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Bar Harbor, Maine
Kit read the letter postmarked from Wyoming one more time, positive it had been sent to her by mistake. The honor to her deceased marine husband thrilled her, but didn't make sense.
Dear Mrs. Wentworth, My name is Carson Lundgren. You don't know me from Adam. I served as a marine in Afghanistan before I got out of the service.
When we returned to the U.S., I, along with Buck Summerhays and Ross Livingston, fellow retired marines, went into business at the Teton Valley Dude Ranch. Our idea was to offer what we could to the families of the fallen soldiers from our various units.
Your courageous husband, Winston Pettigrew Wentworth, served our country with honor and distinction. Now we'd like to honor him by offering you and your son Andrew an expense free, one week vacation at the dude ranch anytime in August. We'll pay for your airfare and any other travel expenses.
You're welcome to contact your husband's division commander, Colonel Hodges, at the phone number below. His office helped us obtain your address. If you're interested and have questions, please call our office. We've also listed our web address, where you'll find a brochure with more details about the ranch. We'll also be happy to email you any additional information.
Please know how anxious we are to give something back to you after his great sacrifice. With warmest regards, Carson Lundgren.
His words touched Kit beyond measure, but she was the daughter-in-law of Charles Wentworth, an East Coast billionaire. Such an honor should go to a grief-stricken family whose loss of the husband and father from the home would have affected them financially.
Without hesitation she reached for the phone. In a few minutes she was able to speak to Colonel Hodges. When he came on the line she explained the reason for her call.
"I think this invitation is the most wonderful thing that has happened to me and Andy since the funeral. But I fear it was sent by mistake. There are so many soldiers who've died in this ghastly war. They've left families who are now struggling to make a decent living without them. I'm not in that category and wouldn't dream of accepting this generous offer."
"Mrs. Wentworth, I don't think you understand.
These retired marines out in Wyoming know who you are. I've talked with them at length. They admired your husband for serving when he could have stayed home and enjoyed all the privileges of his life, but this invitation is about something much more important. A rich man can suffer as much as a poor one, don't you agree?"
"Well, yes. Of course, but"
"They want you and your son to know that your husband's heroism hasn't gone unnoticed. Perhaps you don't realize that these men are trying to deal with their own grief and the many losses they've seen.
"This isn't about money. It's about helping you find a way out of your grief any way they can. During your week there, they would like to get to know your son and talk to him about his father's great sacrifice. The truth is, they need healing, too. Does that help you to understand and accept their invitation?"
Kit was so humbled by his comments, she could hardly speak. "Yes," she whispered. "You've given me a new perspective about a lot of things. I appreciate your kindness more than you know. Thank you, Colonel."
After hanging up, she stared into space while she digested the full impact of Winn's commander's words. He could have no idea what this meant to her. For once she and Andy were being offered something that hadn't been prescribed and paid for by her father-in-law.
Little did the colonel know she and Andy had both been grieving in silence for yearslong before Winn's death. Now the loss of his father had caused a change in her withdrawn and morose son. Lately he'd been acting out in negative ways, and Kit was so heartsick for him she didn't know where to turn.
This letter was one he needed to see. It would make him proud of his father, and a trip to a ranch out west would be something neither of them had ever experienced before. The idea of getting away from her grieving in-laws for a whole week where she could be fully in charge of her son filled her with guilty excitement.
While Andy was still at his piano lesson, she hurried through the house to her father-in-law's den. It was almost time for dinner. She needed to talk to him before she mentioned anything to Andy.
She found him at his desk, where he was studying some papers. "Charles?" Since the day Winn had brought her to the Wentworth mansion after their wedding ten years ago, her father-in-law had told her to call him that. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
He lifted his graying head. "If this is about that notion of yours to move out on your own, we've had this conversation too many times before. It's out of the question."
Winn had wanted to live with his parents following their marriage, and he had dismissed Kit's questions about living away from the mansion. Now that her husband was gone, she intended to get a job and a place of her own for her and Andy. But she had to figure out all the details first before she told her son what they were going to do. Once she'd discussed it with Andy, then she'd find the right moment to tell her in-laws.
