Read A Montana Cowboy Online

Authors: Rebecca Winters

A Montana Cowboy (3 page)

“Though you're no longer top gun, you can still fly, right?”

“Yes. I could be a flight navigator, but once you've done what I do, no other position holds the same excitement for me. That probably sounds selfish to you.”

“Not at all,” she replied. “There are few careers in this world that demand your specialized kind of expertise. Connor and I had a talk about that very thing last week. Since his injury, his fans have been begging him to get back to steer wrestling and go for a sixth world championship title.”

“What did he say?” Trace was curious.

“He admitted that those years of being on top were great, and there was no other thrill like it. But the injury affected him enough that he knew he'd never be that good again. Sure he could train and go for it over and over for a few more years, but he'd never be able to perform at his former level. To be a has-been simply wasn't for him.

“Then he gave me that special smile of his and told me he was glad he'd been injured because he ended up marrying Liz Henson. To quote him, ‘The thrill of being married to her has topped anything I've ever experienced.'”

Trace liked hearing that. “He's really happy, then.”

“Ecstatic. They both are. From the time we were in high school Liz had a crush on him that never went away.”

He nodded. “Dad let on to me about her heartache before she and Connor traveled to Las Vegas together for the National Finals Rodeo. That trip turned their lives around and lost him a great vet in the process.”

“It about killed her when he married Reva Stevens. I wasn't surprised when it ended in divorce so fast. Reva loved Connor, but she hated ranch life. Not everyone takes to it. She didn't last long. At the time I was afraid his heart was permanently broken.”

“My mother couldn't handle being this isolated either,” Trace admitted. “Nine years into the marriage and she asked my dad for a divorce.” Would the same thing happen if he and Nicoletta got married, even if they lived in Colorado? He'd been struggling with that question all night.

“For someone who wasn't born to it, your mom lasted longer than most, Trace. That's because she loved your father. At least that's what I heard from people who knew your parents. But I know that's no consolation to you. Anything but. Forgive me for saying something so insensitive.”

“There's nothing to forgive. I was the one to bring it up. My mother was frank with me. I knew she loved Dad, but that wasn't enough. I'm glad you told me about Connor. It's great to hear he's found his happiness now.”

“I agree, but I'm so sorry about your injury, Trace. It isn't fair,” she said in a heartfelt voice. “I'm surprised nothing's been done to prevent such a thing from happening.”

“People have tried. There was an international conventional weapons conference in 1995. They announced the latest protocol on blinding laser weapons. The United States signed on to the guidelines. Four of the articles outlined the parameters for the use of lasers in military maneuvers and war.

“They came up with the rule that the employment of lasers solely to cause permanent blindness—or a resulting visual acuity of 20/200—is strictly prohibited. But of course, the enemy doesn't care.”

“That is so horrible.”

“No more horrible than your husband being shot.” Trace wanted to move the subject away from him. “Did the rangers find the person responsible?”

She was quiet for a moment before she admitted, “Not yet. As you know, Avery's husband, Zane, is a special agent for the Bureau of Land Management. While searching for Logan, he found a dead marten near Logan that had been shot on the property that day.

“The slug from a smooth bore shotgun that killed my husband matched the slug in the marten. Zane's still hoping forensics will lead to the owner of the shotgun so he can be brought in for questioning. So far there's no actual proof that it wasn't accidental.”

“What do
you
think?”

“I don't know. There's no hunting until April, so whoever was out there in February was trespassing. It could have been an accident, but Zane doesn't think so. A hunter shooting marten would probably have taken it for the fur.”

“Did your husband have an enemy?”

They'd come to the first stream running through the property. Both horses stopped to drink. “He was so likeable, I can't imagine it. But
I
have one.” She sounded haunted.

“Who is it?”

“My brother Ned.”

Chapter Two

Trace scowled. Through his father he knew all about Ned Bannock's instability. “Isn't he in a special mental facility in Billings?”

“He was, but has been getting treatment. In February the doctor allowed him to live at home for a month on a trial basis. According to my older married cousins, he was subdued and seemed to get along well enough. The doctor was pleased with his progress and said if he continued to improve, he'd be able to come home permanently.”

“So he was at home during the time your husband was killed?”

“Yes. When he was first put in the facility, the court ordered our family to go into counseling and get therapy. It was painful, but necessary. I welcomed it because I knew that Ned had always resented me. There were times when I felt that he wished I weren't alive. I was able to express those feelings in front of my parents.”

Since Trace didn't have a sibling, he couldn't relate, but her admission horrified him. “How did they react?”

“They were oblivious to my pain. Dad said I brought on trouble, that when things went wrong with Ned it was my fault. Mom kept quiet to appease my dad, who claimed that I wasn't sensitive enough to Ned's needs growing up because I was the popular one. I should have included him more in my activities. Their worry over him meant more punishment for me if I didn't coddle my brother. To this day they still believe that. There's no getting through to them.”

“I don't see how you've been able to cope. Under those conditions I probably would have run away.”

