Searching For Santa
By JANET DAILEY ZEBRA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Janet Dailey
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-4201-0306-9
"Got a kiss for the old man today, Casey love?" the weak voice asked from the hospital bed.
"Sure do." A determinedly happy smile curled the corners of her mouth upward as Casey Gilmore dodged the hanging ropes and weights that held her father's leg in traction. His orthopedist considered the treatment the best way to go for her father's hip fracture-it had been a messy break and a hip replacement wasn't an option at this point. She brushed her lips lightly over his cheek, noticing how pale he was under what was left of his tan. Not even the steady dose of painkillers had erased the reflection of pain in his brown eyes, only dulled their brilliance.
"Sorry to be so late, Dad." The cheerful smile on her face didn't match her troubled eyes. Casey glanced briefly at her mother seated in a chair next to the bed before she herself sat in the adjacent chair.
"We were just beginning to worry about you." Her mother studied her closely, her teasing voice revealing concern and apprehension growing underneath. These last few days had been rough.
"I had lunch with Johnny before he went back to North Platte," Casey explained, keeping her voice purposely light so her father wouldn't know how disappointed she was with the results of that talk. She brushed her short-cropped brown hair away from her equally dark eyes in a nervous gesture, sensingthat despite the lightness of their greetings, her parents had been having a serious discussion before her arrival. "I see you haven't started chasing the nurses yet," she joked to fill the silence.
"Not likely to, either," John Gilmore sighed. His dark hair, just beginning to become flecked with gray, moved restlessly on the white pillow. "I hate this contraption-I didn't know they still used them. Old-fashioned treatment for an old guy, huh?"
"Dad, you're not old."
"I'm feeling every year of my life." He looked at the ceiling in desperation even as he muttered what amounted to a curse. "Of all the times to get thrown by a horse, this wasn't the best. I guess I should count myself lucky that it didn't happen before Thanksgiving. At least we had that time together, without a worry in the world."
Casey knew what he meant. They'd followed the cherished ritual of taking turns to say what they were most thankful for, and her dad had looked around the table at his family and said he was thankful for them most of all, and after that, health and happiness.
Everything had been in its place on the snow-white tablecloth, right down to the cut-glass bowl of cranberry sauce and the little paper turkeys she'd made in grade school that her mom had kept ever since, embarrassingly. A day of convivial feasting with a few good friends; then, after the groaning about eating too much and the cleanup, there was major-league football on TV for the guys and a few of the women. Her mom dragged out her beloved scrapbooks and set to work with the most recent photos, decorating them with little doodads from the hobby shop. Being a good sport, Casey had bounced between the scrapbooks and the game.
It seemed like an awfully long time ago.
Her father cleared his throat to get her attention. "How are things at the ranch, Casey?"
She had trouble meeting his earnest gaze. How glad she was that her mother had spent the last few days in Scottsbluff with her father so that she didn't know the latest crisis that had occurred. Her mother was open about her feelings and couldn't have kept a thing from her husband no matter how hard she tried.
"Outside of everyone missing you so much, everything's fine." Casey's fingers were crossed and hidden in her lap. She refused to think about the broken water pump or the ten head of cattle missing from the Burnt Hollow pasture.
"You wouldn't be keeping anything from me, Casey?" he asked with his usual perception at reading her mind.
"You're a worrier! The most serious thing that's happened since your accident is that Injun threw a shoe." Casey grimaced. "At least he didn't break a leg."
The soft chuckle at his tenderhearted daughter's vehement statement couldn't compare with his usual robust laughter. "That horse isn't worth the hay he eats." His expression grew more serious as he glanced briefly at his wife, then back to Casey. "Fred Lawlor from the bank stopped in this morning after you and Johnny left," he said.
Not more problems, Casey groaned inwardly, knowing how precarious their position had become financially since the cattle market had taken a nosedive. Some of the local farmers had done well planting corn for ethanol, taking advantage of the boom in biofuels, but the Gilmores hadn't been able to even think about switching over. And with the up-and-down swings in the value of farmland, there had been plenty of foreclosures in the county.
She looked at her father's face-something told her that Fred, his oldest friend, hadn't stopped by just for old times' sake.
"Nice of him," she said to be polite.
"Yes, yes, it was." John Gilmore moved uncomfortably in the bed. The white hospital gown looked unnatural covering his chest. "He made a suggestion that your mother and I have been talking over."
Casey stiffened unconsciously, waiting to hear what that was.
"He knows I'm going to be in traction for some time as this broken hip mends. Then a wheelchair. And after that-well, I'm not a young man anymore. Even with the surgery that inserted the steel pin, it's going to take time for my creaky old bones to heal. And the doc thinks I'm going to need months of physical therapy, and that costs a mint."
