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Authors: Nancy Atherton

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BOOK: Aunt Dimity Goes West
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nearly caused an international incident when I woke

up screaming.

Annelise managed to convince the rattled cabin

crew that I’d simply had a bad dream, but the other

passengers watched me closely from then on, as if

they were mapping out ways to subdue me if I sud-

denly went berserk and tried to break into the cockpit

with my teeth. To avoid alarming them further—and

because I don’t like coffee—I kept myself awake by

eating chocolate and drinking many cups of cola.

By the time we disembarked in Denver I was so

hyped on sugar and caffeine I could easily have been

mistaken for an amphetamine addict, so I put Annelise

in charge of our passports. She got us through Cus-

toms without undue delay, and I collared a skycap

to deal with our luggage. While he loaded our bags

onto his cart, I put in a quick call to Bill to let him


Nancy Atherton

know that we’d arrived safely, carefully omitting any

reference to screaming.

It wasn’t hard to spot the driver Bill had hired. He

was waiting for us at the end of the Arrivals barrier,

holding a hand-lettered sign with my name on it; but

it wasn’t the sign that caught my attention, it was the

man himself.

Because he wasn’t a man. He was a boy: a tall, lean,

broad-shouldered boy with long white-blond hair, big

blue eyes, and the smooth, innocent face of a cherub.

He wore a bright-red waterproof jacket, an unbuttoned

flannel shirt over a T-shirt that read rocky mountain

hi!, and a pair of hiking trousers with zip-off legs and many, many pockets. His trousers were spattered with

the same reddish mud that caked his hiking boots and

stained the blue day pack that lay at his feet. He looked as though he’d hiked from Bluebird to Denver, and for

a brief, hysterical moment I wondered if he expected

us to hike back with him.

He’d evidently seen photographs of us because he

stuffed the sign into his day pack and gave us a friendly wave as we approached. When we passed the barrier,

he ushered us and the skycap out of the main stream of

passenger traffic in order to greet us properly.

“Ms. Shepherd, Ms. Sciaparelli,” he said, nodding

to me and Annelise in turn. “Welcome to Colorado.”

“James?” I said hesitantly.

“No,” he replied. “Tobias. Toby. Toby Cooper. I’m

James Blackwell’s replacement.”

Aunt Dimity Goes West


“Replacement?” I said. “My husband didn’t men-

tion a replacement.”

“He probably doesn’t know about it yet,” Toby said.

“I only found out about it yesterday.” He reached into

an outside pocket of the day pack and produced a

flimsy sheet of fax paper. “From Mr. Auerbach. It’ll

explain everything.”

I took the fax from him and read:

Dear Ms. Shepherd,

Welcome to Colorado! Please accept my apologies for the

last-minute change in personnel. James Blackwell left my employment yesterday, rather unexpectedly, and Toby

Cooper generously agreed to take his place.

Toby’s father and I are old school friends. Toby’s a fine young man and will do everything he can to make your

stay in Colorado enjoyable. If you have any questions,

please feel free to contact me.


Danny Auerbach

I noted the phone number printed beneath Danny’s

name, then looked up to find Toby anxiously scanning

my face.

“Why did James Blackwell quit?” I asked.

Toby shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know James,

and Mr. Auerbach didn’t give me any details when he

asked me to fill in. Maybe James just decided it was

time to move on.”


Nancy Atherton

“I see,” I said. “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“Twenty-one,” Toby replied. “I go to college in

Boulder, but I’m on summer break.”

Annelise and I exchanged a glance that said, “Now

we have
little boys to look after.” Our expressions must have alarmed Toby because he began to speak

at top speed.

“I know Bluebird like the back of my hand,” he said.

“My dad was born and raised there, and I spent every

summer there with my grandparents when I was a

kid. I know the hiking trails and the best fishing spots, and I can fix things, too, like a leaky pipe or a broken window—my granddad showed me how—so if anything goes wrong, I’ll take care of it. I’m a good driver, too—no speeding tickets—and I’ve never been involved in an accident, not even a fender bender.” A

note of desperation entered his voice. “I had a summer

job lined up in the administration office at school, but it fell through, so I . . . I was really glad when Mr.

