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.
Jessica L. Elliott
Author, artist, mom and super-genius