Authors: Linda Broday
The next few days, Callie looked for her mother's treasure box every chance she got, but still the hiding place eluded her. If only her mother had told them where she was putting it.
On this day, Callie started a systematic search the minute Rand went outside to tear off rotted boards from the barn in preparation for repairs. With the two horses, a cow, and now a dog, he needed a place for them that wasn't about ready to fall down. He'd already put in an order for some lumber. The new sawmill in Battle Creek would have it cut and ready for pickup in a week.
She thought it smart of him to order only what he needed a little at a time. But then, Rand was not missing anything in the brains department.
Her search for the treasure chest resumed in the downstairs rooms. She checked for loose floorboards and fireplace bricks. Then she began running her fingers along the walls for hidden compartments. Having no furniture yet made it easy, especially with Toby outside with Rand and Biscuit.
When nothing came to light, she stood back and tried to put herself in her mother's shoes. She doubted the woman would've buried it outside, because of the heavy rains that summer. Due to the soggy ground, they'd had to wait three days to bury Nora Quinn Powers. She remembered how impatient her stepfather had been, the way he'd railed at everyone.
Looking back now, she realized the reason he'd fought the delay had been because he intended to marry Liza as soon as possible. That meant he'd known the socialite months, maybe even a year, before his wife died.
And he'd had the nerve to chastise and lock Callie in the basement for three days for letting Marcus Wolfforth kiss her after he'd given that louse Andrew Jameson permission to come courting. Fury swept through her.
She ran to her room and jerked on the coat that Rand had bought. She had to find her mother's grave. She wouldn't waste another second.
Marching to the barn, she stopped to gather Toby. “Let's go for a walk.”
“Where to?” The boy squinted up at her.
Callie's breath caught in her throat. He was the spitting image of Nate Fleming, right down to the same mannerisms. Even had his father's way of walking. Toby would be very handsome one day.
God, just don't let him be an outlaw.
Rand leaned against the side of the barn, watching. Though the breeze carried a chill, he'd removed his jacket and now wiped beads of sweat from his forehead. The muscles in his upper arms strained his shirt.
Riveted by the sight of both boy and rancher, she struggled to get her thoughts back on track. “Exploring. Who knows what we might find. At the least we'll have an adventure.”
“Can Biscuit come?”
“Absolutely. I'll bet she's an expert at finding hidden things.”
“Don't go too far,” Rand cautioned in a low voice. “I've noticed a lot of mountain-lion tracks lately.”
“Thanks. We'll stay close.”
Toby laid down the hammer and they set off. A faint recollection of the house being visible from the gravesite gave her the general vicinity. While they trekked through the trees, she kept a sharp eye out for predators, both the wild and the outlaw kind.
Again, relying on an eight-year-old's faded memory proved quite a task. She'd scoured several areas before Toby accidentally stumbled over it. With a cry, he landed face-first in a pile of dead leaves and dank earth. She brushed him off while Biscuit licked his face as though checking for injuries.
Though Edmund Powers had promised to put a headstone on the grave, the only thing marking it was the cross fashioned from rocks that she and Claire had laid on top of the burial spot.
Tears pricked her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. Her mother deserved more than to be forgotten and betrayed by a faithless husband.
Kneeling, she ran her hands lovingly over the crude marker.
Toby stood watching. “Ma'am? Why are you sad? It's only some dumb ol' rocks.”
Callie wished she could explain, but the youngster wasn't old enough to understand yet that his grandmother's bones lay beneath the soil. She smiled up at Toby. “I know, but they're arranged in a pretty cross.”
“Who did it?”
“Your mother and I.”
“She did? Why?”
“To mark the spot so we could find it.” Callie got to her feet and draped an arm around the boy's shoulders.
“I'm sad too,” Toby said. “I miss Mama.”
Callie kissed the top of his head. “So do I.”
“Aunt Callie, why do people have to die, anyway?”
“I wish I knew. I wish I knew.” A strangled sob rose.