"Our insurance will cover it," her mother said soothingly.
"I hope so," he said.
"I'm filing a claim for preapproval right this week," her mother reassured him.
Casey nodded. "Mom's been up to her ears in paperwork, Dad. She gets around to it when you're sleeping, just in case you didn't know."
"Is that right? Lucille, you just gave me another reason to love you." He gave his wife a fond look, then turned back to Casey. "In the meantime, the running of the ranch has pretty well been dumped in your lap."
"I can handle it, Dad," Casey said quickly. "We already finished all the dipping, branding, and vaccinating before you got hurt. Mark will be out of school soon and he can lend a hand, even if he is only fifteen. You'll be up and around to supervise the fall work."
The sympathetic exchange of glances between her parents told Casey that her arguments weren't successful.
She forged on. "Sam's there, too. And if I need extra help, you know Smitty will always come over. Dad, I am twenty-one. I know every inch of the ranch. I've lived there all my life."
"I'm not doubting your ability, Casey. And I've never pulled any punches with you or your mother. You know how hard we got hit last year between the late spring blizzard and the cattle prices. If it wasn't for the rising land values, I don't know if I could have got another loan from the bank. Fred Lawlor knows you pretty well. If it was his choice, he'd trust you to take care of things." He couldn't meet her eyes any longer as his gaze shifted to his right leg dangling in the air. "But the bank manager suggested that we bring someone more adult in to run the ranch until I'm in a position to take over myself."
Casey's teeth bit hard into her lower lip to keep it from trembling. Staring down at her well-worn but much loved jeans and the hopelessly scuffed toes of her roping boots, she took a deep breath. "I get it. I'm too young. And female. If Johnny were home it would be different, wouldn't it?"
"We don't really know the reason why, dear," her mother said quietly. "But the bank gets to decide whether they give us a loan or not. It's just not that easy to get one, even though our credit rating's pretty good."
John Gilmore frowned. Like everyone who had to make a living despite the vagaries of nature, he'd had good years and bad. He was the kind of man who hated to owe, but he'd been overextended more than once, and even though he'd kept to a strict repayment schedule, the rating wasn't solid-gold perfect.
"Just because the banks made a zillion bad loans to other people doesn't mean we Gilmores are a bad risk." Casey attempted to laugh, but only a bitter sound came out as she rose from her chair and walked to the window, her face clouded over.
"If there was a chance that I could recuperate at home, they probably would've considered it, maybe even given us decent terms. You have to face facts, Casey," her father said, "you can't consider a two-hour drive each way as being close in an emergency."
"Well, we can call you if we need you, right? C'mon, even a dinky rural hospital like this one has phones."
John Gilmore frowned. "Yes, but I can't be there to make decisions for you. What if a cow needs doctoring and you don't know what to do?"
"Call the vet, what else?"
He shook his head. "You haven't heard? The last one actually living in the county retired and he's not going to be replaced anytime soon. Folks have had to let stock die because the nearest large-animal vet is a hundred miles away, trying to help someone else who's just as desperate."
"All right." She had to concede the point. Doctoring big, dirty cows that had to be caught on sprawling farms just wasn't as profitable as, say, neutering poodles in a lucrative suburban veterinary practice. Her dad was right about there being a shortage of vets.
"So someone else has to run our place," he said. "Someone who can handle a few everyday disasters on his own when it comes to the animals, at least until help arrives."
"But I can manage their care," she protested. "You showed me a lot of basic animal medicine and I learned some in 4-H, too."
"4-H didn't teach you everything you'd need to know," John Gilmore said quietly. "You're pretty tough, Casey, but there's only your mom and teenage brother there to help you. It takes serious muscle to do a lot of things that need doing around a ranch."
She wanted to sulk, but she controlled the impulse. It wasn't right, not when her dad had to be in the hospital for so long.
"And here I am, strung up like a country ham." John Gilmore sighed. "I feel so darn useless."
"Don't say that," his wife remonstrated.
"Why not? It's true." He looked up at his leg as if he were mad at it. "Anyway, you'll have less to worry about with a take-charge type of guy."
"You're the only boss man the Anchor Bar has ever had," Casey protested. "I don't know if I could take orders from anyone else but you. Can't you talk to Mr. Lawlor again? You could persuade him to-"
"He knows a man from Ogallala," John Gilmore interrupted firmly, "who's extremely experienced and capable. I've already told Fred to get hold of him and send him out." A little more gently, he added, "I'd like to know I can depend on you to help things run smoothly for him."
