The Last Wish Blues

by Lubrican

Chapters : 1 | 2 | 3 | 4-14 Available On

PLEASE NOTE: This is a preview of this novella. It is available for purchase in its entirety via

Author's Comment: This story idea was sent to me by a reader who termed himself "appreciative". He didn't want any credit, other than that. I get a lot of good ideas from readers. That's one of the reasons I'm "appreciative" of them.

Chapter One

Brenda Jean Ronson was your garden variety sixteen year old girl in all ways except one. She was of average height, about 64 inches tall, and had average looks, though she didn't consider herself to look 'average'. Her skin looked flat to her eyes ... pale and listless. She thought her nose was crooked, though no one else did. She thought her breasts were huge and obvious, though her bras were all sized 34. She absolutely refused to wear a swim suit, because the nipples on those breasts were too well defined, and stuck out, making her feel like everyone was staring at them. She thought her voice sounded nasal, even if the drama teacher asked her to try out for every female lead in every musical. She had a group of ten or fifteen girlfriends, who never said anything bad about her, either to her face, or behind her back. She wasn't aware that, if you have even two or three friends like that, you're very lucky.

Brenda Jean Ronson got high "B"s in all her classes, and though boys asked her out on dates frequently, she turned them all down. That was because of the thing that Brenda Jean knew about herself that made her anything BUT average.

Brenda Jean Ronson had cancer.

It had been found when she was thirteen, during a medical workup that was sought because she sometimes got dizzy for no apparent reason. Her parents, Dave and Linda, had assumed there was some nutritional deficiency that would be found, corrected, and the light of their life would grow up to be a beautiful young woman with her whole life ahead of her.

The prognosis had been anything but that.

The tumor that was found, and which was pressing against something in her brain that sometimes affected her balance, was inoperable.

There had been radiation treatments during her fourteenth year, and chemo therapy most of her fifteenth. She had lost her hair, and her skin had taken on a pasty appearance. She felt like she was a hundred years old at the end of a series of chemo, when she had to miss school and recuperate in bed as the poisons the doctors had pumped into her slowly leached out of her system. Cat scans showed that no progress had been made. If anything, the tumor had grown a bit.

It was no life for a sweet young girl, who never did anything in her life to hurt another human being.

The latest round of treatment had pretty much shot the wad of all the doctors, who were trying to kill the tumor in Brenda Jean Ronson's head, without killing her too. The waiting period had been endured, and the results from the latest MRI were in hand.

"I'm sorry," said Doctor MacNiel, a professionally sad look on his face. "We've done everything we can. I'm afraid your daughter's outlook is not good."

Linda Ronson wept quietly. She'd done a lot of that over the last two years. Brenda was off playing with kids in the cancer ward, who looked like her, with bald heads and pasty features, but who were ten years younger. Those kids loved her, and she loved reading to them, or singing songs with them, but it almost killed her parents to see her with them.

"So what now?" asked Dave. Dave, Brenda's dad, tried to be strong for all of them.

Doctor MacNiel frowned. This was the part he hated most about his job, but he gave it to them straight.

"This is very hard to predict, but we estimate, based on the rate of growth, that she has four or five months, at the most, before the tumor incapacitates her. From there, we don't know. She could live another six months after that, or maybe even longer, but she won't be able to do much. The tumor is going to start affecting motor function soon, and she'll lose control of intentional movement. It will affect her memory too, probably. The symptoms will be similar to Alzheimer’s. I would recommend hospice care be started before she can't recognize anyone any more." He looked uncomfortable. "I shouldn't say this, but, in my opinion, the care she'll get ... at the end ... will be of higher quality if the staff gets to know her before she ... can't respond."

Dave, for the last two years, had been like a rock. He'd believed that modern medicine would give his little girl her life back, and he'd never flagged in that belief, despite the somber warnings of the oncologists. It was all that had kept him going, really. Now, as that was taken away from him, he crumbled, trying to sit, and missing the chair ... ending up on the floor sobbing.

