pieces, her spontaneity is sometimes jarring. And she has a bad habit of dragging out sensitive topics. I’m sure she never means to cause any harm, but she manages to hit the spot with alarming regularity. Scarlett and I spent a rushed four hours getting her room set up at the ranch and making sure that everything was as tidy as could be while Mom drove to the airport to pick her up. Her unexpected arrival threw everything off kilter and we weren’t prepared when Josiah called two days later to let us know that Teddy was back in the hospital. Mom immediately drove out to see him and spend some time with him. Scarlett and I were then left to entertain Grandma. Between my less-than-perfect grades and Scarlett’s lack of wedding ring, we weren’t doing too great. Mom called to tell us she was going to stay in Jackson for a few days to help keep Teddy comfortable so Josiah could return to the ranch. It was probably a good thing Scarlett had taken the call, because all I heard was, “Sure, Mom, you take care of Teddy. If you need anything call.” She then came to the living room where Grandma was busily telling me about the latest tutoring program she’d heard about to help me with my math.
“Grandma, I’m doing fine.”
“Bad news,” Scarlett interrupted. “Mom’s going to stay up in Jackson for a few days. Josiah’s got some things to take care of t the ranch and won’t be able to travel back and forth to see Teddy in the meantime. So, Mom offered to stay and it’s just going to be the three of us for a while.”
“Oh my, does she need help?”
“No, Grandma, I’m sure everything will be fine. She and Josiah just don’t want Teddy left completely alone. His health is in really bad shape and Josiah wants to know there’s someone there for him.”
“Our neighbor. He runs the Double Rocking B with his father,” I replied.
“Is he single?”
Scarlett just barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes. “Yes, and no there’s nothing there, Grandma.”
“If you weren’t so picky, you’d be married by now,” Grandma retorted.
“Would you like some cocoa, Grandma?” Scarlett asked through clenched teeth.
“Oh, no, darling I’m fine right now. Now, Blizzard, I really think you ought to consider some of these online tutoring sites. I’ve heard from several of my friends that their grandchildren have seen vast improvement.”
Scarlett and I glanced at each other. It was going to be a long winter. I heard Grandma’s voice in the back of my mind whisper, “Trials always come in threes.” At that point, I did not want to know what the third trial would be. Unfortunately, I didn’t have long to wait.
The next afternoon, exactly one week before Christmas, Scarlett and I left the ranch to do some grocery shopping while Grandma had her pre-dinner nap. And mostly we just wanted to escape. We vented our frustrations the entire drive to town and anytime we weren’t in a checkout line. As we were driving home I said, “I just don’t think I can take her suggesting one more tutoring site. For heaven’s sake, my lowest grade is a B minus!”
“Believe me, I know how you feel. I…” Scarlett’s eyes suddenly widened. “Oh no.”
“Scarlett, what’s wrong?” Without answering, Scarlett jammed her foot on the gas and the truck lurched forward. “What the heck, Scarlett, what…” Then I looked out the windshield.
Black smoke billowed up from a fire in the distance. “Quick, call 911,” Scarlett ordered as we sped down the road.
“What about Grandma? If she’s still asleep, there’s no way we’ll get to her in time.”
“Fine, call her first and then call 911.”
I dialed the house and prayed my grandmother would pick up while I heard Scarlett muttering a prayer next to me. “Grandma, there’s a fire, get out of the house!” I said as soon as she picked up.
“Fire? Nonsense, Blizzard, there isn’t any fire. Are you feeling all right? Maybe I should have some tea for you when you get back…”
“Grandma there is a fire! We can see the smoke.”
“Well, I’ve got a fire in the fireplace, but really, dear, I doubt you can see the smoke from where you are.”
“Blizzard, it’s not Starwood,” Scarlett said as we neared our driveway. “It’s the B. Josiah’s alone, tell Grandma to…”
“Grandma, call 911 and tell them there’s a fire at the Double Rocking B,” I interrupted. I could feel the car accelerate as we passed our home.
