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Caitlin Jackson turned onto the gravel drive, noting
the distance they'd traveled since leaving Wolf Crossingalmost eighty miles. If that was the closest place to shop, she was in a world of hurt. Maybe there were closer shopping centers that weren't on her map. She'd stocked up on essentials before leaving the town and hoped she didn't have to drive back in very often.
As she wound her way along the narrow drive, she felt relief at having finally reached the ranch. With their destination almost in sight, she began to relax and eagerly look around. Would she remember anything? The driveway curved along an embankment, then straightened out as the land sloped down slightly. Green grass grew as far as she could see, rippling in the breeze. In the distant horizon the purple silhouette of the Rockies rose against the blue sky, a couple of peaks tipped in snow.
The setting was beautiful. For a moment she wanted to stop the car and savor the view. It was entirely different from the San Francisco Bay Area, where space was at a premium and houses and buildings stood side by side crowded in on each other. Here there was nothing between her car and the Rockies but open range.
She glanced at her brother. Brandon leaned forward, his eyes scanning every inch of land. He'd never been here before.
Almost there, she signed.
He grinned and nodded. The lawyer in Wolf Crossing had been handling her great-uncle Clyde's estate until she and Brandon arrived. He'd given her detailed directions to the ranch. Caitlin had been nine the only time she'd visited, and much more interested in horses and cows than the route her mother had taken. She remembered thinking she was the luckiestgirl in the world that summer.
Looking back, she realized their visit had been right before her mother had become pregnant with Brandon, a little over sixteen years ago.
The graveled drive seemed to go on forever. Several minutes passed before she saw the roofs of ranch buildings. She'd pushed to complete the trip from San Francisco in the shortest time possible after she picked her brother up at the end of the school term and was tired, stiff and sick of driving. Only another few moments and they'd reach their final destination.
Her ranch. It still seemed surreal. Who would expect an army brat to inherit a ranch in Wyoming? Caitlin had never had an inkling she was her great-uncle's heir.
According to the attorney, Clyde had fifty-five hundred acres, more or lessnow all belonging to her. Her family had been in Wyoming since the homestead days. Originally a large family who'd made a place for themselves on the open range, the Martins seemed to have fewer children with each generation, her mother, Tricia, being the only niece of Clyde Martin. She in turn had had two childrenCaitlin and Brandon. They were the last of the family. She couldn't keep the place, of course.
Once Caitlin sold the property, she'd be able to better provide for herself and Brandon.
It seemed sad to relinquish property that had been in their family for more than one hundred years. Yet what choice did she have? She knew nothing about ranching and Brandon was only sixteen. They'd traveled the world with their father and now had settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Wyoming was not home.
Tomorrow a real-estate agent was meeting them at the ranch at ten. Now she knew why their appointment wasn't earlierit would take him that long to get here from Wolf Crossing.
Wire fences stretched along both sides of the drive. The one parallel on the right looked in need of repair. There were broken strands; some of the posts were leaning. She glanced around. To the left, in the distance, she spotted several head of cattle. Was that a man on a horse? She squinted to see better, but couldn't tell. According to the lawyer, there was one cowboy still on the ranchZack Carson. He had agreed to stay until the new owner arrived.
Caitlin hoped he'd stay a little longeruntil they could sell the place.
In another minute they reached the old house and Caitlin pulled to a stop. The ranch house looked as if it had been built a century agotwo stories tall, weathered wood, sash windows. Beyond stood an old barn made of logs. It wasn't nearly as large as she'd remembered. Corrals surrounded the barn, six horizontal wooden rails affixed to upright poles. The fence looked sturdy at least. Two horses ambled over, watching them.
Brandon was out of the car, heading for the corral, before Caitlin could open her door.
"Be careful," she called, then shook her head. He couldn't hear her. And he wasn't looking in her direction so signing was out. She hoped the horses wouldn't bite.
Picking her way across the uneven ground, she wished she'd worn more suitable shoes. The high heels and tailored skirt and blouse had served her well for her meeting with the attorney, but were totally inappropriate for a ranch.
Brandon stroked first one horse, then another, his face beaming. Caitlin smiled at his delight. Since their father's death a year ago, financial concerns had been a constant in their lives. This gift from the blue was going to solve their problems, she hoped. In the meantime, it was good to see her brother behaving like a teenager again. She hated to have him worry about the future. He deserved a carefree childhood. Life was going to prove enough of a challenge to him when he went out on his own.
Want to see the house? she signed.
He shrugged. Sure. Then can we ride?
There was so much to do, riding came low on her list. But Brandon had been talking about the horses ever since they'd left California.
As she turned toward the house again, Caitlin's heart sank. The place needed major renovations. The clapboard siding had lost whatever paint had once adorned it; the weathered boards were warped in some spots. Was the inside as bad? What would it take to paint the entire place? It was huge, with a wraparound porch and gables jutting from the roof. Built when families needed lots of bedrooms. It looked as if her uncle Clyde had not been able to keep it up over the years.