The doctor helped him up, and into the chair. He was fighting tears of his own as he saw the man fall apart.

"I'll ... I'll just give you a little time," said MacNiel softly. "We'll keep Brenda busy for half an hour or so."

One would have thought the medical process was over ... that they'd be sent home to watch their daughter die. But there was more that could be offered. They were assigned to a grief counselor, who made an appointment with the parents when they had calmed down enough to be able to speak without bursting into tears every five minutes. She was calm, almost cheery, and it seemed almost horrifying that she could be that way. Her name was Sally.

"I know the last thing you want to see is a smiling face," said Sally, smiling. "But we have one more thing to do for Brenda, and It will take all the help you can give me to do it."

"What are you talking about?" snapped Linda. "She's going to die! Doctor MacNiel said so."

"Yes," agreed Sally, no longer smiling. "But we can try to make what's left of her life as enjoyable as possible, and we can prepare her ... and you ... for the end." She looked serious now. "Most people don't get a chance to prepare for the end of their life. It can make a big difference in the quality of those last few weeks."

"What do we do?" asked Dave. "How does all this work?"

"Well, most of it will just be talking about things, at first. There are all kinds of issues to work through, both for you and for her. I know you don't feel this way right now, but there will come a time when all of you just want it to end. You'll feel like her life isn't worth living, and you may even want to end it prematurely. That's just honesty, and you all need to confront that so you don't feel guilty about it." She looked less severe. "And, there are some programs available to give her the opportunity to do something fun and exciting, before she's too sick to do that kind of thing any more. It can give her happy memories at a time when unhappy things are being endured."

Brenda took it pretty well, herself. She took it better than her parents, which isn't so hard to understand. They'd been around long enough to be able to envision her possible future, while, for her, High School, and cancer, of course, had seemed like her whole life. She had a lot of support. There was another girl who had about the same life expectancy, and they planned their funerals together, like they were planning a sleepover or something, choosing the music they liked, and telling their parents what kind of casket to get, and how they wanted to be dressed.

Sally took them through the grieving process, in an attempt to get the ugly phases of grief out of their systems, so that her last months could be as free of negative emotions as possible. It worked too, and all of them accepted that, fair or not, life was short, and some lives were shorter than others. There came a time when Brenda said she wasn't mad any more, and just wanted to enjoy the time she had left.

That was when Sally talked about the Foundation. It was a philanthropic organization that tried to grant last wishes to kids like Brenda. If she had a dream ... something she'd always wanted to do, but couldn't, for whatever reason, and if they could make it happen, they would. Donations and the investment of those donations had let the Foundation grant wishes of some two thousand young people, before they died. And Brenda was eligible for the program.

"Is there anything you've always wanted to do, but never got the chance?" asked Sally.

"What kind of thing?" asked Brenda. There were hundreds of things she'd thought about doing, but hadn't had the time or opportunity to do.

"Well, we took one boy sky-diving, for instance," said Sally. "Several kids have wanted to meet a particular movie star. Sometimes they want to go on a trip somewhere, or see a particular place. Things like that."

What popped into Brenda's mind was a picture she had seen the night before. She had been leafing through the family picture album. Her parents couldn't do that - couldn't deal with it yet - but she enjoyed remembering the happy times, most of which were documented in the album.

In one photo, she was sitting on a horse, her smile wide, wearing a cowboy hat that was too big and was sitting on top of her ears.

It was from a trip the family had taken the summer after she'd had radiation treatments. They had gone to a place in New Mexico that was half tourist trap, and hosted family reunions or just families that wanted to be in the mountains for a while. It wasn't really a resort, but there was a place you could rent go carts, and a video game arcade. What Brenda had wanted to do was take a trail ride. That's when that picture was taken.

But, it had been something of a letdown for her. The ride was only forty-five minutes long, and she sat on a horse that was more interested in stopping to crop grass than actually go anywhere. It hadn't seemed like she was actually riding a live animal, except that her horse farted a lot. It had been a big disappointment for her. She had expected to canter, and gallop and feel the wind in her face. Her horse never went for more than ten steps without stopping, no matter how hard she kicked its ribs.