“Are you sure…”
“Dang it, Grandma, I don’t have time to argue. Just do it. Double Rocking B, end of Rural Route 5.”
Scarlett slammed on the brakes as we stopped in front of the ranch. The house was engulfed while flames licked the sides of the barn. Horses screamed in terror. I started toward the barn, but Scarlett grabbed my arm. “No, Blizzard, it’s too dangerous.”
“But we can’t just leave them there to die.”
Tears were in her eyes as she said firmly, “We have to find Josiah. The animals are beyond our help. Even if we just tried to open the barn doors, we could make things worse.”
“But the doors are already open,” I pointed out. “Josiah probably went in there to save the horses. Scarlett, we have to try.”
There was a split second of indecision before she said, “Okay, but if I say go, you go without question. Got it?” I nodded and watched as Scarlett ripped the bottom from her tee-shirt. “Blindfold the horses, or they won’t follow you.” She grabbed a bandana from her back pocket and said, “I’m going to look for Josiah. You try to get as many horses out as you can. The barn fire seems recently started, so be careful.”
I nodded numbly as we went toward the open doors. The fire was towards the back of the barn and spreading. I took out my own bandana and tied it around my mouth and nose.
Scarlett noticed a full water barrel and pushed the side of it until it tipped over, sending water sloshing down the floor and extinguishing some of the flames. “That should buy us a little time,” she shouted. “Josiah! Josiah, are you in here?”
I listened for Scarlett’s voice as I tried to help the horses out. Some were so terrified I couldn’t get near enough to blindfold them. After I took the fourth horse out of the barn, I heard Scarlett calling me.
“Blizz, I need help, now!”
I ran to her and saw her hovering over Josiah’s body. “Help me get him out of here.”
“Can he be moved?” An awful groan rang through the barn.
“We’ll worry about that later, this barn is about to collapse.”
Helping her to get him up and linking our arms under him, we carried Josiah out of the barn. We could hear the distant wail of a fire truck as the barn timbers gave way. We carried Josiah to our truck. “Get a blanket out of the back,” Scarlett directed, holding Josiah in the truck bed. As I moved I heard her say, “Come on, Joe, answer me.”
“Here,” I said.
“Wrap him up.” She tore another strip from her tee-shirt and began bandaging a gash on his head I hadn’t noticed before.
I could see the fire engines coming as Scarlett took another strip from her shirt. A tiny smile crossed my face and I teased, “Josiah’s going to be disappointed he missed the view.”
“Who says I did?” he croaked.
“Josiah Meddleton, if I wasn’t so happy to hear your voice I’d slap you for that,” Scarlett breathed.
We sobered as the firefighters got busy putting out the flames. Paramedics took over bandaging Josiah’s wounds and checking Scarlett and me. Sheriff Henley took our statements. “It’s a real lucky thing you girls got here when you did,” he told me. “Josiah prob’ly wouldn’t be able to make a statement otherwise.”
When we were finally cleared to go, it was late. Josiah was taken to the hospital for an overnight stay, just to be safe. Grandma was beside herself with worry as we came into the house, smoky and with Scarlett’s shirt torn to shreds. “Gracious, what happened to you? Are you all right? Did that man ravage you?”
“Grandma, Josiah wouldn’t do that. We just got back from a fire. You wouldn’t look impeccable either,” Scarlett retorted.
For a moment, Grandma just stared at us. “Well, you two march yourselves to the shower and get cleaned up. Dinner is probably stone cold by now, but I suppose I could warm it up for you.”
“Actually, I’m not particularly hungry,” I said. My ears still rang with the terrified screams in the ruined barn.
“Me neither,” Scarlett admitted. “Right now I just want to get cleaned up and sleep for a week.”
Grandma came and hugged both of us close. “My dears, I know you’re scared and hurting. I can see it in your eyes. But starving yourselves won’t change what happened back there. Take a shower, get in pajamas, and come have a little cocoa at least. Then you can go to bed and sleep your troubles away.”
Jessica L. Elliott
Author, artist, mom and super-genius