Auerbach offered me this one. I may be a little younger

than James Blackwell, but I’m a hard worker, Ms.

Shepherd, and I’m very dependable.You won’t be dis-


The eager-puppy look in his eyes was irresistible. I

stuffed the fax into my carry-on bag and decided to go

with the flow.

“I’m sure I won’t,” I said reassuringly. “And, please,

call me Lori.”

“Annelise will do for me,” Annelise put in. “Scia-

parelli is a bit of a mouthful for everyday use.”

Aunt Dimity Goes West


Rob tugged on Toby’s trouser leg, and Toby squat-

ted down to look him in the eye.

“We know a pony named Toby,” Rob informed

him importantly. “Do you know any ponies?”

“Are you a cowboy?” Will asked, cutting to the

chase. My sons were not known for their reticence.

“Not exactly,” said Toby, “but your father told Mr.

Auerbach that you like cowboys, so I’ve brought an

essential piece of cowboy equipment for each of you.” He reached into his day pack and brought forth a pair of bandanas, one red and one blue. “Which one of you is Will?”

“I am,” said Will, stepping forward.

Toby promptly knotted the red bandana around

Will’s neck and the blue one around Rob’s, thus effec-

tively distinguishing one twin from the other. I gave

him full marks for cleverness.

“Would you call a bandana equipment?” Annelise


“Absolutely,” Toby replied, standing tall. “Pull a

bandana over your nose and you’ll breathe easier dur-

ing a dust storm. Tie a damp bandana around your

forehead on a hot day and you’ll avoid sunstroke. If a

rattlesnake strikes, a bandana makes a good tourniquet.”

“Useful things, bandanas,” Annelise agreed.

The boys were gazing up at Toby as if he held the

keys to a kingdom of thrilling adventures, but I stared

at him, aghast. What kind of vacation included dust

storms, heat stroke, and deadly snakes in its itinerary?

It sounded as though Bill had sent us on a survival

course instead of a jolly family holiday.


Nancy Atherton

“Are you all right, Lori?” Toby asked, noticing my


I let out an embarrassingly high-pitched giggle, for

which I immediately apologized.

“Sorry,” I said. “Too much caffeine.”

“You should avoid caffeine while you’re here, for the

first few days at least,” Toby advised. He delved into the main compartment of his day pack and handed a bottle

of water to each of us. “Water’s your best bet. It’ll help you adjust to the altitude as well as the dry air. There’s lots more in the van, so drink up. And by the way,” he

added, straightening, “local time is seven forty-seven

p.m., and yes, it’s still Tuesday.” The corners of his eyes crinkled charmingly as he grinned. “It’s easy to lose

track of time after crossing so many time zones.”

“Your boots are all dirty,” Will commented, peer-

ing interestedly at Toby’s hiking boots.

“It’s pretty muddy up in Bluebird,” Toby ex-

plained. “It snowed two days ago, and we’re still wait-

ing for the last few drifts to finish melting.”

I said, horrified. “In

“We had snow in July a few years ago,” Toby said


“But we’re not dressed for snow,” I protested. “And

we didn’t pack our winter coats.”

“Yes, we did,” said Annelise. “They’re in the brown

suitcase. Bill thought we might need them.”

about the snow?” I exclaimed, rounding on her.

Toby quickly intervened. “I’m sure Mr. Auerbach

Aunt Dimity Goes West


told your husband to pack clothes for all seasons,

Lori. Mountain weather is pretty changeable. It’s best

to be prepared for everything.”

I silently added frostbite to my lengthening list of

holiday hazards.

Toby hoisted the day pack to his shoulders and

reached for my carry-on bag.

“I can manage, thanks,” I said, backing away a step.

Aunt Dimity’s journal and Reginald were in my bag. I

wouldn’t let Annelise carry it, much less a total stranger.

