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Will Cash pulled off the road and parked next to the mailbox at the entrance to the family pecan farm. Lately he'd been the only one who bothered to bring in the mail. Conway should train his twin stepsons to ride their bikes to the box, but maybe five-year-olds were too young for that kind of responsibility.
As usual the box was stuffed. He gathered the envelopes and hopped into the truck, then directed the air vents toward his face. Normal highs for June were in the low nineties but today's temperature hovered near one hundred, promising a long hot summer for southwest Arizona.
Will sifted through the pile. Grocery-store ads, business fliers, electric bill, a statement from Warehouse Furniture-Conway and his new wife, Isi, were remodeling the farmhouse. A boot catalog for Merle Haggard Cash-otherwise known as Mack to friends and family. His younger brother spent way too much money on fancy footwear, but he liked to look sharp when his band, Cowboy Rebels, played at the local honky-tonks. His fingers froze on a letter addressed to Willie Nelson Cash. He didn't recognize the feminine script and there was no return address. Before he examined the envelope further, his cell phone rang.
"Hold your horses, Porter. I'll be there in a minute." Wednesday night was poker night and his brothers and brother-in-law were waiting for him in the bunkhouse. If not for the weekly card game, they'd hardly see each other.
His sister, Dixie, and her husband, Gavin, lived in Yuma-forty-five minutes away. Will's eldest brother, Johnny, had married his boss's daughter, and he and Shannon lived in the foreman's cabin at the Triple D Ranch. And Mack spent most of the week and every other weekend as a trail hand at the Black Jack Mountain Dude Ranch. That left Will, Buck and Porter living in the bunkhouse on the farm.
He tossed the mail aside and drove on-slowly. The days of racing along the dirt road had ended when Conway married Isi and they moved into the farmhouse with the twins and a black Lab named Bandit. He parked in the yard and as soon as he got out of the pickup, his nephews ambushed him.
"Uncle Will, guess what we made?"
Will walked up to the porch where the boys sat on the steps with the dog wedged between them. The twins wore blue jeans and identical Western shirts in different colors-Javier liked red and Miguel preferred blue. "What are you guys up to?"
Miguel held out a piece of paper. "It's Bandit's new doghouse."
Will examined the crude drawing. "Who's gonna build it?"
"Our dad said you could build Bandit a house." Of course he did. Will worked in construction, so naturally he was the go-to guy in the family for projects involving a hammer and nails.
"We can help." Javier's big brown eyes pleaded with
"Okay, I'll build Bandit a house, but you'll have to wait awhile." Will worked for a family-owned construction company run by Ben Wallace-a guy he'd gone to high school with. Ben had landed a new job to construct a classroom wing on the Mission Community Church. The work would keep them busy for weeks.
"I'll give your dad a list of supplies to buy at the lumberyard," Will said.
The boys raced down the porch steps and threw their arms around his legs. "Thanks, Uncle Will," Miguel said.
"You're welcome. Now go inside."
Javier shook his head. "We have to stay out here 'cause baby Nate's sleeping."
While the men played cards the women sat in the house and did whatever it was that married women did-probably talk about their husbands. "Don't get into trouble." Will walked over to the bunkhouse, opening the letter addressed to him. When he removed the note inside, a photo fell out and landed on his steel-toed boot. He snatched it off the ground and stared at the teenage boy.
What the heck?
Dear Will He read a few more lines but the words blurred and a loud buzzing filled his ears. The kid in the picture was named Ryan and he was fourteen years old.
Slowly Will's eyes focused and he studied the photo. The young man had the same brownish-blond hair as
Will's but his eyes weren't brown-they were blue like his mother's.
"Buck!" he shouted. "Get your ass out here right now!"
The farmhouse door opened and his sister stepped outside. "Willie Nelson Cash, don't you dare swear in front of the boys."
"Take the twins inside, Dixie." She must have sensed his dark mood, because she did as he asked without mouthing off. Will stared at the bunkhouse, afraid if he went inside he'd tear the place apart. When Buck came out, the rest of the Cash brothers and their brother-in-law, Gavin, followed.
"What's wrong?" Johnny's blue eyes darkened with concern.
Will ignored his eldest brother-if Johnny had his way he'd take control of the situation like he'd done all through their childhood. This was Will's fight with Buck and no one else's.
"What's got you fired up?" Porter ran a hand through his shaggy hair and flashed his boyish grin-the one that stopped women from one to ninety-nine in their tracks. "Steam's spewing from your ears."
"Shut up, Porter." Will glared at his younger brother. "This is between me and Buck."
