A SECRET TO PROTECT
A past to forget,
A past to remember,
And a future to forge.
A very different kind of fiction
by Celia Jolley
Iris could not hear the dispatcher over the phone, "Ma'am, stay where you are. It might not be safe. I repeat. Do not go outside."
Iris was hidden. She had seen it all, first the man confronting her father with his big black gun, her father turning as if to run but with his eyes wide open seeing her right behind him, right before he dropped from the blast. Like a rabbit down a hole, the little girl dove into the tall sunflower patch her mother had planted as the rapid fire hit all around her like a black hail storm kicking up the dust. She did not crawl out until the sheriffs came, until the ambulance carried her father away and until she heard her mother calling and calling for her. She was hot and sweaty and itchy from lying on the ground with the salt from her silent tears dried upon her cheeks.
All she could do was sit up from where she had been curled like a baby bunny in its nest. Her legs were made of rubber and would not hold her up. Finally an officer spotted her saying, "Here she is. I found her." The man gently picked her up, her gangly, shuddering, dirty eight year old self. Her mother came running. Together they made a heap of sorrow.
That time never came. By the time she was older, her life had adapted to their new normal. She was taking college courses at the junior college and working. Then there was her boyfriend. He was so hard to please that it wore her out trying. But he was worth it when he parceled out a heart-stopping smile.
Iris did not know which caused more shock and pain, her father's violent death that she had witnessed as a young child or her mother's suicide. It did not make it easier that she was nineteen now because she still was her mother's little girl. The note her mother left brought no comfort, but plenty of confusion. After she had written it, she asked the gun store owner to give it to her daughter. Then, just like that, she had slipped out a back door to the alley and shot herself with the ammunition just purchased for the handgun she always carried in her purse.
The note. It said that she saw him, the man who had shot her father, the man she had testified against which sent him to prison. Her mother recognized his tattoo that went up his neck and crawled halfway across his face. She saw it in his eyes, she'd said, and in the sneer when he recognized her. In it she told Iris that she loved her, that she wanted to protect her and not have the man follow her home back to her daughter. She said that it was the only thing she knew to do to keep her daughter safe, that she was tired of hiding and just wanted to be with her husband. Her mother said that she loved her and was sorry. Then she begged her to find the extremely important file labeled WSP to read and that would explain everything, that she should call the phone number there before doing anything else. That was it. She was alone.
Ever since this morning when the sheriff left her, she'd locked their door, something her mother never failed to do, while she, on the other hand, had never felt the need to do so before. Now alone, it all was different.
"It is best if you don't leave the house or allow anyone in for now until further notice, for your own protection."
As soon as he returned, her phone went off to the tune of "I Wanna Be Your Lover," Taylor Swift's hit. She found her face growing red. Her caller I.D. said it was her boyfriend.
"What's up? How are you doing? Is someone there with you?"
Somehow she managed to walk on her wobbly legs into the kitchen to make the coffee. She could hear him talking on the phone again. She stayed there while the coffee dripped. She sank onto the kitchen chair holding her head in her hands. Finally when it stopped perking she called, "What do you want in it?"
"I drink it black, thanks."
She poured cream in hers then took the two mug back into the living room. They still spilled over a little even though her hands weren't shaking quite so badly. Her jaw and body ached from her earlier tremors.
"My supervisor told me it is alright to discuss this with you. Actually it's probably vital that I do so especially if you've never been told anything."
"I haven't except for what I just read in the file today, but that was only one page."
"Alright," the officer took a deep breath "You have been living under the Witness Security Protection. After your mother testified against the Mexican drug cartel leader, your lives were threatened. The U.S. Marshals were called in. You were moved swiftly to this place under assumed names to be kept safe. It is statistically shown that everyone in this program since it began in 1970 have been kept safe from those who would do them harm, as long as they obey the rules."
"As long as they don't commit suicide," she said under her breath grimacing. Beginning to shake again, she hugged herself.