“Once I was out of the house working on my own, I didn't have to be around him nearly as much. What stunned me was to learn in one of the sessions that Ned had hate issues with me because I'd gotten involved with Logan on one of my brief trips home.”

“You're serious.” Trace was appalled.

“I swear my brother was born a bigot. He felt that a hired hand wasn't good enough to be part of our family. Long before I told my parents I was in love with Logan, Ned had been filling my father with lies about him. Ned was the one who told my parents I was involved with him and it should be stopped.”

“Sounds like he was driven by the same kind of hatred that landed Jarod in the hospital.”

“Exactly. Dad, who was in a bad way at the time because of what Ned had tried to do to Jarod, wasn't thinking rationally. Like my older brothers, he'd always been afraid of Ned's temper and as usual took his side to placate him. He fired Logan and ordered me not to marry him in order to keep the peace.”

“He
ordered
you?” Trace was incredulous.

“Dad used the very word. Shocking, isn't it? But I couldn't obey him. At that point he told me that if we went ahead with our marriage, then I no longer had a home with the family. Out of fear, Mother backed Dad by not saying anything at all. My other brothers took their cue from mom and stayed out of things.”

Incredible. “I had no idea of the stress you've been through.” And here Trace had been wondering why she hadn't gone home to her family after her husband was killed. She'd never want to go there again unless a miracle happened.

“No one knew. It isn't something you want other people to know, but I'm aware of your close friendship with my cousins and realize you probably know everything.”

No, not everything. Not this.

She let out a deep sigh. “I loved Logan, so that was that. We got married in a civil ceremony and took a job with your father to run the ranch for him. I broke down and told him my whole situation. He's such a wonderful man. Mostly I checked hunting permits and collected fees while Logan monitored the hunters' activities throughout the season. Thanks to your dad, this job saved our lives.”

So many people loved and respected Trace's father. He was an exceptional man. “I take it nothing has changed with your family?”

She hunched her shoulders. “Absolutely nothing. Though extended family and a lot of neighbors came to Logan's funeral in White Lodge, my parents didn't come near or even try to talk to me.”

“I can't conceive of it. There's something very wrong with him, Cassie.”

“I know. The doctor has urged me to stay in therapy. I'm glad I have because I've since learned that along with their other emotional problems, my parents are battered people and need a lot of intensive counseling.”

“I could have used therapy when I was young,” Trace admitted in a moment of self-reflection.

“Everyone could. In the case of our family I've learned that Ned irritated our older brothers to the point they didn't want to be around him. Ned had already felt abandoned when Sadie, the girl he'd always loved, married my cousin Jarod. In his jealousy he almost killed Jarod in order to get rid of him.”

Trace nodded. “It was very tragic.”

Cassie grimaced. “When I married Logan and moved away from the ranch, Ned began nursing an unhealthy hatred toward me.”

“You think he could have killed your husband to hurt you?”

“It's possible,” she said, “but I don't know how he could have left the ranch without someone knowing about it. Zane did an investigation. None of my father's firearms were missing or had been fired close to that time. In any event, Dad had people keeping an eye on my brother.”

“But if he went off his meds, he might have found a way to make it over to this ranch. Is that what you're thinking?” Trace asked.

“He could have. One of the guys he hung around with in high school is still his friend and visits him. Through him it's possible he got hold of a gun or rifle he hid somewhere before he'd been committed. I try not to think about it or I get ill.”

“That's why the military disqualifies a person with a history of mood or behavioral disorders.”

“Exactly. But home isn't the military, and my parents want him back to help around the ranch.”

“That's hard on everyone.”

“I've talked this over with Zane. If Ned was the one responsible, Zane will find out in time. After the shooting, he advised your father to close the ranch to hunting and keep it closed until more proof of what really happened came to light. As you know, he was a tough Navy SEAL before he started working as a special agent for the BLM.”

“I know him by reputation. Let's hope he has an answer for you soon.”

“Yes. Avery said Ned is going to be coming back to live with my parents again on a permanent basis.” The anxiety in her eyes spoke volumes.

Trace cringed for her. “With restrictions, of course.”

“I don't know what they'd be as long as he keeps taking his medicine.”

“Cassie, I'm sorry you've had to live through such pain.” To lose her husband and be afraid that her brother might have been the one to shoot him was horrendous. Worse, he could tell she was worried that Ned might come after her one day when he got the chance. That frightening possibility was going to keep Trace awake nights from here on out.

He couldn't begin to imagine the pain of Cassie's loss, but she was obviously handling it. She was a strong woman to have married for love despite her father's wishes. Trace admired that strength and her will to get on with her life.

Just then his cell rang. He checked the caller ID. “It's my dad. He's on his way to the ranch now.”

“Then let's get back. I have a pot roast with potatoes and carrots cooking.”

“I could smell it before we left the house. Did he tell you that's my favorite meal?”

She smiled. “That's why I made it. To welcome you home. He's so happy you're going to be living here from now on, you can't imagine.”

