Something to hold on to . . .
Not so long ago, Reese Lockhart was commanding a company of Marines. Now his life is spiraling out of control. The Bar C ranch outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming may be his last chance to save himself . . .
Shaylene Crawford, an Afghanistan veteran herself, knows all too well the demons of PTSD—that’s why she’s determined to turn her family’s cattle ranch into a place where wounded warriors can work, find a home, and rebuild their souls. Her embittered father nearly drank and gambled the place away, but with help from a small crew of vets—including the newest arrival, the quietly compelling Reese Lockhart—she intends to hold on to her dream. And when someone tries to destroy that dream, Reese will do whatever it takes to defend her . . .
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Wind River Rancher
By Lindsay McKenna
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Nauman Living Trust
All rights reserved.
Reese Lockhart's stomach was tight with hunger as he stood at the outskirts of a small Wyoming town called Wind River. The sign indicated a population of two thousand. He'd gone a month without decent food. Six inches of snow stood on the sides of the road where he'd walked the last ten miles on 89A north. It headed toward Jackson Hole, where he was hoping to find work.
The town, for a Monday afternoon, was pretty slow. A couple of pickup trucks came and went, a few people walked along the sidewalks on either side of the highway that ran through the center of town. He halted outside Becker's Hay and Feed Store, an aged redbrick building standing two stories high. The red tin roof was steep and sunlight reflected off it, making Reese squint. Bright lights now hurt his eyes.
Taking a deep breath, feeling the fear of rejection once again, he pushed open the door to the store. Would he get yelled at by the owner? Told to get out? It was early May and snow had fallen the night before. The sleepy town of Wind River still had slush on its streets at midday.
The place was quiet, smelled of leather, and he saw a man in his sixties, tall, lean, and with silver hair, sitting behind the counter. He was sitting on a wooden stool that was probably the same age as he was, an ancient-looking calculator in his work-worn hands as he methodically punched the buttons.
Girding himself, ignoring the fact that he hadn't eaten in two days, Reese's gaze automatically swung around the huge establishment. A hay and feed store was something he was familiar with. Maybe the owner wanted some part-time help. He needed to make enough money to buy a decent meal.
Shoving away the shame he felt over his situation, he saw the man lift his head, wire-rim spectacles halfway down his large nose, his blue eyes squinting at Reese as he approached the long wooden counter.
"Howdy, stranger. Can I help you?" the man asked.
"Maybe," Reese said. "I'm looking for work. I saw you have several big barns out back, and a granary. Do you have any openings?" Automatically, Reese tensed. He knew he looked rough with a month's worth of beard on his face, and his clothes were dirty and shabby. At one time, he'd been a Marine Corps captain commanding a company of 120 Marines. And he'd been damn good at it until —
"I'm Charlie Becker, the owner," the man said, shifting and thrusting his hand across the desk toward him. "Welcome to Wind River. Who might you be?"
"Reese Lockhart," he said, and he gripped the man's strong hand. He liked Charlie's large, watery eyes because he saw kindness in them. Reese was very good at assessing people. He'd kept his Marines safe and helped them through their professional and personal ups and downs over the years he commanded Mike Company in Afghanistan. Charlie was close to six feet tall, lean like a rail, and wore a white cowboy shirt and blue jeans. Reese sensed this older gentleman wouldn't throw him out of here with a curse — or even worse, call law enforcement and accuse him of trespassing.
The last place where he'd tried to find some work, they'd called him a druggie and told him to get the hell out; he smelled. While walking the last ten miles to Wind River, Reese had stopped when he discovered a stream on the flat, snow-covered land, and tried to clean up the best he could. The temperature was near freezing as he'd gone into the bushes, away from the busy highway, and stripped to his waist. He'd taken handfuls of snow and scrubbed his body, shivering, but hell, that was a small price to pay to try to not smell so bad. He hadn't had a real shower in a month, either.