The young agent looked at her with kindness. "Your mother was the exception. We take it seriously that she says she saw the man who she put in prison. His tattoos were not ones you could easily forget. It was a brave thing to do when she testified in court. But somehow, the murderer was recently released early from prison, probably through corrupt bribes. We have no idea why he is here in town though. There are some big drug dealers locally who have been under surveillance, however. We may be able to connect the dots soon."
"How am I supposed to stay safe from this guy?" She chewed her fingernail. "I'm remembering some things from back then, things I guess I'd put out of my mind."
"That's what trauma will do to you, make you have blind spots on what really happened when it is too painful." His eyes were warm as he looked at her. Then he took out a notebook and clicked his pen.
"So what kind of things are you remembering?" Now his eyes bore into her as if forcing an answer no matter how much it hurt to talk about, things she'd never even told her mother, things she'd never let herself think about."
"No one knows this, but I saw it all. The bad guy, my dad turning to run, his eyes opening wide in fear when he saw me right before he was shot. I saw the blood. I hid for a long time even when they kept looking for me. My mother assumed I had been in the house and was just then hiding in the sunflower patch. She didn't know I had chased my daddy outside before it all happened." Iris was shaking harder. She felt his hands tucking a throw around her shoulders. He didn't know it was the dog's blanket, but that didn't matter.
"Did you see him? Would you recognize him?" Sterling's heart sank knowing that they would have to whisk her away for sure since there was a chance she'd recognize the killer.
"I'm not sure, I mean, yes I saw the man with the gun, but I kept my eyes on my dad instead, looking to him to keep me safe." She didn't think she had more tears to cry, but they were still pouring down her cheeks.
The poor man was looking around desperately for something to hand her to wipe her tears. He came running back from the bathroom with a dry washcloth. "I guess if I was a true gentlemen, I would have had a white handkerchief all ironed and folded to pull out of my pocket."
She half laughed and half sobbed. "If you're not a gentleman, you are the next best thing."
He grinned. "That'll do." Then turning serious again he said, "My partner will be here sometime between three and four in the morning, but I'm pretty sure from what you just told me that you are going to need to clear out of this place and be relocated as soon as possible. I don't see how you can be protected here now."
"What! You mean I have to disappear without a trace again?"
He just looked at her. "Considering the alternatives, yes."
Iris threw her head against the back of the couch and closed her eyes. How could she? She was in school, had a job, had a place to live--at least for now--had friends, but most of all, she had a boyfriend. She felt the officer's warm hand on her knee through her thin cotton pajama pants and finally opened her eyes to look at him.
He went on. "It is imperative that we know about this boyfriend. Do you have an understanding with him? Is it a serious relationship? Would he be willing to disappear with you? It would greatly complicate things and perhaps even bring disaster to all the plans to keep you safe, you know, if it's not that strong of a connection."
"I don't know. He's just my boyfriend. Until a few minutes ago, I didn't know I'd have to decide my whole future tonight." She let out a deep breath.
Maybe not tonight, but it would be best to settle it all a.s.a.p. The sooner the better. We don't know if your house is being watched or not. That's why we can't have you coming or going until we know it's safe. This guy your mom saw is a very bad dude. What he didn't know before, he's learned in his ten years in the federal penitentiary. I guarantee you don't want to cross paths with him."
He saw the effect his words were having so changed to say, "But I think it would be better to finish discussion after I speak with my partner."
"After that little bedtime story? I don't think I'll sleep a wink. Are you going to stay here in the house?"
"I was going to stay out in my vehicle, but if you'd feel safer, I could clear it with my partner to stay here., at least until he comes. It might be best under the circumstances anyway until we know where we stand." He turned a little red. "I know what you said to your boyfriend, but my partner will be here in a few hours, so don't worry if you hear him come in."
Her blush and avoidance of eye contact told it all.
"None to speak of."
"I'd stay up all night if I could talk you out of quitting this job, Sterling. You make a great partner, and I'm going to miss you. I know you've had a rough couple of years, that this job is hard on a marriage, but just wish you could hang in there."