Then the brush rustled. Something was coming into the small clearing.
Her heart pounded as she looked around for a weapon.
“Get behind me, Toby.” She pushed him away from the danger, though a mountain lion would make quick work of her and get him anyway. Still, she'd give her all to protect him.
Relief swept through her when Rand emerged from the thicket with a rifle.
She turned and brushed away the lingering tears before she faced him.
“Got worried about you,” he said, peering curiously at her. “Is everything all right?”
“We're fine. Thanks for coming.”
“We found a cross,” Toby piped up.
“You don't say.” He moved around Callie to look at it. “I didn't know this was here. Wonder who put it there?”
“My mama an' aunt.”
Callie could've strangled the boy. Toby looked so pleased with himself and what he'd divulged. “It's nothing. We'd better get back. I just remembered I was going to bake a pie for supper.”
“A pie! Oh boy!” Toby gave a whoop and a holler.
“Come then. The day's going fast,” she said, moving toward the house. When she noticed Rand wasn't behind them, she turned. “You coming, Rand?”
“I'll be along. Want to check for signs of mountain lions.” He was staring curiously at the grave though and not looking for wild-animal tracks at all.
She kicked herself for not being more careful. He was too smart. The truth she'd sought to hide was most certainly going to be uncovered.
And she didn't know how to stop it.
* * *
Rand's gaze followed Callie. Only when she disappeared from view did he turn back to the grave. He'd heard everything. No wonder Toby always called her ma'am and not mama. He wasn't her childâthe boy was her nephew. Though she hadn't exactly lied, she'd let him think that the boy was hers. Probably to protect them.
So, who was Toby's mother and how had she died?
And who rested in this grave?
He'd seen Callie's tears, though she'd been quick to turn away. The person buried here was very special to her.
Did that mean that Callie had once lived here on this land?
This grave and the fact she'd picked the Last Hope as a hideout told him that it was very possible. And the possibility existed that she might even have a claim to the property. He wasn't sure how he felt about that.
He knew he wouldn't fight her for it. If this land belonged to her, she could have it.
It bothered him that she wouldn't confide in him, though. How could he protect her and Toby with his hands tied behind his back?
A deep sigh rose. Maybe he should talk to Cooper and Brett about the matter. A person without anything to gain out of this dilemma could assess it more calmly.
Over the next hour, he built a makeshift fence around the plot. It simply seemed the thing to do. When he got back to the house, he laid his rifle within reach and resumed removing the rotten boards from the barn. He didn't see any sign of Callie or Toby or the dog. Probably in the house. Thoughts of hot apple pie for supper made him work faster.
His mind kept returning to what he'd learned and he wondered what he should do. Confront Callie or pretend he hadn't seen or heard anything?
If he told her what he knew and suspected, he was sure she'd run. She'd certainly threatened to if he started digging.
The pretty lady had his back up against the wall. She held all the cards. What was worseâ¦she knew it.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and reached for the rifle before he recognized Brett. “Howdy, brother. A whole ranch full of prime horseflesh and you're walking?”
Brett grinned. “Needed the exercise. Gettin' fat.”
Rand took in Brett's lean body. “Yeah, I can see that. I do think I see a fat head up there.”
“If that's supposed to get my goat, you need to try again.”
The leather bundle strapped on Brett's back and the long poles his brother dragged behind him drew Rand's curiosity. “What's that you're hauling? Did you decide to become a nomad?”
Brett removed the bundle. “This is for young Toby. I recalled how special mine is to me when I got it last year after deciding to embrace my roots. Thought I'd set it up here in the yard for him to play in. Pretending to be an Indian is a sight better than playing outlaws.”
“I agree. But if you think his mama will let him sleep out here in a tepee, you need to lay off the peyote.”
“Miss Callie does seem awful protective.”
“Probably with good reason.” Rand told him about the grave and what he'd learned. “I'm not sure what I should do now.”