"I want to go on a real trail ride." she said suddenly. "A trail ride on a horse that will run. I want it to last a whole day, or maybe even go out overnight, and ride where nobody else goes, instead of a trail that a thousand people have ridden along. I want to eat cowboy food at a campfire, and see mountains up close." She looked at Sally nervously. "Could I do something like that?"

"I'm not so sure that riding horses would be such a good idea for a girl who gets dizzy sometimes," said her mother.

"They could tie me on or something. Oh, please, Mom? That would be so much fun. And to see the mountains up close, and drink from a spring and herd a cow or something. I'd love to do that."

Sally held up her hand.

"Tell you what. I'll drop that in the lap of some very talented people at the Foundation. They make amazing things happen. There are all kinds of companies and people tied into the Foundation. If it's possible to do that safely, they'll find a way. In the mean time, if you think of anything else, just let me know. You still have a month or two, so you don't have to rush it."

Brenda Jean Ronson went home that night with visions of Black Beauty in her mind, with her sitting on top, hair flying in the wind, whooping and hollering as cattle scattered before her. Her dream would have curdled the milk of any cowboy who happened to tune into it, but it was harmless enough as a dream.

Brad Collins, whose nickname was "Wishbringer", was good at his job. He worked for the Last Wish Foundation, and the challenge of making things happen made him eager to come to work every day. Most of the things he made happen were things that a lot of people might want to do, but only the select few would ever actually be involved in. People would do things for the Foundation that they wouldn't do for the average Joe.

He looked at his latest assignment. Trail ride, multiple days, campout, campfire food. Should be do-able. He knew that the average places that were in the trail ride business weren't going to be able to handle a request like this. What he needed was a Dude ranch. He hit the internet.

Hmmmm. Lots and lots and LOTS of entries. It was going to take a while to sift through them, pick four or five, and then get on the phone and work his magic. His stomach growled, and he got up to go to the vending machine. On his way, he saw the entrance to Sherry's cubicle, and instantly remembered the picture he had spent many moments staring at... It was a photograph of a young blond woman, in a bikini, sitting on a horse, wearing a cowboy hat. To be honest, it was the bikini that caught his eye the first time he saw it. She was a babe. He was single. He never asked Sherry who it was. That way he could dream, which is why he looked at it so often. Sherry was leaned back in her chair, feet up on the desk, talking on the phone. He stopped, and admired the photograph again.

When she hung up, he pointed at it and said "Tell me about that picture."

Sherry grinned. "That's my sister, Tammy. And yes, she's married."

"No," said Brad. "I mean where was it taken?"

"Oh!" She looked at the picture. "She went to this dude ranch, and the picture was taken there. She and her husband, Tom, went. Why?"

"I'm doing research," said Brad. "What's her number?"

"You're going to call her?" Sherry asked, surprised.

"Yeah. Maybe she can give me some pointers on what to look for, for this case I have."

Sherry wrote down her sister's number on a post-it note and handed it to Brad.

"She told me she got to build a barbed wire fence. Can you imagine that? She said she had a blast!"

Brad took one more look at the blond in the picture.

"I have to ask. What's the bikini all about?"

Sherry laughed. "Tom bought it for her before they went. He dared her to wear it. Actually, they had a bet. He bet she wouldn't wear it, and she bet she would. It's kind of skimpy, huh?"

"Looks mighty good on her as far as I'm concerned," said Brad.

"I guess all the cowboys thought so too," said Sherry. "She wants to go back again, but he won't let her. He says it's too expensive, but she says he had blisters for weeks afterwards, and was jealous of the way the men looked at her."

"They have a pool there?" asked Brad, still staring at the bumps on the tips of the bikini bra in the photograph.

Sherry laughed again. "No. That's the really funny part. I guess Tom thought the place was some kind of resort or something. I guess they did have a hot tub, or something like that, but the only place you could swim was where they water cattle. Can you IMAGINE that?"