"It cost me too much. I know it was my foolish choices, but if I had a job that didn't have me gone all the time, I'd like to think I would have made a better husband, not one my wife had to divorce, not that I blame her. Besides, I'm a rancher at heart."
"Yeah, I know it's been tough." Conner agreed.
Their eyes fell on the girl sound asleep on the couch. Let me see if I can move her back to her room. She had a terrible nightmare earlier and was too afraid to go back to sleep in her own bed," Sterling said.
"Technically, you're still in the force, just on vacation, right? And since we can't keep her safe here, you might as well take her home with you."
"Did you hear anything I just said? You know how the system works, but you also understand the ugly underbelly of these snakes. They won't stop until she's dead."
A gasp sounded from the hallway. She heard. "I really have to get out of here, don't I?" She collapsed onto the couch moaning with her hands over her face.
"What about my mom's funeral? What about my friends, my job, my college courses?"
"You have to disappear into thin air leaving all that behind you." Conner's hard look revealed the truth of his words.
Sterling glared at his partner. "It would be best if we move out before daylight then."
Conner added, "I have some disguises in my bag wigs, glasses and such, but I think we might need to come up with a better plan."
Sterling said, "I don't trust that boyfriend of hers. He's probably aware that you just walked in, Conner. By the way, this is my partner Officer Conner Wells, U.S. Marshall. Conner, this is Iris Smith."
"Nice to meet you, I guess," Iris offered with a wilted look.
"I wish it was under better circumstances too, Miss Smith," Conner gave her an assuring smile.
The men began looking around, and the rug caught both their attention at the same time. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking? We did this in Phoenix, and it worked," Conner said.
Sterling looked at her with a no-nonsense intense look and said, "Bring one black garbage bag full of what is most essential. Leave instructions for what are the most important items you want Conner here to save for you with the understanding that you can't take much with you. The less moved, the easier to stay undetected. We will each load those garbage sacks in our trucks. Then, we'll roll you up in this rug, and I'll carry you out over my shoulder. You'll have to stay limp and not make a sound until I can get you free down the road. Let's leave in ten minutes. It'll be getting light by then. Conner and I will wear our service shirts with a generic label on the pocket to hide our uniforms."
He began pulling it out of a bag his partner had brought in. Then he looked up where she stood rooted to the spot.
"Can you do it, miss?"
"Just don't duct tape me." She saw the roll in his hands and was trembling.
"I'll just temporarily use it on the rug. But you have to follow instructions carefully. I need to be on full alert as we go out and can't afford to be distracted by your voice or movement. Expect it to be hot and itchy."
She slapped a hand over her mouth while her eyes grew enormous. "Samson! What about my dog?" He looked solemnly back and forth between the men and his owner.
Conner backed with his hands up saying, "You'll have to take him, Sterling. I'll be tying up loose ends and can't be walking or letting the fool thing in and out. Besides, he'll want to be close to her, may even help."
Sterling looked down at the huge beast as he rubbed his jaw. Then once he saw her plaintive eyes, he gave in. "Alright. Get your essentials in that garbage sack. After I take it out to the truck, then I'll come back for the dog, then you. Conner, tranquilize him."
"Tranquilize him?" Iris gasped.
"We have to do what we have to do. Let's get busy. I need that garbage bag of essentials quickly now, then you can make a list." Remember, Conner can send some of your belongings to wherever you end up, but it won't be a moving van, you know."
"As soon as he's knocked out, I'll get the dog wrapped up in a sheet or something. He looked around and saw her laundry basket. Dump that out and I'll use it to carry him in."
Everything was said in very quiet earnest voices. Adrenaline shot through her and enabled her to made quick decisions. Iris realized that nothing much mattered if she wasn't left breathing. She took a few photos of herself and her parents, important files, and a journal. She brought in her other ones she'd kept for years, opened the stove and fed them into the hungry flames making sure that only ash was left. She grabbed a couple of changes of clothes, a make-up bag and was beginning to throw together products from her bathroom. Reaching for her toothbrush, he stopped her when he said from the doorway, "Leave it. It's best to keep your boyfriend guessing if you are coming back, another reason to take as little as possible. We can get you the toiletries later."