“I guess we’re all set, then.” Toby looked down at the

twins. “Are you buckaroos ready to head for the hills?”

Will and Rob nodded eagerly and took hold of

Toby’s outstretched hands, hoping, no doubt, that he’d

take them straight to the nearest rattlesnakes. They

seemed mildly disappointed when he informed them

that we were going instead to the parking garage. I sig-

naled for the skycap to follow, and we set off, with the three boys in the lead.

It felt good to stretch my legs after the ten-hour

flight, but the parking garage was a long way away

from the Arrivals barrier, and I was soon struggling

to keep up with the trio ahead of me. The twins

seemed fine, if a bit pinker than usual, but Annelise

and I were red-faced and gasping before Toby noticed

that we were lagging behind.

“Sorry,” he said, slowing his pace. “It’s the thin air.

You’ll get used to it.”

I took a swig from my water bottle and plodded

on, thinking darkly of Mr. Barlow’s cousin and won-


Nancy Atherton

dering how long it would take to be airlifted from

Bluebird to Kansas.

We arrived, eventually, at a sleek, streamlined

black van liberally spattered with reddish mud. It held

three rows of comfortable seats, and it was equipped

with four-wheel drive, heavy-duty suspension, a high

clearance chassis, and many other features I associated

with bad roads.

“Great,” I muttered hoarsely to Annelise. “There

may be no air to breathe, but at least there are plenty

of potholes to look forward to.”

Annelise simply nodded. She was probably con-

serving oxygen.

While Toby and the skycap piled our luggage into

the van’s rear compartment, Annelise and I strapped

the twins firmly into the middle row’s booster seats.

Once we were satisfied that the boys wouldn’t hit the

roof if we encountered uneven pavement, Annelise

climbed in to sit behind them, and I hoisted myself

into the front passenger seat.

Toby finished loading the luggage and tipped the

skycap, but instead of climbing into the driver’s seat,

he opened the van’s side door and passed a wicker

hamper to Annelise.

“Sandwiches,” he explained. “In case you’re hun-

gry. We’ve got a two-hour drive ahead of us.”

“Did you make the sandwiches?” Annelise asked,

peering into the hamper.

“Nope,” said Toby. “I picked them up in Bluebird

this afternoon, from Caroline’s Cafe. Carrie Vyne

Aunt Dimity Goes West


makes the best sandwiches in the world. She packed

some of her chocolate chip cookies, too. She makes

great cookies.”

Toby closed the side door, circled the van, and slid

behind the steering wheel. After a brief glance at the

boys, he turned the key in the ignition and called out,

“Wagons, ho!”

“Yee-ha!” they yodeled.

Their father would have been proud of them.

The interstate highway out of Denver was in reassur-

ingly good condition, but the scenery left much to

be desired. Although the mountains beckoned, our

immediate surroundings consisted of great swathes

of boring tract houses separated by forlorn-looking

patches of prairie. Since there was nothing much to

look at, we concentrated on the sandwiches and the

cookies.They were delicious.

“Do you
any cowboys?” Will asked hopefully, when we’d emptied the hamper.

“I sure do,” said Toby. “They live one valley over

from Bluebird, at the Brockman Ranch. Mr. Auer-

bach’s arranged for you two to ride there while you’re


“Will there be cows?” asked Rob.

“Not as many as there were in the old days,”

Toby said, with a reminiscent sigh. “I remember when

the boys drove fifty thousand head of cattle from

South Dakota all the way to Texas. It was rough going


Nancy Atherton

in those days. Cowpokes had to face all sorts of obsta-

cles: floods, grass fires, storms so vicious they’d snatch the teeth right out of your mouth—”

“Were there Indians?” Rob interrupted, enthralled.

“Whole tribes of them,” Toby confirmed. “Most

of them were friendly, but even the bad ones weren’t

as bad as the rustlers.”

“There were rustlers?” Will asked, wide-eyed.

Toby snorted. “More than you could count, all

BOOK: Aunt Dimity Goes West
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