When Brad called Tammy, and explained that he worked with Sherry, and wanted to ask some questions about the dude ranch she had visited, she was happy to talk about it with him.

After she described her experience in glowing terms, she asked how he found out she'd been there.

"I saw your picture on Sherry's desk."

There was a long pause. "You mean the one in the bikini?"

"That's the one," he replied.

"Ooooo, I'll kill that girl," said the voice on the phone, though she didn't actually sound angry. "She didn't tell me she was going to put it in a public place!"

"It's a good picture," said Brad. "I'm just surprised that a place like you just described would ... um ... cater to a request like that."

"Oh, it's not what you think. It's a real working ranch, but they try to make the guests feel like they're part of the whole thing, and they like to have fun too. They have dances and all kinds of things."

"You think they could put something together for one of our clients?"

Tammy was fully aware of what her sister did for a living. She got excited immediately. "It would be PERFECT!" she squealed. "The woman who runs the place is just a doll. I know she'd be excited about doing something like that. I don't know why I didn't think of that before!"

"You know anybody up there?" he asked.

"Sure, hang on a minute." He heard the phone being put down, and a couple of minutes later she came back.

"It's called the Lazy N working guest ranch, according to the brochure I have, and the person to talk to is named Dannie." She read off a number.

"Can you FAX me that brochure?" asked Brad.

"Sure. I can scan it into the computer and you'll have it in ten minutes."

Seven minutes later, Brad was reading over the FAX he had just received. He picked up the phone and punched numbers.

He never made it to the vending machine.

Bob Nivens woke before dawn, like he usually did. His first thoughts were of Dannie and Kyle, like they usually were. He felt pain, which was also routine. Ranger, his horse, snuffled in the dark, which wasn't unusual at all. Ranger seemed to know when he was awake and asleep. They were a good partnership, all things considered. The horse, like its rider, had an independent streak, and liked life outside of the barn a lot more than it did inside.

Bob felt the absence of his other traveling companion, who usually slept curled up against Bob, but was likely out hunting now. That companion was a mongrel dog. She had turned up on the ranch one night in a blizzard, shaking like a leaf, dumped on the highway when she was only a couple of months old. Another dog Bob had had at the time had whined at the door, hearing the puppy outside, and Bob had gone out to see what was bothering her. He hadn't thought the puppy would survive, but Dannie had filled an empty two liter soda bottle with hot water and wrapped a towel around it. Then the puppy and the bottle had gone into an old ten gallon aquarium put near the wood stove. Kyle had sat beside the tank, talking to the puppy, which finally stopped whining and lay still. In the morning it was still alive, and it took milk, and then little pieces of Spam, and finally regular canned dog food. Kyle had loved it, even if the five-year-old had been a little tough on a spindly puppy. One time Bob had tried to get the dog to come to him, saying "C'mere, dammit!" Kyle had called it "Dammit" after that, and the name had stuck. It had kept on living, too, surviving when other dogs on the ranch didn't. The guests liked the dog, because she was friendly and happy, almost as if she knew she had beat the odds, and was living on borrowed time. The guests always laughed when the dog was called by name, and came, wagging her happy tail.

It was that dog, more than likely, that had saved Bob's sanity, when an avalanche took out a quarter mile stretch of the road, and the SUV along with it that had contained his wife and child. The mangled heap of twisted metal had been found half a mile from the road the next spring. They'd never had a chance. Dammit had known something was wrong, and she sat at Bob's feet day in and day out, leaning against his leg if he was still, and following behind him if he was moving. She never left his side while he sat, and drank, and raged at the universe that had taken the light of his life. Both lights.