"Can I have your phone please, miss?" Conner said flatly.
"Yes, you can't take it with you because it can be tracked." Conner winked. "Don't worry, I'm getting ready to download your photos off it and off your computer to save them onto a flash drive before I destroy it. We'll try to arrange to have it replaced along with your laptop. That's next. I need you to give me access so I can wipe it clean. We can't risk them being able to trace your whereabouts with any electronics. I'll need your driver's license, credit cards, and any other I.D."
Sterling watched that exchange and thought her eyes couldn't get any wider. That is until he brought out the duct tape. She whimpered like a wounded animal.
Quickly he worked to tear off one small segment to show her. "I'm just going to put this much on the carpet to seal it, I promise. That way you'll still be hidden if I go down. Conner could then take over and get you. Do you trust me?"
Everything stopped as the men stared at her. It was sink or swim time and she wanted to do more than dog paddle out of here. So, she nodded. These men were laying their own lives on the line for her so she agreed. Iris made a list on a torn off piece of paper bag for Officer Wells. As soon as she could, Iris showed Conner what she wanted and what could stay. Her life felt very light filling a garbage sack only a little more than half full.
"I'm proud of you. You've done well, " Officer Sterling said. "Are you ready? Maybe get a drink of water first to hydrate 'cause you're going to get hot."
The light was beginning to gleam on the horizon as if an eye was starting to open. And it was. First Sterling took the garbage bag out and threw her bag in carelessly in the bed of his truck. Then he took the laundry basket out trying to make it look effortless in spite of the sixty pounds of dead-weight-dog in it and managed to put him in the front seat. All the while, Conner kept his gun leveled out the crack of the door.
"Now it's cut a rug time. Lie down, and Conner and I will roll you up as gently as possible. Remember, stay limp, stay calm, and stay quiet. The single torn off piece of duct tape went round just before he lifted her to his shoulder. "It's play time!"
She heard him open the truck door before he shoved the rug with her in it onto the backseat. Suddenly, her boyfriend pulled up next to him and got out yelling, "What do you think you are doing?" Sterling just shrugged and said calmly, "Ask him, he's the boss. Then he got in his truck and drove slowly off even though he wanted to step on the gas."
Conner could play the part of the cleaning services boss, but Sterling kept his eye on him as long as possible and said a prayer for his partner. It's a good thing they started early. After a block, he drove faster, much faster.
"Is there a problem, sir?" Conner kept his hand tucked in his pocket near where his gun was holstered but hidden.
"Yeah, there's a problem! Where's my girlfriend, and why are you in the house?"
"She called our cleaning services to come get her mom's thing out. It's too painful for her to deal with. I think a girlfriend picked her up late last night, but I didn't see nothing so I couldn't say really. I'll be out by noon. Maybe you can catch her then."
But the young man tried to shoulder his way in past Conner. Instead he hit a brick wall against Conner's chest. "Slow down, fella. My company doesn't allow me to let anyone in except the person who ordered our services. Like I said, try later on when I'm out of here. Conner went back in locking the door behind him and began throwing things into garbage bags as fast as he could, her mother's clothes, some of Iris clothes,. He left some hanging that she had sorted out to leave so it would look like she would be back. The family photo albums went in the bottom of every bag. He threw her phone and laptop in the last bag that he planned to destroy and dump later, then checked to see if Mr. Boyfriend was still hanging around. He wasn't so far as the agent could see.
He whistled as he casually threw in bag after bag into the bed of his truck. The dog food and water bowl stayed. The food in the fridge stayed, all those nice casseroles would be wasted, well, except the one that held the homemade sweet rolls. That went with him. He'd destroy those by devouring them. He put that bag in the cab for easy access.
