Rick felt good, having found a way to get along with Don Rowley a little better. He knew that was with a great deal of help from Nancy. He suspected she orchestrated the entire encounter. At the same time, what she hoped to get out of it or why she bothered was completely beyond his understanding. The only thing that didn’t happen like she wanted was that he hadn’t gotten there sooner. That appeared to irritate her. It was all very strange.
Getting along with Don on any basis didn’t help his relationship with his boss, Kevin, who counted on Rick having a really rotten time. That being the case, Rick kept his mouth shut when he returned to the ranch. Kevin had become largely insufferable with anybody he considered his inferior. Speculation about this centered on problems with Kevin’s love life.
Kevin soon picked up on Rick’s not following his plan. It was clear to Kevin the encounter neither caused Rick great pain nor left any obvious scars. After finding that Rick would need to do more things for Don Rowley and was not dreading the prospect, Kevin had become an even larger piece of shit toward Rick. Two days later, the weather cleared off and warmed up somewhat. Kevin insisted a corner post had to be put in a specific spot immediately.
The job had nothing to do with building fences. No fence lines were anywhere near here, neither now nor the future. The whole exercise was more to do with it being the most frozen patch of rocky soil in the area. Still, a job was a job. So, Rick cleared the snow off the area, and attacked the frozen ground with a digging bar. After several feet of listening to the digging bar ring from encounters with stones, and feeling it vibrate in his hands, Rick finally won through to more easily dug ground, and carefully continued to dig, being certain the sides were as straight as possible. He became aware of a shadow over him, but did not look up. Suddenly there was a harsh laugh from above and behind him.
“Time to wake up, sleeping beauty. A messenger came. You’ve got an appointment to see Mark Tahner at Harlan Ranch.”
Rick knew Kevin was just pulling his chain and kept working. “The only messenger was Deputy Vince. That was a long time ago,” he said between strokes. “Whatever he came about, it wasn’t for my sorry ass.”
“Oh, but it was. The message was for you to be at Harlan Ranch. As a matter of fact, Vince said you are supposed to be there right now. You’re always running off, hanging out with all these important people. Well, I’m damn sure going to get the share of work you owe me. Now your butt had better get moving so you can make a grand entrance.”
Rick looked up as Kevin wheeled his horse around. The horse went a step before Kevin turned around in the saddle, looking at Rick. “Oh, you had better take your bedroll. The way he talked, it didn’t sound like you are going to make it back here tonight. Enjoy your time off, because you’re damn sure going to make up for it when you get back.” Another harsh, cackling sort of laugh completed the announcement.
Walking quickly to the cot in the hallway where he bunked, Rick reflected that Kevin’s personality continued to change, and none of the change was for the better. It was like he’d gone over to the dark side. He worked as quickly as possible, getting his horse saddled, and tying his bedroll behind the saddle. It was not that far to Harlan Ranch, but the hour or so on the horse would stress his packing skills as much as a full day’s ride.
Arriving at Harlan Ranch, he unsaddled and turned his horse into the area for short-term stays. His tack taken care of, Rick went into the bunkhouse to get cleaned up, only to find the two apprentice wannabes waiting for him.
“You know the rule,” the one informed him. “The newest guy cleans out the bunkhouse.”
Yeah, he knew the rule. He’d been one of the apprentices who made that rule. That made him doubly obligated to abide by it, no matter what else might be going on. Rick grabbed the broom and started sweeping. One of the guys took a look out the window.
“Mark and three women are coming this way,” he commented to his buddy. “The two of us had better get scarce.”
Rick could not imagine what Mark coming toward the bunkhouse had to do with them needing to leave. Becoming real apprentices with the chance to get their own horses depended on a recommendation from Mark. Disappearing with work to do was not how anybody got such a recommendation. The two didn’t stick around to explain. Instead, they were out the side door. A moment later came a knock on the door. That was another rule. Mark always knocked on the bunkhouse door. It was his way of being polite. Whoever was inside was obligated to open the door without delay, so Rick opened it, broom in hand. He figured that he presented a wonderful picture of grunge, disgust, and domesticity.