Trace was afraid he could and didn't look forward to the conversation he was about to have. When they reached the barn and dismounted to take care of the horses, he turned to her. She was removing Buttercup's bridle. “I want to thank you for what you and Logan have done.”

“We were just doing our job.”

“It was a lot more than that and you know it. You've eased my father's mind while I've been away and made the place beautiful. There's no way to repay you. I'll feed and water the horses while you go into the house. It's the least I can do.”

Once dinner was over, Trace went out on the front porch with his father. He sat on a chair while his dad settled for the swing. “That Cassie could make her living as a cook.”

“Agreed. I can't remember the last time I had a meal that good.”

His dad studied Trace. “You're talking home cooked. Nothing like it.” Trace nodded. “Do you have any idea how good it feels to be sitting on the porch with my son after all these years?”

Trace's throat thickened. “I do,” he murmured.
More than you can imagine
.

His dad's hair was a sandy color mixed with gray. Lines from years of outdoor living gave his rugged features character. He'd dressed in one of his familiar plaid shirts and jeans, and he wore a belt with a silver and turquoise buckle, his trademark.

One of the tribal elders from the reservation had presented it to him for saving their horses from dying during an equine flu epidemic. The tribe had bought some horses in Mexico and had them transported. But several of them had the virus. Afraid all the horses would die, they came to Trace's father.

Trace, who had been only eight years old at the time, remembered going out to the reservation with him to test the horses. Sam told the elders all they could do was rest them for a month in fresh air in a shady, confined area. Walk them for short periods to maintain circulation during the fever and coughing. Keep them away from dust and hay to minimize the risk of bacterial infections of the lungs. Then give them an antibody vaccine booster every three months.

The horses looked and sounded miserable to Trace. He couldn't imagine his father's treatment working. But in a month's time the tribe hadn't lost one of them and he'd become a valued friend of the Crow.

Tears smarted Trace's eyes just remembering the day they presented his dad with the belt buckle, handmade on their reservation. His father was held in high esteem by a lot of the population around White Lodge, including members of the Crow nation.

Soon after that experience, his parents divorced. Remembered pain still lingered to think his mom would want to leave the man who was Trace's idol. So what did Trace do? After he'd turned eighteen, he'd left his father, just like his mom had done.

“You probably won't believe me, but I've missed being here. I've missed you, Dad.” His voice was thick with emotion. “More than you'll ever know.”

Sam leaned forward with his hands on his knees. “When your mom left, the heart went out of our home. You couldn't take it.”

He shook his head. “That's not it. At first I was angry at her. Later I was angry at you for not making her come back.”

“You can't hold somebody who doesn't want to be held, son.”

“I know that now. Forgive my anger.”

“It was natural. Divorce means an automatic whammy for everyone involved. No one escapes. I'm proud of you for what you've done with your life even when it threw you some curveballs. Is it killing you not to be a pilot anymore?”

“If you'd asked me that when I was rushed to the hospital, I would have told you I'd rather have been killed. But after a few days I realized it would be the coward's way out and I thought about something you said the day our collie's paw got caught in a snare and had to be amputated.”

“Poor Kip. He was the best dog we ever had.”

“I loved him. While I was having hysterics, you told me he'd be able to get around just fine with three legs. That's why God gave him four, just in case.”

A quiet laugh came out of his father. “Did I really say that?”

“That's why everyone in Carbon County puts their favorite vet on a pedestal. Before I phoned you from the hospital to let you know what had happened to me, I figured you'd say something like, ‘Son? God gave you two eyes so if you lost one of them, it didn't matter.' Even if you didn't know what went through my mind before our phone call, your wisdom helped me through that dark period. So, the answer to your question is no, it didn't kill me.”

“Thank God for that.”

“But during my recuperation I had to think about how else I could earn my living. On the way home, I spent a couple days at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. They've offered me a teaching position on their staff, but I've been given five to six weeks to get my affairs in order before I report.”

At that piece of unexpected news his dad—hurt to the marrow as Trace had anticipated—got up from the swing and walked over to the porch railing. He looked up at the stars. “What about the woman you said you wanted to marry in Italy? How does she feel about that decision?”

Trace couldn't stay seated either. He wandered over to his father. “You're the smartest man I ever knew, so you already know the answer to that question.”

“Which means
if
she's willing, you'll live in Colorado Springs.”

The hollowness of his father's voice stung Trace. His eyes closed tightly for a minute. It was a big
if
.

“That's the plan, but these are early days. Nicci needs to fly to the States. I want her to meet you and Ellen, then we'll fly to Colorado Springs and let her get a feel for where we'd live.”

Trace waited for the next question. It was a long time coming. “What about the ranch?”

This was the part he'd been dreading. “I'd like to use the time while I'm here to find a buyer. With the sale of the house and property, you'll have plenty of money to spend on you and Ellen.

“All these years you've sacrificed for me, for mom. Now it's time you thought about yourself. You can go on some cruises, buy a house. I was hoping you might invest in a motor home. Then you and Ellen could come and visit us in Colorado whenever you wanted.”

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