"Yep, it still looked like she had just stepped out. Her mother's things were gone and any important document were secured. The young man could have at it now, which Conner was sure he and his buddies would do once they realized she was gone. They would tear this place apart. It was time for him to leave. The tightness in his chest didn't lessen until he ran over her phone and laptop while his truck was hidden behind a gas station two towns over. Then he threw the smashed things in a garbage sack, and it went into the big metal dumpster. Good timing. He heard the garbage truck he'd passed earlier rumbling up and knew he'd done it on time! He was outta there!
As soon as they were ten miles out of town, Sterling pulled over. He had to give it to her. She had not made a peep. Not a complaint. Only a uh-huh when he asked if she was okay to wait a few more minutes.
He ripped the duct take off and heard her sigh of relief. as he gently tugged the rug off of her.
"Oh, it was so hot! What do I need to do now?"
Sterling glanced at her with her sweaty hair plastered to her face. His admiration of her grew. "You did really well. I'd suggest that you push the rug onto the floor as much as you can, but keep it handy in case we need to suddenly hide you again. It would be best to lay down out of sight for awhile yet. Then I'll give you a wig and some glasses. It'll spiff you up!"
She managed to laugh a little. Not bad for a young lady whose life was threatened, whose mother died yesterday. Now there was a woman who in her own mind gave her life to save her daughter's. He had to admit, she surely would have been followed, then they both might have been dead by now. There probably was a better way out of their dire situation like calling the sheriff, but still, that was some kind of love. She knew the stakes. He sighed and silently prayed,"I know, just like you gave your life for me, God. I'm still trying to get my head around it. I blew it so badly though it's hard to forgive myself."
Iris looked at him where she could see him in the rear view mirror. A sadness had taken over his countenance. "Are you alright Sterling? Are you worried we're being followed?"
"No, I'm hopeful we gave them the slip." His smile didn't go as far as his eyes.
"I hope Conner's alright."
"Yeah, he texted me while you were rolled up back there. He left with your stuff in his truck. No more interference. Your smashed phone and laptop are in a garbage truck headed for the dump."
"Who would have thought that would make me happy? I can't believe Santos showed while we were trying to get away. It was a good thing you came up with such a great escape plan. I actually feel relieved to have no more to do with him. By the way, can you tell me where we are going?"
"To a cattle ranch out in the middle of nowhere up in Montana. It's where I was headed. I had planned to turn in my badge before I got called in on your case. I'm taking you to my family's ranch until something else can be worked out. Hopefully I won't have to roll up anymore pretty girls in rugs and carry them over my shoulder like a cave man. I'm done with that job now."
"Thanks." Her smile was turning all quivery. "It may have been a just a job for you, but it was my life, the one my mother died to save for me."
"She must have been one awesome woman." He looked back to see the tears dampening her cheeks, but no sound came out.
"She was. I'm sad that I can't give her a nice funeral like she deserved."
"Conner will make sure something will be done through your church with the sheriff attending as well. He's the only one who is a little aware of your situation, though he doesn't know about the WSP. My partner suggested though that we have your own memorial service after we get you settled at the ranch, something simple with my folks, you know, a time when you can share a few memories. My dad is good with reading Scripture and saying a few words. We can do that if it would be a comfort to you."
"Yes, please. I would like that. Thanks." She was quiet for a bit then evidently felt like talking.
"My mother totally changed after my dad died. I remember her as being very social, boisterous even when I was little. But after he died and we suddenly moved, she became quiet, introverted and reclusive. She avoided making friendships even at church. She liked the cafeteria ladies she worked with, but did not ever invite them over or go do anything with anyone. I always thought she was just depressed. Now I understand better. I wish she had told me. It's like she put me off and put me off until I got so busy in my own life that I quit asking. "
He grabbed napkins out of his glove box and handed her a wad of them to sop up her tears.
"There's a little bit of everything in there, Jack in the Box, McDonalds, Burger King, and Carl's Jr. That's how you spell my life on the road. "Maybe you better sink down and cover up with the dog's sheet." He grabbed it up off the sleeping dog. "A string of cars and trucks is coming up, just traffic, but I want to make sure you are not seen. I'll get you your wig before we stop for lunch.