Brandon caught up with her, studying the house.
It's bigger than I expected, he signed.
Older, too, she returned. It needs a lot of work to make it a showplace. I hope someone will want to buy the ranch without the house being perfect.
When she opened the door, Caitlin was assailed by a musty smell. The place must have been closed up since her great-uncle had died in March. Stepping inside, she looked around. She recognized the sofa. It was a little shabbier than before, but still looked comfortable and masculine with its dark brown nubby material. The living room was spacious, with windows on two walls. The front ones overlooked the porch and then the rolling hills to the west, with the rugged line of mountains in the far distance. The side window gave a view of the corral.
Dust coated everything. But the place was going to be home until they sold it, or until September when Brandon would return to the California School for the Deaf. She hoped the ranch sold before then.
Brandon had gone upstairs. Caitlin heard his footsteps on the wooden floors. For a moment she tried to feel some connection to the place. The Triple M ranch had been in her mother's family for generations. Should-n't she have some sense of belonging? But there was nothing.
She turned to check out the rest of the house. There was no point in trying to rake up sentiment for the homestead. She wasn't a rancher.
Despite her practical outlook, she tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a place steeped in family history. To trace the steps of grandparents and great grandparents. Not that she'd known any of them except her great-uncle Clyde. And that had only been for one summer. Her mother had died a few years later and her father hadn't kept in touch.
The dining room held a large rectangular table with ten chairs. For a moment Caitlin remembered some of the stories Uncle Clyde had told her and could picture a bunch of noisy childrenand the chaos at mealtime. Where had they gone to school? Had any stayed to work the property? How sad that a large family had dwindled to only two members.
Caitlin continued to the kitchen. It was large and well equipped with no dust evident. While the appliances were old, they looked serviceable. She gazed out the window. No neighbors near enough to see. She felt alone at the end of the world.
Shrugging away the thought, she completed her tour and found a pantrystocked with canned goods and packaged goods and containing a large freezer against the far wall. Peeking inside, she saw it was equally full. Living so far from town, her uncle had probably shopped for months at a time to keep trips to a minimum.
She heard Brandon clattering down the stairs and went back through the dining room.
Five bedrooms, one bath on the second floor. Two more bedrooms and a big junk room in the attic, he signed. I want the bedroom at the front.
All furnished? she asked.
He nodded. What's here?
Check it out, I'm going upstairs. Then we need to bring in the groceries and our things.
There was food for dinner, a place to sleep. Tomorrow the Realtor was coming. What more could she want? Caitlin headed up the stairs, anxious to see the rest of the house. Surely someone would want the ranch even if the house was old. Couldn't a developer tear down this place and build dozens of new homes?
But why would people want to move out here? she asked herself as she peered into the different bedrooms. There was no industry, no recreational spots, no town nearby. Who would want an eighty-mile commute? And she didn't think Wolf Crossing had so much going for it either.
This part of the country was so different from the San Francisco Bay Area where she'd lived for the past six years. And unlike any of the army bases she'd grown up on.
But at least here, no one knew about her past. She wouldn't be subject to whispers and covert glances. Wouldn't be hurt over and over by people she had once thought of as friends.
For as long as it took to sell the ranch, she was content to have a place to stay.
ZACK RODE ALONG the perimeter fence. He'd seen the car turn in to the driveway and knew it had to be the new owner. Harry Benson had said she'd be arriving today. He'd known his time on the ranch was growing short.
Damn Clyde for dying. They'd had the perfect setup. It had been two years and counting since he'd arrived at the Triple M. The longest he'd stayed in one spot since he'd gotten out of the service. But nothing lasted forever. Time for him to be moving on. It wouldn't take long to pack. He'd update the owner and be ready to head out in the morning.
Keeping one eye on the fence, he took stock of the cattle. Looking good. The grass was thick. There had been a large number of calves this year. Summer feeding would make them prime for sale in the fall.
Zack turned at the double fence, the one that separated the hay field from the grazing land. The crop was ready to harvest. More men were needed, but that wasn't his worry anymore. The level ground would make the cutting easy despite Clyde's antiquated mower. The man should have bought a new one years ago, but his old one workedmost of the time. No sense wasting money, Clyde had often said.
Zack missed the old man. Each summer Clyde had hired four ranch hands. He'd always respected the men who worked with him. He had shared meals with his crew, spent time after dinner working on tack with them or whittling away on the steps of the bunkhouse. Winters he reduced the staff to two cowboys. Zack considered himself lucky to have been one of them the last couple of years.
Now he was the only one left. And soon even he'd be gone.
He'd learned so much from Clyde. Enough to get a good job at another ranch. He'd come a long way for a boy who grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Who would expect a kid raised dodging bullets from rival gangs to end up punching cows?
Jeez, he missed that old man.