"I've never seen you this pissed." Conway glanced at his brothers. "Maybe you ought to take a couple of deep breaths before you go off half-cocked."
"Is that what you tell the twins when they're itching for a fight?" Now that the handsomest Cash brother had settled down and become a father, he liked to believe he was the mature one.
"Conway's right." Mack's deep baritone voice carried over the heads of his brothers. "Whatever's got you riled, Will, it's not like you to attack one of us."
What Mack said was true, but Will had never been in a pickle like this before. His musician brother could write a song about the news he'd just received and make a fortune off Will's misery.
"This concerns Buck and me." Will shook the letter. "You knew all along."
Buck stepped forward, using his broad shoulders to push his brothers out of the way. "Knew what?" Of all his siblings, Buck was the quietest and through the years he'd assumed the role of family peacemaker. Too bad this was one dispute he wouldn't be able to settle to Will's satisfaction.
"Remember Marsha Bugler?"
"Of course. Why?"
"She said you'd vouch for her that she's telling the truth."
His brother's eye twitched-a sure sign of guilt.
"The truth about what?"
"That after I got her pregnant, she kept the baby."
The color drained from Buck's face.
The tenuous hold Will had on his temper broke, and he let Buck have it. "You've kept in touch with Marsha since high school. How the hell could you not tell me that I had a son!"
Buck's pleading gaze swung to Johnny. "Honest to God, I didn't know Ryan was Will's son until a short while ago."
"What do you mean by that?" Will's intestines twisted into a giant knot.
"Marsha didn't tell me you were Ryan's father until I saw her in March."
"This past March?"
"A year ago March," Buck muttered.
Will lunged for Buck, but Johnny held him tight. "You knew I had a son for over a year!"
"She made me promise not to spill the beans until she had a chance to tell you," Buck said.
"To heck with promising Marsha, I'm your brother." Will's chest physically ached at the thought of his own flesh and blood keeping the truth from him.
"Marsha never planned to tell me at first, but I confronted her when I noticed Ryan looked like you."
Will wasn't buying his brother's story. "It took you thirteen years to make the connection between me and
"I only looked up Marsha a few times since she'd moved to Los Angeles and Ryan was never there when I stopped by until March."
"How good of friends are you with Marsha? Have you slept with her?"
"It's not like that between us, Will."
Will had known the answer before he'd asked the question, but he was desperate to find a way out of this mess. "Is there a chance Ryan isn't my kid?"
"Marsha's not a slut." Buck jabbed his finger in the air.
"If she had sex with me on the first date there's no telling who she slept with before she went off to college."
Buck jumped forward, his fist clipping Will across the jaw. Will stumbled, then regained his balance and threw a punch that connected with Buck's cheek. His brothers attempted to intervene, but Will was too angry to care who he hit. He shoved Mack out of the way then took aim again, but Buck ducked and Will's fist smashed into Porter's face.
"Shit, Will! I think you broke my nose!" Porter held his face in his hands and moaned.
Johnny stepped forward and punched Will in the stomach. Will dropped to his knees and wheezed. "Are you going to behave or do I need to tie you down?"
His brother would carry through with his threat. When they were kids, they'd gotten into an argument and Johnny had tied Will's hands to the porch post with a piece of rope then took off. Will had waited three hours for Grandma Ada and Dixie to come home and free him.
"Everyone get in the bunkhouse." Johnny scowled at the brothers until they obeyed.
After the yard emptied out, Johnny said, "Let's go."
Will followed his brother, because he didn't know what else to do. He'd never felt so lost, helpless or angry.
They hiked in silence until the family graveyard came into view. Johnny sat beneath the ancient pecan tree, which shaded the tombstones. Unable to articulate his thoughts and feelings Will paced in front of the ornate gate surrounding the plots.
"You're about to explode. Let it out."
"Look at me." Will spread his arms wide. "I've got no business being a father."
"Whether you do or don't doesn't matter. The deed is done."
"I've got nothing to show my son. I'm a grown man who lives in a bunkhouse with his brothers. I drive a thirteen-year-old vehicle and the most expensive thing I own is my rodeo gear and my truck."
"Don't sell yourself short. You've got plenty to offer."
"Yeah? Like what?"
"Like being a father to your son. That's more than you grew up with."
Johnny's words sent a cold chill through Will.
"Did Marsha give a reason why she waited until now to contact you about Ryan?"
"No. I don't have a clue why she suddenly wants to come clean with me."
"Then she owes you some answers," Johnny said.
"How am I supposed to look my son in the eye after I insisted his mother get rid of him?"
"Maybe Marsha hasn't told Ryan the circumstances of his birth," Johnny said.