"No, I'm here about this letter I received." She placed it on the desk in front of him.
He put on his glasses. After reading it, he cleared his throat. Mr. Lundgren's words had gotten to her father-in-law, too. "I'm pleased they would like to honor Winston this way, but you can't think of accepting. This offer is for widows who have no money."
She told him about her conversation with Colonel Hodges. "He helped me understand that going to the ranch is for those retired marines, too, so I'd like to accept. I'll let Mr. Lundgren know we'll be coming for the last week of August."
"You can't go then. We have other plans."
Her cheeks grew warm battling him for every inch of ground. "But I'm in charge of the Cosgriff Memorial Library benefit. There's so much to do throughout the beginning of August, I won't be able to get away until it's over. When Andy realizes these men want to do something wonderful for himbecause of his father's heroismI'm hoping it will help him to feel a little happier before he starts school. Please. You and Florence take the rest of the family on that cruise of the fjords without us and enjoy yourselves."
"What do you mean, without us?" Florence spoke behind her.
Kit turned around to face her always stylish mother-in-law. "Andy and I are going to take a trip to Wyoming the last week of August. We're to be the special guests of some retired marines who want to honor Winn by inviting us to their dude ranch. It's all there in the letter." Her eyes darted to the desk.
"Have you forgotten we've had this trip planned for months?"
"No." What to do "I could call Mr. Lundgren right now and find out if it will be all right if we come the first week of September. We could leave on a Friday and come back the next Saturday. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go get Andy ready for dinner."
Teton Valley Dude Ranch
"You've got a faraway look in your eye, Ross." A cough had preceded the statement. "Is it possible there's a woman on your mind?"
On this beautiful Saturday morning, Ross Livingston and his partner Carson Lundgren had been inspecting the border of Carson's Teton Valley Dude Ranch, located fifteen minutes from Jackson, Wyoming. They could exercise the horses and talk business at the same time.
Buck Summerhayes, the other retired marine making up their triumvirate, had just married a woman who had come to the ranch in July as their invited guest. At the moment he was understandably detained, so he couldn't attend this meeting. Carson had married in June, leaving Ross the lone bachelor.
"I'm thinking a lot of things, but not about a woman." They'd ridden to the eastern section of the property away from the forest that provided spectacular blocks of color. It was the last day of August. Another week of temperatures in the lower seventies, and then it would be fall. Carson had told his friend from a more southern clime that the cold came a little earlier here, so enjoy the warm weather while they could.
Ross's dark brown eyes followed the flat, treeless sweep of sage with no sign of civilization in sight.
He loved every square inch of this fabulous property watched over by the magnificent Grand Teton.
"If you're having reservations about our recent decision to keep the dude ranch running year round, I'm open to anything you have to say. This place hasn't operated in the black for years. It's nothing new."
That's what worried Ross. Though their regular dude ranch business was growing, he wanted Carson to be able to get out from under the constant worry of making ends meet, a problem Ross had never been forced to deal with.
"No reservations. Like you, I'm anxious to keep this going for a year to see how we do in our venture."
Turning the working ranch into a dude ranch had been Carson's idea when the three of them had been hospitalized together at Walter Reed in January. He'd inherited it from his deceased grandfather and wanted to make it into a profitable business.
The guys had gotten together and pooled their resources. Once they'd been discharged from the hospital, they'd started making their dream a reality. Besides building new cabins and making renovations to the ranch house and other structures, they'd created a website and done enough advertising to attract people from all over the country who wanted to experience life on a ranch. It had been a major endeavor that had included the hiring of staff.
Throughout all that process they'd also discussed how to manage their guilt for surviving the war and had come up with the idea to give a week's free vacation once a month to a son or a daughter of a fallen soldier. To be a substitute daddy for a week to the fatherless children had been a part of their goal, but there was much more to it.
The guys hoped that in helping the mothers and children explore the outdoors on horseback and take in the wonders of the rugged natural world, they'd let go of some of their grief and learn that there was joy in being alive despite their loss. The children needed to know their fathers were good men who'd made an invaluable contribution to their country and would always be remembered. Hopefully the activities the ranch provided would help restore their confidence.