The wannabes had the VIP party right. Mark stood there, looking distinctly irritated. With him was his wife, Ellen. Then there was Nancy Rowley, of all people. There was also a mousy-looking girl with them. Rick had never seen her before. As a matter of fact, he barely saw her now, since she was doing her best to hide behind the other two women.
“What took you so long to get here, Rick? We expected you quite a while ago,” Mark asked.
Rick decided he’d better be straight. “It was Kevin’s opinion that I was not doing my fair share over at Wagon Ranch. He deferred giving me the message Vince brought for well over an hour so I could finish punching a corner posthole.”
“Is that right?”
When Rick nodded, Mark asked, “Is Kevin doing this sort of thing more than he used to?”
“I really shouldn’t say, Mark.”
“Rick, this is me. Remember how we rode and worked together to get the evacuation done? If you’re concerned about retribution from Kevin, I can guarantee nothing will come from that end.”
“If he can’t get me in a straightforward way, he’ll do it under-handed.”
“Oh, so our boy Kevin is full of himself, is he?”
Rick sighed, glancing nervously at Nancy Rowley. She was totally focused on the conversation, as was Ellen. Rick finally shook his head, “There’s an observed correlation between how things go at Wagon Ranch and how pleasant things are at the Maguire hacienda. I believe happiness and the Maguire family are on opposite sides of the world.”
Mark pursed his lips, seeming almost amused. “That bad, eh? Lyle Lillard says part of my job is to keep my ear to the ground. I heard a few rumblings, but nothing about things getting this far. It appears that I’d better update him about this.”
Rick noticed Nancy and Ellen glance at each other. Suddenly, Ellen’s boot swung around sharply, impacting Mark’s ankle with a thud.
Mark flinched, but kept his gaze on Rick. “That is something we need to handle, but it isn’t why we came out here. Rick, this is Gwendolyn Fuller. She’s been working as a housekeeper and nanny for a number of the families in Ragan since before the dust came through.”
As he said that, Ellen and Nancy both grabbed the girl’s shoulders, and forced her front and center. She stood there, staring at him like a puppy that’s been beaten too many times for too few reasons. Rick stared back at her, almost in shock. He became aware of Ellen standing beside the two of them, a hand on his shoulder. He suddenly noticed her other hand was on Gwendolyn’s shoulder.
“Why don’t you two get acquainted?” Ellen suggested. “We’re letting all the warm air out of the bunkhouse. We’ll head back to the house. You two come on over when you get sorted out, Rick. We can eat any time.”
With that, Ellen softly pushed Gwendolyn through the door, closing it softly while Rick tried to figure out what just happened. Okay, he knew exactly what happened. This was why he got the assignment to work on the Rowley computer which no longer computed.
Nancy Rowley knew about Gwendolyn, and wanted them to meet there. He flashed back on Don driving Mrs. Stamford home just as they arrived. The bag beside her in the sleigh had to have been this girl. Rick recalled promising to talk to whoever she found. He promised to talk to her one time, and that was all. Either she would find him intolerable or else he wouldn’t be able to stand being around her. On the other hand, something about this Gwendolyn suddenly brought out protective urges he had no idea existed. Okay, he knew they existed. He just didn’t have any idea that they existed in him.
He finally stammered, “You’ve been living in Ragan? I lived there until I got on with the ranch. There’s only a hundred people in Ragan. There is no way you could live there. I’d have seen you.”
She just looked at him with those eyes. “If you like, sir, I could take care of sweeping so you can do whatever you need to do.”
Rick had completely forgotten he was still holding the broom, and he stared at it for a moment, trying to remember what he was going to do with it.
“Yeah, sure, if you don’t mind.”