"And if she did? Then what?"
Johnny shrugged. "You cross that bridge when you come to it."
"Damn." Will punched the air with his fist. "Ben signed a contract to work on the Mission Community Church." And the church's pastor was Jim Bugler- Marsha's father. Ryan's grandfather. "I can't face the pastor after I abandoned his grandson."
"You can't abandon a person you didn't know existed."
"You're wrong, Johnny. I deserted Ryan when I told Marsha I didn't want to be a father." There was no getting past that fact.
"Give yourself time to get used to the idea."
"No chance of that happening. Marsha and Ryan are spending the summer in Stagecoach."
"When does she plan to arrive?"
In less than twenty-four hours Will would head down a path he'd never planned to travel.
"How come we're staying the whole summer at Grandpa and Grandma's?"
Marsha took her eyes off the road for a second and glanced at her son. "Because they're getting older and they won't be here forever." The forever part might come sooner rather than later for her father.
Right after Christmas her mother had phoned with the news that her father's prostate cancer had taken a turn for the worse. The most worrisome news had been learning he'd refused all further treatment except hormone therapy. At seventy-nine, she understood his reluctance to endure a second round of radiation and more surgery. Marsha hadn't told Ryan the seriousness of his grandfather's health, because her parents had asked her not to.
The day she'd first learned of her father's cancer diagnosis she'd been in a state of panic and then Buck had shown up on her doorstep. He'd been in town for a rodeo and hadn't called ahead to tell her he was stopping by. That morning Ryan had been home. Buck had taken one look at her thirteen-year-old son and recognized the resemblance to his brother.
Marsha's secret was out.
After Ryan left the apartment to go to a friend's house, Buck asked if Will was Ryan's father and Marsha had told him the truth. Buck had been stunned and angry that she'd kept Ryan a secret all these years but Marsha had begged him not to tell Will. She'd confessed that she was having difficulty dealing with her father's cancer diagnosis and feared revealing the identity of her son's father right now would overwhelm Ryan. Buck had reluctantly agreed to keep her secret.
One month had turned into two then three and before she knew it, a year had passed since Buck's visit and she still hadn't found the courage to contact Will. The news that her father had stopped fighting his cancer had forced Marsha to confront the past head-on.
Marsha understood the risks in coming clean with Will after she'd gone against his wishes to keep their child. He'd been adamant that he wasn't ready to be a father. And she hadn't been ready to be a mother, but the conscience of a pastor's daughter refused to allow her to abort a baby or let her father go to his grave without knowing who'd gotten her pregnant.
Ryan turned the page on his Kindle, then asked, "What are you gonna do all summer?"
"I'm working as an online tutor for the University of Southern California," she reminded him. Marsha taught high-school chemistry and had completed her doctoral degree a year ago and hoped to work her way into a teaching position at a university.
"Does Grandma still have her library card?"
"I'm sure she does." Her mother paid extra for a membership to the Yuma County Library so Ryan had plenty of reading material to keep him entertained. In exchange for the use of the library card, Ryan helped his grandmother in the church garden.
Even though she'd taken precautions by never telling Buck when she was in town and avoiding cowboy hangouts and local rodeos, Marsha was surprised that she'd managed to avoid running into Will or his siblings during her two-week visits home.
She slowed the car as it approached the four-way stop in Stagecoach. The town was comprised of a handful of businesses, their brick exteriors faded by the desert sun. The main drag consisted of bars, Vern's DriveIn, the Pawn Palace, Mel's Barber Shop, the Bee Luv Lee Beauty Salon, where Marsha's former high-school friend worked, Jose's Mexican Diner, a Chevron gas station and a Wells Fargo Savings and Loan.
"Not much has changed since last summer," she said.
Ryan grunted, but didn't glance up from his e-reader.
She hoped she wasn't making a huge mistake introducing Ryan to his father. Unlike her son, Will hadn't cared much about school or grades. She worried that instead of seeing all the special qualities Ryan possessed, Will would find him lacking.
"Can we go to the library tomorrow?" Ryan asked.
"I've got plans."
"What are you doing?"
"Meeting an old friend of mine."
"A boy I went to high school with." She turned onto the gravel road that led to the Mission Community Church. A quarter mile later she parked in front of her parents' stucco ranch house, which sat fifty yards from the church. "Grandma's waiting at the door."
Marsha turned off the car, and they both got out. "Leave the luggage for now."
"Look at you, Ryan," Sara Bugler exclaimed. "You've grown at least two inches since you were here last."
Ryan hugged his grandmother. "I'm taller than Mom now."
"Yes, you are."