"You a vet, by any chance?" Charlie asked, his eyes narrowing speculatively upon Reese.
"Yes, sir. Marine Corps." He said it with pride.
"Good to know, Son." Charlie looked toward a table at the rear of the store, which held coffee, cookies, and other goodies offered to patrons. "Why don't you go help yourself to some hot coffee and food over there?" He gestured in that general direction. "My wife, Pixie, made 'em. Right good they are. I usually get a stampede of ranchers comin' in here when word gets 'round that Pixie baked some goodies." He chuckled.
Reese wanted to run to that table, but he stood relaxed as he could be, given anxiety was tunneling through him constantly. "I'd like that, sir. Thank you ..."
"Don't call me sir," Charlie said. "Americans owe ALL of you men and women who have sacrificed so much for us. Now, go help yourself to all you want. There's plenty more where that came from. Pixie usually drives in midafternoon with a new batch of whatever has inspired her in the kitchen each day."
Reese needed something worse than he needed food right now, so he hesitated. "Do you have any work I might do around here, Mr. Becker?"
"Call me Charlie. And no, I don't need help, but I got a nearby rancher who is looking for a hardworking wrangler-type to hire. You seem like you've worked a little in your life." Grinning, he stood and pointed to Reese's large, calloused hands. "I'll call over there while you grab yourself some grub." He waved, urging Reese to go eat.
Nodding, Reese rasped out a thank-you and felt his stomach growl loudly. He hoped like hell Charlie hadn't heard it. But judging from the man's facial expression, he had heard. Charlie picked up the black, landline phone on the counter to make a call to the ranch.
Halting at the long table against the back wall of the store, Reese's mouth watered. He was chilled to the bone, his combat boots wet, his socks soaked, toes numb. The coffee smelled so damned good, and with shaking hands, he poured it into an awaiting white Styrofoam cup. He took a cautious sip, the heat feeling incredible as it slid down his throat and into his shrunken, knotted gut. God, it tasted so good!
Reese kept one ear cocked toward the phone call Charlie was making. Let there be an opening for me. He worried because even though he no longer stank, his clothes were dirty and long past a washing. He knew he looked like a burned-out druggie or a homeless person, his hair long and unkempt, his black beard thick and in dire need of a trim. Reese didn't have a pair of scissors on him to do the job. His scruffy, dark green baseball cap was frayed and old, a holdover from two years ago when he was a Marine.
Eyeing the box of colorfully frosted cupcakes, his mouth watered. He wanted to grab all of them, but his discipline and manners forced him to pick up just one. His fingers trembled again as he peeled the paper from around the pink frosted cupcake.
Reese bit into the concoction, groaning internally as the sweetness hit his tongue and coated the inside of his mouth. For a moment, he was dizzy from the sugar rush, his whole body lighting up with internal celebration as the food hit his gnawing stomach. Standing there, Reese forced himself to take slow sips of the coffee. It tasted heavenly. He heard Charlie finish the call and the man came in his direction.
"Hey, Mr. Lockhart, good news," Charlie said. "The owner of the Bar C Ranch, Shay Crawford, still needs a wrangler. She's coming into town in about two hours, going to be coming by here to pick up some dog food and such. Said she'd meet you at that time."
"That's good to hear," Reese said. "Thank you ..."
Charlie nodded. "I have a bathroom in the back, with a big shower." He jabbed his index finger toward the rear corner of the store. "It's got some shaving gear in there, as well. On your way there, pick out a pair of jeans, a work shirt, boots, and whatever else you need before she arrives."
"I don't have the money to pay you," Reese said, hating to admit it. But he understood what Charlie was really saying. The woman owner of the Bar C would probably not want to hire him with the way he looked right now. The guy was trying to help him out.
Charlie gripped the arm of Reese's damp, dark olive-green military jacket. "This way. Just consider my offer as grateful thanks from this nation of ours for your sacrifices, Mr. Lockhart. You pick up what you want to wear and anything else you need. It's free to you. It's the least we can do for our vets." Charlie had a look in his eyes that told Reese he wasn't going to budge from his position.