“Nothing. Let her come to you. If you go to her with demands, she'll blow up like a mule with a belly full of green apples. Most likely she'll leave.”
“I wish she'd trust me.”
“She does, she just doesn't know it yet. If the lady didn't, she'd never have agreed to stay for even a little while.”
“How did you get to be the smart one, Brett?”
“When I decided you, Cooper, and me would become a family.”
“Oh no, I decided that. You can't take the credit. And I'm also the best-looking.”
Brett raised a dark eyebrow. “Says who?”
“Says the one who hasn't decided he's fat.”
Toby barreled out the kitchen door, trailed by Biscuit. “What'cha doin'?”
“Hi, pardner.” Brett ruffled Toby's dark hair. “I brought you something.”
“What is it?”
“Your very own tepee.”
“To keep?” Toby's eyes widened and his big grin spread.
“Maybe. We'll see how it goes. If you mind your elders, you can keep it. If not, I'll have to take it back.”
“I'm the best boy in the whole world.”
Brett's grunt seemed to say that time would tell as he arranged twelve long poles on the ground and began tying the tops of three together with a length of rawhide. “Where do you want to put this, Rand?”
“Let's move it over by the woodpile, where it's out of the way.” He was going to be the only white man with an Indian tepee on his ranch. How had this sorry state of affairs come to pass? But he wouldn't say no. It meant too much to Brett and to Toby.
Callie came from the house looking fit to be tied. “Hello, Brett. I hope this isn't what it looks like.”
“Miss Callie, I wanted something special for Toby to play in, that's all. If you draw the line at him sleeping out here, that's all right. It's up to you to decide when and how often you want the boy to use it.” Brett gave her a smile. “I'd never undermine you.”
“This could be very magical to a child,” Rand said gently.
“Please, ma'am?” Toby begged. “I wanna be an Indian.”
Biscuit gave a loud whine and spun around in a circle as though she too was adding her two cents' worth.
“Please?” Toby persisted.
When she lifted her eyes to Rand, he gave her a lopsided grin and a wink. Getting tangled up in her warm whiskey gaze could be quite pleasurable, he found.
“Oh, all right.” Callie threw up her hands. “But I won't have you sleeping out here, young man. You'll play in it only when I give you permission. And you'll have chores to do each day before you can play. Understand?”
“It's too dangerous out here at night anyway, with that mountain lion hanging around,” Rand said. “I'll keep an eye on him during the day. I don't want you to worry.”
Toby hugged Callie, then threw his arms around Brett's waist. “Thank you. I'm glad we came here.”
Brett returned Toby's hug, then knelt to rub Biscuit's head. “Now tell me where you got such a fine-looking animal.”
Rand stood watching the pint-sized squirt relay what little facts he knew. He already loved this little kid. Whatever had happened to them, it made him happy that he could help bring a light to the boy's eyes. He remembered how dull they'd been when he'd first found them in the run-down bunkhouse last week. His mind turned back time to the days following his, Cooper's, and Brett's escape from the orphan train. To avoid detection, they'd slept during the day and traveled by the light of the moon, eating food whenever they found some or managed to kill a rabbit or squirrel. Cooper was always the one to watch over them and fight when things called for it. He'd once tried to kill Tolbert Early in a bathhouse for attacking Brett.
Toby had that same protective instinct. Rand only prayed he could help the boy stay a boy a while longer. Once he became a man, he could never go back.
“Where are you, brother?” Brett asked.
“Just thinking that you'd best explain what we need to do.”
With Biscuit supervising and pretty much getting in the way, they all pitched in erecting the tepee, which was made from buffalo hides.
Working side by side with Callie proved to be the best part. Each time their hands touched, a current ran up Rand's arm. He couldn't imagine what might happen if the touching involved a bed and the scent of night around them. He'd probably just explode faster than a load of nitroglycerin. Likely find pieces of him three states over.
The haunted look had begun to fade from her eyes a little, and she wasn't as tense and anxious as when they first arrived.