So far the "daddy dude ranch" experiment, as they called it, had produced wonders far beyond anyone's expectations. Not only had the two women and children who'd come this summer found new joy here, his partners had lost their hearts to them and there'd been two marriages.
Ross found it uncanny what had happened, marveling over the happy coincidences. Now there was one more military widow with her son due to arrive this eveningKathryn and Andrew Wentworth. Their husband and father happened to have been the son of Charles Cavanaugh Wentworth from Maine, an established and wealthy East Coast family.
According to Colonel Hodges, Mrs. Wentworth had been hesitant to accept the guys' invitation, feeling it should go to a family in financial need. That piece of information did her credit, but her husband's exceptional valor had decided them on giving him and his family the special recognition he deserved.
Ross had still to decide what it was going to be like taking care of two people who'd been given every luxury life had to offer. Having been born a Livingston of the billionaire oil barons of Texas, he knew firsthand the kind of society she and her son had come from. He would reserve judgment, however, until after he'd spent some time with them.
As for now, he was excited about an idea he wanted to explore with Carson. It had been percolating in his mind for a long time, but he hadn't wanted to bring it up until he could see how well their dude ranch business had been doing.
"So, what gives?" Carson prodded him.
Ross would have answered, but like Carson and Buck, he had a cough they'd picked up in Afghanistan that had ended their military careers. This morning there was a hint of smoke in the air from a forest fire in nearby Yellowstone. It had aggravated their coughs. He pulled out his inhaler prescribed by the doctor. Pretty soon he got some relief, but the medicine had a tendency to make him sleepy, something he had to fight while they were out on the range.
When he finally caught his breath, Ross began. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't you once tell me your great great grandfather obtained the mineral rights to this place before the government could get their hands on them?"
Carson eyed him with curiosity. "I did."
"I've been giving it a lot of thought since Sublette and Fremont Counties bordering you have been seeing a boom in natural gas."
"That's right. You graduated in petroleum engineering. You think there's gas under my land?" he asked before letting go with a cough.
"With more and more energy companies springing up around Lander and Thermopolis, I think there's a pretty good possibility you're living on top of a big pocket of it here in Teton County. Wyoming has the second largest proven natural gas reserve in the U.S. behind Texas."
I ought to know, he thought with a grimace. His last name was synonymous with oil in the Lone Star State, where he'd been raised.
"The money you'd derive from a producing well could keep the ranch solvent for years to come. It's just a thought." One Ross would like to see happen for his friend.
"A few years ago my grandfather told me he'd been approached by a gas company, but he wouldn't hear of doing anything about it."
"I can understand that. Wyoming is a pristine environment that has been underexplored and underex-ploited. I'm sure he wanted to keep it that way."
"He feared the onslaught of progress."
"You can't blame him. But the ever-increasing demand for gas in the U.S. has led to a quadrupling of the price, causing companies in Russia and Venezuela, both big natural gas suppliers, to have shut off access to foreign companies. The same in the Gulf of Mexico where easy-to-drill reserves have been depleted. Progress has made its way to your door."
Carson pushed his cowboy hat back on his head. "You're talking about drilling for it right here?"
"This is the flattest uninhabited section of your land away from people and animals. Bringing in a road over this section would cause the least amount of disturbance to the environment and would be virtually invisible. Naturally I can't give you proof there's gas here without doing some preliminary drilling."
His friend was quiet for a minute. "Wouldn't that cost a ton of money I don't have?"
Ross nodded. "But I have some savings I can draw from. It would be my way of investing in your ranch to give you something back after what you've done for me. Then I'd feel a real part of it."
"You already are," Carson answered solemnly.
"I'd like to do more for you."
After a pause Carson asked, "What all would be involved?"
Ross was pleased his friend was at least listening to his proposal. "Wyoming's gas is unconventional. It doesn't sit in easy pools above oil, but thousands of feet beneath the earth in pockets of sandstone and coal formations. If the gas is there, the steel pipe will have to drive 11,000 feet into the ground to capture it.
"One good thing. Nowadays gas companies can put the derricks down on mats instead of the ground in order to preserve the top soil and roots. But there's no way around the fact that there are still a lot of negatives, and always will be."