Reese was going to say no, but the man's face turned stubborn. He felt like he was in a dream instead of a nightmare. "Tell you what," Reese said, his voice suddenly thick with emotion, "if I get this job, I'll pay you back every cent. Fair enough?"
Charlie smiled a little. "Fair enough, Mr. Lockhart. Now, eat all you want and once you're filled up, choose your clothes, find a good Stetson, work gloves, and anything else you might need. Bring it to the counter and I'll write it up for you." Charlie studied Reese's sorry-looking boots. "And get a pair of decent work boots to replace these guys." He gave Reese a grin. "They look like they need to be permanently retired."
One corner of Reese's mouth twitched. "Sort of like me," he admitted, more than grateful to the man. He felt like he was being treated like a king.
"Son, you're just having a bad streak of luck. We all go there at some point in our lives. You'll get through it, too." Charlie released his arm and patted it. "I think your streak is gonna end right shortly. Miss Crawford is an angel come to earth. If you present yourself well, I'm sure she'll hire you. She's a good boss to work for. The people she hires, stay, and that says everything."
Reese watched Charlie walk back to the counter. Hot tears pricked the back of his eyes. Reese swallowed hard several times, forcing them away. In the next fifteen minutes, he ate four more cupcakes and had three more cups of hot coffee, and felt damn near human. He found the jeans, work shirts, thick, heavy socks, a couple of pairs of boxer shorts, and two white T-shirts, and carried them up to the counter.
Charlie scowled. "Where's your work gloves? You need a good, heavy Carhartt work jacket. Your Stetson? Get a pair of heavy snow gloves, too. It stays winter until mid-June around here. And don't leave out getting a good, heavy knit sweater you can wear under that winter coat of yours." He pointed in another direction where a rack of men's sweaters hung, with a SPRING SALE sign on top of it.
Chastened, Reese nodded, his throat locked up with shame.
"Oh, and serious work boots, Son." He shook his finger in another direction where the footwear department was located. "Get a darned good pair. Don't skimp on quality because of price."
Reese wished he could nominate Charlie to the powers-that-be at the White House who were in charge of citizen honors, and have Charlie lauded as a hero. There should be a place where civilians who helped out vets who were faltering or who had walked away from society, were recognized for their compassion. Charlie deserved a civilian medal of the highest order. Once Reese located the rest of the gear, he brought it up to the counter.
"Grab your new duds and take a long, hot shower, Mr. Lockhart. There's razors and a pair of scissors in the medicine cabinet, should you want to trim that beard and long hair of yours a bit."
Okay, Reese got it. Charlie was his guardian angel trying to get him spiffed up for this coming interview with Ms. Crawford. Nodding his thanks, Reese took the clothes and headed diagonally across the store. As he entered the men's restroom, he was surprised by how large and sparkling clean it was. Indeed, there was a nice big shower, clean, white towels hanging nearby, a bar of Ivory soap and a soft, thick wash cloth.
Locking the door, Reese gladly got out of his old, filthy clothes. He felt guilty for accepting this man's generosity, but he'd hit the bottom of the barrel a month ago. And it wasn't pride that stopped him from accepting handouts. There weren't any handouts offered until just now. People would take one look at him, turn, and hurry away. Or if they saw him coming, they'd cross the street to avoid him. Women, especially, showed fear of him. He was a dirty, unshaven stranger. Reese didn't blame them, but damn, it hurt to be treated that way. He'd never harm a woman, but they didn't know that by looking at him.
Naked, he tried to ignore how thin he'd become in the two years since leaving the Corps. He'd once been moderately muscled, fifty pounds heavier, and a lot stronger than he was presently. Entering the shower, Reese knew his weakness was directly attributable to not eating for days at a time. Even now, he felt his body responding powerfully to the cupcakes he'd eaten. His stomach growled for more, but as Reese turned on the heavy, warm spray, it was a helluva lot more than he'd ever expected from anyone.
