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Crooked Tree Ranch, Montana
Nate Todd pinched the bridge of his nose and attempted to quell the combination of anger and fear that churned inside him. When he woke up to an absolutely perfect Montana morning, heâ€™d never expected his day to turn sour so damn fast. The voice on the other end of the phone kept going, the tone a mixture of apology and demand.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, Nate. If it was just up to me then Iâ€™d let the feed delivery happen, but Dad is getting pissy with it being five months outstanding.â€
â€œItâ€™s probably an oversight,â€ Nate explained. Marcus was the one who looked after the accounts and theyâ€™d never had problems before.
Samuel continued. Nate had gone to school with him, and this was humiliating for Sam to be telling him this. Hell, Nate hated that people outside Crooked Tree might think they were struggling. â€œWe spoke to Marcus last week, Nate. He said he was going to make good on the outstanding balance when we explained that the account was in arrears. I wasnâ€™t going to bother you with this, but the account is still overdue and I kinda felt I owed you an explanation since your order we got yesterday isnâ€™t going to be filled.â€
Tension banded Nateâ€™s head. This was the third supplier in the last week that had implied Crooked Tree was falling behind in paying. Hell, not just impliedâ€”two of them had refused to deal with the ranch. Did they all talk to each other? Jeez. When the first placeâ€™s delivery was stopped, Nate had considered that it was probably an error. He kept meaning to talk to Marcus about it, but never quite got around to it. When the veterinarian turned around on the call before this one, and basically said no to the usual Crooked Tree meds order without citing a reason, Nate had been angry but hadnâ€™t been sure where to place his anger. Things had been up and down with the suppliers over the last few years. One day Marcus was on the ball, the next heâ€™d be wallowing in grief and unable to keep on top of things. This made for uncomfortable relationships with those owed money by the ranch.
â€œI need the feed,â€ Nate said. The door opened into the kitchen and Gabe walked in. Nate turned his back on his brother and spoke quieter. â€œTake the money from my private account.â€
Sam coughed and paused for a few moments. â€œYouâ€™ll need to top it up, Nate.â€
â€œIâ€™ll sort it this morning,â€ he said firmly. â€œYou have my word.â€
He ended the call and turned to face his brother, expecting to have to explain anything Gabe may have overheard. Instead he didnâ€™t have to be worried. Gabe obviously had something on his mind if the concern written on his face was anything to go by.
â€œYou need to come out and see this,â€ Gabe said. He turned and left without further explanation. Nate followed him and pushed the concerns about the unpaid accounts to the back of his head. Heâ€™d talk to Marcus as soon as he could.
â€œWhatâ€™s wrong?â€ Nate asked worried. â€œIs it the horses? A guest?â€
â€œItâ€™s Luke,â€ Gabe said softly. Gabe pushed open the door of the small barn next to the house. Early evening sunlight flooded the dim interior and dust motes danced in the breeze caused by opening the door. It took a few seconds to focus in on what Gabe was pointing at.
Luke, his youngest brother, lay on the floor spread-eagled and naked, staring up at the roof and humming softly.
â€œFuck, is he drunk?â€ Nate asked.
Gabe picked up the small bag discarded by the door and handed it to Nate who sniffed the contents. Nate knew immediately what his little brother, spirited and full of the need to explore his world, had done.
â€œJeez,â€ Nate groaned. Then, squaring his shoulders, he crossed to his brother. Luke looked up at him and grinned like a freaking idiot.
â€œYouâ€™re not even seventeen yet,â€ Nate snapped at Luke.
â€œJuly twenty-eight todayâ€¦â€ Luke slurred. â€œHundred and fifty days â€˜til Christmas anâ€™ my birthday. I wanâ€™ a bike anâ€™ a Barbie anâ€¦â€ Luke giggled and held a hand in front of his face. Then he proceeded to examine his hand as if he hadnâ€™t seen it before.
Nate despaired at the fact that whatever he said, Luke did what he wanted anyway. Luke looked up at him with a goofy grin and a spaced out expression on his face. Nate bit back his temper.
â€œIt wonâ€™t hurt him, Nate,â€ Gabe placated. â€œWe were younger than him when we tried it.â€
â€œWe were rebelling, Gabe. Whatâ€™s he got to rebel against? He does what he wants anyway, not like we stop him.â€ That much was true. Luke was an independent teenager and a good kidâ€”responsible, organizedâ€¦everything Nate hadnâ€™t been at sixteen.
Gabe shrugged then chuckled. Great. Now he had Gabe laughing. Admittedly, finding Luke naked in the middle of their barn, staring up at the roof and talking about his Christmas Day birthday, was kinda funny on the surface. Still, drugs anywhere near his little brother were a serious matter and one Nate had to take seriously. Crossing his arms over his chest, Nate widened his stance. Add Luke high on pot to finding out Crooked Tree owed thousands in unpaid feed bills and he was quietly losing his cool.
Gabe copied his stance but was still half smiling. â€œSeems I remember you were sixteen when Mom found you stretched out in the back yard, talking to the sky, and you told her youâ€™d been drinking.â€
Nate heard what Gabe said and instantly recalled the day with the familiar grief of remembering his mom.
He was angry. â€œThatâ€™s beside the point. You were younger than me when you did it, but we never got found out.â€ Even as he spoke he knew what he was saying was complete crap, and just ever so slightly irrational. He also knew Gabe was going to call him on it.
â€œWhat exactly are you angry at?â€ Gabe began in a patient tone. â€œThat Luke has pot, or that he was caught with it?â€
Nate pointedly ignored Gabe. â€œYouâ€™re both my responsibility.â€ He wasnâ€™t lying. He wanted his brothers to have a different life than heâ€™d had, a better life, more choices. Why did they seem to follow what he did and then not listen to him? He wanted them to see that they could take a better path than the one heâ€™d had to follow out of stupidity and necessity.
Gabe thumped him on the arm. â€œJesus, Nate, I stopped being your responsibility the day I turned eighteen.â€
â€œIâ€™m still the head of the family,â€ Nate snapped. That was always his final defense and one he knew wouldnâ€™t stand up with his brothers. Ever since their parents had died in 2004â€”when he himself was eighteen, Gabe fifteen and Luke barely nineâ€”he had assumed the mantle of sometimes-parent, even though he was fully aware it was a losing battle. Hell, Gabe had been the easy one and Luke had been a good kid until heâ€™d fallen in with the Hemsley twins.