He was quiet as he carefully observed each vehicle which passed him. "Nothing suspicious. Just drivers speeding." He relaxed his hold on his firearm.
"So, it sounds like you were raised in a Christian family, Sterling. Are you a Christian?"
Now that question took him by surprise. And he silently prayed, "So, how am I doing on this new Christian walk, Lord? Can I claim You yet?" Then after he thought for a while, Sterling finally answered. "I'm just a baby Christian still in diapers. That's one reason I'm going home. I need to spend time in the Word and around good people to grow stronger. I was raised in a Christian home, but it just didn't take. I've put a lot of heartache between the time I left home and now. You might even say that I'm the Prodigal. The world might have said I succeeded some, but I threw away the most important things in this life for pig slop. I never want to go back to that ever again."
He couldn't look back at her, instead studiously observed any car that came up from behind them. "You know, you didn't get much sleep last night, so you might want to catch a little nap since you're laying down anyway. I'll put the A.C. on high so you can stay covered up by that sheet without suffocating."
"I think I will. But what about you? You hardly slept, if at all."
"I'm good for now. " He flipped open a little ice chest that plugged into his console and popped the lid on a Red Bull. "Nasty tasting stuff, but it keeps the eyelids open." But he was talking to someone who was out to the world. "Sweet dreams, sweetheart," he whispered. Then he went back to vigilance.
Except the dog stirred. He needed out. Quickly! Sterling decided he needed to spay paint the dog white anyway to change his appearance. He'd do it while the mutt was still groggy. Samson was unhappy, but Iris never stirred. He got back on the road when the paint dried on the canine with a very big white dog riding shotgun beside him smelling of paint fumes. With the tranquilizer still wearing off, he'd had to lift the lug up into the cab.
"What on earth! What happened to Samson?" Iris woke up and poked her head up from the back seat.
"He was my little art project. I didn't think he'd keep a wig on, but we did need to change him up a little. And maybe you could just call him "Sam." He'll probably still answer to it, but you won't be leaving any clues from your past. Have you thought what you might like to be called?"
"I don't have any idea."
"Well. the W.S.P.. suggests that you keep the same initials. It helps you learn your new name if it is similar to your old so you'll remember to answer to it more quickly, but mostly it helps with the changes in documents."
"So that's why my name changed from Illa to Iris. Now I need...Oh, I know! My great grandmother was called Ivy. I've always like that name."
"Ivy it is. I'll let Conner know so he can work on your new I.D. paperwork, like a new social security number, new driver's license, fake job references and stuff like that. He'll be getting in contact with you eventually. He's working on the funding hoping to get you some compensation. The budget is hung up in Congress, but it always comes through."
She chewed on her lip where she slumped down in the back seat. "I don't know about a new last name though."
"You've got time. So don't worry about it for a while."
They grabbed lunch at a drive through. She was now sporting a long blonde wig and sunglasses. They ate up the miles.
"How long will I be staying at your parent's ranch?"
"I'm not sure yet. That's something else Conner is working on. He should be able to get you some money to get you settled. Sometimes they can swing a college scholarship even."
"I would like to go back to at least get my AA. Wow! I can't believe how beautiful it is around here. It's..it is stunning. By the way, have you told your parents I'm coming?"
He grinned at how fast her mind was hopping from one thing to another. "No, They won't mind. They've taken in a lot of people over the years. I'll just tell them not to ask too many questions, and they'll understand. We're almost there."
But they did ask questions in not so quiet whispers. "Oh, son, you've brought home a young lady for us to meet. We are so glad! Where did you meet her? Where's she from? How old is she? She's so pretty!"
His mother would have continued to gush so Sterling put his hand on her arm. "It's not like that mom. This is work related. She needs to fly under the radar for awhile, so I brought her here."
"Oh." His mother's downcast look brought all his past rushing back to mock him. It reminded him of when he had told his parents how he'd destroyed his marriage.
"Help me, God," he prayed silently hoping the pain would go away soon. At least it was in his stomach now more than his heart. That was progress he guessed.