* * *
Charlie smiled from behind the counter as Reese approached, holding his old clothes. Reese smelled food. Real food. And then, he spotted two large Styrofoam boxes near Charlie's elbow, where he sat on that aged stool.
"You clean up real good, Mr. Lockhart," Charlie said, rising and taking his clothes. "I'm assuming these are DOA?"
Reese nodded. "Yeah, pretty much. Thanks for your help here." He motioned to the clothes he now wore.
"Like I said," Charlie murmured, dumping the clothes into a huge wastebasket, "our country owes you." He came back and pushed the two Styrofoam boxes toward him. "I called up Kassie Murphy. She owns Kassie's Café down the next block on the plaza. I asked if she'd donate you some vittles. Once she found out you were a vet, Kassie said to tell you it's on the house. You can come and eat at her establishment anytime you want, no questions asked. Folks in these parts? Many of them served, and have sons or daughters in the military. So we have a real soft spot in our heart for military vets like yourself. I hope you like the two hamburgers, coleslaw, and French fries. Julie, one of the waitresses who brought these over here for you, said there's homemade apple pie with three scoops of vanilla ice cream in there, too. Why don't you grab that chair back at the coffee station, sit down, and enjoy your meal? Shay won't be here for another hour."
"Thanks," Reese said. "And thank everyone over at Kassie's Café for me?"
"Oh," Charlie murmured, shrugging, "I've a feeling when Shay gets a gander at how strong and tall you are, she'll hire you on the spot. And then, when it suits you later, you can go over and thank those hardworking gals at Kassie's yourself."
It was all Reese could do to hold it together. He carefully walked to the coffee station, holding the boxes in his hands as if they were the greatest treasure on earth. His feet were warm. He was clean. Really clean. There had been a toothbrush and toothpaste in the cabinet as well. Deodorant. He'd used the scissors to cut his hair the best he could; it was still on his nape, but hopefully he didn't look like the homeless person of before. The beard was gone, thanks to the fact that Charlie had stashed five razors in the medicine cabinet. And he'd used all of them, since his beard was so damned wiry and thick. Emotions swept through him as he sat down and opened up the container with the two huge hamburgers. The scent of the food nearly made him faint. It smelled so good.
Reese had never starved in his life except for the last year. Jobs had been sparse, and then only part-time or they were seasonal and ended in a month or two. Sometimes he was fired because he couldn't handle the stressful demands that forced him to work swiftly and continuously. His anxiety ran him. He had no control over it and he'd found out quickly, after his discharge, that a stressful job only tripled the monstrous anxiety that was always there, always waiting to leap upon him and scatter his thoughts, his actions.
As he bit into the burger, he closed his eyes, made a low sound of pleasure in the back of his throat, slumping against the metal chair, in Nirvana. Reese knew if he gulped it down, he'd more than likely throw it up, so he tamped down on the animal desire to gulp. He chewed it slowly, savoring every last bite of the lettuce, tomatoes, onion, cheddar cheese, and bacon on it. It took him thirty minutes to clean up everything. The apple pie was melt-in-your mouth, reminding him of his mother's own home-cooked pies.
An old ache centered in his heart. His parents wanted him home, but God, that had been a disaster. Reese wasn't going to make them pay for his PTSD, and they didn't understand why he had to leave. He wasn't the best at talking about his shame over the symptoms that he couldn't control. His father had been in the military, retired, and was now a hardworking mechanic. He had saved all his life for retirement, and Reese wasn't about to take his money that he'd offered to him. He had to stand on his own two feet, pull himself up by his bootstraps, and not accept handouts.
Excerpted from Wind River Rancher by Lindsay McKenna. Copyright © 2017 Nauman Living Trust. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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