"You want me to just shut up and take it like a man, huh?" Casey didn't bother to hide her annoyance. She and her father were too close for him not to know it was there. Her chin jutted out determinedly as she turned from the window toward him. "You can depend on me, Dad, but you knew that all along."
"I was pretty sure of it," he said, smiling, "but I feel better now that I've heard you say it."
"Besides, honey, we want your dad home for Christmas. And he'll still have to take it easy even then," her mother pointed out. "He can't come back to a slew of problems that could have been avoided."
A nurse walked into the room carrying a tray. "It's that time again, Mr. Gilmore." She glanced at Casey and her mother.
They nodded to her and rose. They could take a hint. Hospitals had routines, and patients who couldn't get out of bed needed a lot of care.
"I'll say good-bye now, Dad." Casey walked over to kiss her father's cheek. "I want to get home before Mark does." She paused. "Um, about the man who's coming, when should I expect him?"
"Fred said he'd try to get him out there the first of the week."
Casey raised her eyebrows and then smiled. Okay, that was five days at the most to make sure everything was in order. "Mark and I will be down Sunday," she promised, giving him a thumbs-up sign as she followed her mother out the door.
Outside she paused to look at her mother, taking in the pinched lines around her mouth and the way her dress hung loosely around her waist. Casey had often admired her mother's devotion to her husband. Now she could see the toll that love had taken in the four days since the accident. The serene composure of Lucille Gilmore's delicate features faded as she turned to her daughter.
"You do understand, don't you, Casey, that your father was in no position to argue with the bank?" she said.
"I can understand it without liking it."
"To be truthful, I'm glad he put his foot down," her mother sighed, "metaphorically speaking. Obviously he can't, poor soul, in real life." Her blue eyes glanced apologetically at Casey. "I didn't like the idea of you shouldering all that responsibility alone, not when things are so difficult."
"Everything's going to turn out fine, Mom. You just worry about Dad and leave the ranch and the new boss man to me to worry about."
"All these years I've been so concerned about you being such a tomboy in some ways. Now with Johnny working for the railway instead of taking over the ranch like your father and I had planned, I guess we can be glad you're the way you are. When this is all over and John is back home-" There was a catch in her voice.
Casey laughed with the same tight sound to her voice that her mother had. Neither one of them could discuss the subject most prominent on their minds, that of the man lying in the hospital room with a broken hip. Even when Lucille Gilmore talked about wanting to be home with Mark, her youngest son, her husband's injuries were foremost on her mind. She'd been sleeping at the hospital on a cot in her husband's room and seeing that he had everything he needed. The small rural hospital didn't have enough nurses to go around, especially when a trauma case came in.
After exchanging parting kisses, Lucille promised, somewhat reluctantly, that she would be returning home with Casey and Mark when they came to the hospital on Sunday. Casey could tell that her mother was torn between her desire to be at her husband's side and to be with her children. The subject had probably been discussed thoroughly with her father and the result had been decided. There was no need for Casey to try to persuade her that apologizing wasn't necessary. Lucille didn't have to be at the ranch every minute, not with grown children.
Well, she was grown, Casey amended that. Mark, at fifteen, was still self-centered and could be a real pain.
As Casey left the hospital, she toyed with the idea of making a side trip to North Platte to meet with her older brother again, to renew her earlier pleas at lunch that he return to the ranch to help out in this new crisis. She had only to remember his forceful refusal of her suggestion. During his teens, John had tried to live up to his father's wishes that he learn ranching so that he could take over one day, but after he had finished school, he'd enlisted in the army. Two tours of duty overseas had changed his mind about living in the same place he'd grown up in.
He'd told Casey first that he had decided not to go back to working for his father. His enlistment had ended in late summer of last year and he had wasted no time in letting his parents know that he was taking a job with the Union Pacific Railroad in North Platte.
The disappointment had been a bitter pill for her parents, combined with all the setbacks they had suffered, but whatever they felt had been concealed. Casey could only guess at how upset her father had been when he stoically accepted the fact that his eldest son intended to make his own future. She'd secretly hoped that she would be able to persuade her brother to return, even temporarily. Johnny had been sympathetic and ashamed when he refused.
"I made the break once," he had said. "I know Dad would never stand in my way. But don't you see how guilty I feel about letting him down? I know how much he was counting on me. If I came back now, I'd be building his hopes up again. Let's face it, Casey, you think more of that ranch than I do."
But he'd added something else that forestalled Casey from contacting him again about the news that someone was coming to take over control of the ranch.
Excerpted from Searching For Santa by JANET DAILEY
Copyright © 2008 by Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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