Illa-Iris-Ivy stood frozen. Then she pulled her wig off. It was so hot. She suddenly looked over at Sterling. "Is that okay?"
"Sure. You don't have to hide here."
"Hello Dad, Mom, this is Ivy."
"Come in, dear. We are always glad to have one more at the table. With our children grown and scattered, we love it when they come home bringing friends," Mrs. Gilford said convincingly though looking funny at the blonde wig in Ivy's hand. She went on, "Just call me Jill. We don't have to be formal around here. I was just about ready to put food on the table for a late dinner. Let me add two more plates."
It was past suppertime, and they both were ravenous. The smells made her stomach growl. But her dog was meeting the ranch dogs out on the porch with some barring of teeth, growling and sniffing going on. She felt like she needed to watch to make sure it didn't break out into an all-out dog fight. She'd need to feed him soon too. Ivy hoped they'd allow her dog in the house sometimes.
"Don't worry about your dog," Mr. Gilford said as if reading her thoughts. "Ours are used to the pack, and one more won't make a difference after this meet and greet time. They'll work it out. But it might be best to feed him inside so there won't be a fight over food for now."
"Thanks, that will be great."
Sterling had rushed upstairs and came down wearing jeans and a western shirt. It was a shocking sight to her to have her hero turned back into an everyday person, a very handsome person, however.
"You don't know how good it feels to take that uniform off. I don't plan to put it back on either. I'm done. Dad, I'm here to be just be one of your ranch hands. Just me and the cows from here on out."
Ivy was speechless. His mother came over and gave him a long hug. I know it's been difficult, son."
"You know we are proud of you, Sterling. You've done hard things, things that make you an unsung hero. All the same, we will be proud to have you oversee the ranch," his dad said.
"I'm not here to oversee, Dad. I'm just here to be a regular cowboy."
"You've got to know I was hoping one of you kids would have the interest to keep the ranch going for the next generation like it has for the last three. None of the others have shown any desire to do that. You need to learn everything so I can turn it over to you one of these days. We're not getting any younger."
Sterling ran his hands down his face to hide the tears smarting. "Thanks, Dad. I'm honored. But I'm also starving. Let's eat."
Jill had brought a roast out with potatoes and carrots and creamed corn with fresh green beans and bacon. It was a feast."
"I can barely keep my eyes open after that superb supper. I think we both will want to get between the sheets," Sterling blushed realizing what he said didn't come out right. "I mean you can show Ivy her room, and I'll go to mine. Neither of us had much sleep last night."
"Sterling actually hasn't slept at all for the past forty-eight hours," Ivy added.
Jill jumped up to lead Ivy to her guest room. She was asleep in five minutes feeling safe sunken down under deliciously soft sheets.
The next morning, Jill overslept. She wandered down the hall, and found the kitchen. A simple breakfast of muffins and coffee was waiting along with a note.
"Sorry, but I had to go grocery shopping now that my son is here. He always comes home with a hollow leg. I'll be back before lunch. Make yourself at home, Ivy. Sterling is out working with his dad."
Ivy poured herself some coffee and relished the blueberry muffin. Everything was so quiet. Only the refrigerator hummed. There wasn't even any sound of traffic. Then she noticed the birds. They made music, all kinds together. After she ate and put her coffee cup in the dishwasher, Ivy wandered the house.
It was a simple three bedroom ranch house, but it had been here for a very long time. The fireplace rocks blackened from smoke spoke of its history. Some walls revealed the old log construction. On the way back to her room to empty her garbage sack of belongings so she could put her few things away, she peeked into the room across the hall. The door wasn't shut all the way so she gave into the temptation to look inside Sterling's room. It had sports trophies from high school and pictures of him and his buddies in the military. Then she saw a picture of Sterling with obviously his wife. His wedding band sat beside it. She was blonde. She was beautiful. Now Ivy really felt like she'd violated his privacy and backed out wishing she'd never entered.
"Are you sure, Dad? That might be tough for her first ever ride."