The Lazy N had suffered for a while, along with him. He'd taken the ranch over from his father, who lost interest when Bob's mother had died of pneumonia. He'd survived her by only six months. The Lazy N was what was called a Working Guest Ranch, where people paid for the experience of working harder than they'd ever worked in their lives, often from sunup to sundown, whether it was baling hay, riding fence, or moving cows from one pasture to another, or to the loading point if they were being sold. People paid well for chuck wagon dinners, and a sleeping bag on hard, lumpy ground. The more tired they got, the wider they smiled. They also tended to smile a lot more as the week passed, because they knew they were going back to the comforts of the city soon. But they'd have tales to tell. The staff of the Lazy N made sure they got to ride, and rope, and shoot at a minimum. If there could be saddle sores, and sunburn, and aching joints too ... so much the better. In this business the phrase "No pain ... no gain" had a lot more meaning than it did in sports. People loved to feel down and out, when they knew they could go back to a vastly more comfortable life.

When Dannie and Kyle had been killed, and Bob fell apart, the ranch was saved by the foreman, whose actual name was Herman Wilkenson, but who was known only as "Rowdy" by all on the ranch, for obvious reasons. He had, in his early twenties, been a hard drinker, and a master of the practical joke. He'd stopped drinking, but his practical jokes still surfaced, though not quite as often.

Rowdy was more than twice Bob's age, at fifty-six, and had lived on the ranch his entire life. His mother had been a cook for the thirty or so men who had worked five thousand head of cattle back then. Nobody knew who his father was, and he moved from mascot, to helper, to full fledged cowboy, and finally to the top kick position on the ranch, second only to the owner. And Dannie, of course. All the men took orders from Dannie, because all the men would do just about anything to get one of her smiles directed their way. It was Dannie who, when cattle prices fell, and the ranch was in real trouble, came up with the business plan to run it as a working guest ranch, where selling cattle was not the primary money maker.

It had worked too. Providing a rich experience, where the guests weren't coddled, and knew they wouldn't be, had put black back in the books, and kept them there, improving the infrastructure and providing for amenities for those who didn't want to rough it quite as much. Now, if you didn't want to work hard, you could spend the same amount of money to sit around in the hot tub and watch others work hard, or maybe fish, or hunt, in season.

Rowdy had argued about the whole idea at first, but Dannie had draped her arms around his neck and brushed her lips across his grizzled cheek, and, like a little boy, he had fallen in line. By the time Dannie died, he was a firm believer in the business plan, and he made it keep working, if only to honor Dannie's memory.

It was also Rowdy who had sent Bob off on what he called a 'vision quest', taken from native American lore of days gone by.

"Take your horse, and your dog, and your rifle, and maybe a sleeping bag, if you're a pansy, and go spend some time grieving for your wife and child in the mountains," Rowdy had growled at a drunken Bob. "Come back when you think her spirit has talked to you and told you what to do." He'd taken the bottle away from Bob and kicked him out the front door of the big house, where Bob lived, and Rowdy had a room. "You ain't no good to me until you get it out of your system, so go on!"

That had been two months ago. Bob had been back to the ranch for supplies, now and then, and they stocked a couple of line shacks that he sometimes raided, but, other than that, Bob had simply ridden the forty thousand acres of Lazy N land, and probably six or seven thousand acres of the adjacent National Park, looking at the land, talking to his horse and dog ... and thinking.

It had taken him that long to admit that she was really gone. She never talked to him, though, or told him what to do.

He rode up to the ranch house late one evening, when the sun was just disappearing behind Thunder Peak, part of the mountain range that was actually thirty miles away, but which looked like it was right in the back yard of the house. There was a cluster of six guests on the porch, having after-dinner cocktails, and they looked at him curiously.

What they were staring at was a man who topped six feet, with a two month growth of beard, and who needed a haircut. He was wearing a sheepskin jacket, and battered felt cowboy hat of indeterminate color and, strapped around his waist was an actual gun belt, with an actual pistol in it. He sat the horse he was riding like he was born there, swaying negligently in the saddle as the horse quickened its steps, knowing there was a bucket of oats for it soon. A dog, made up of bits of fur that were five or six different colors of brown and tan trotted along beside the horse, her tongue lolling out of his mouth. Both the man and the dog looked dangerous somehow.

Three of the guests were women. All were married, and were with their husbands. They had come out west to have an adventure, and the Lazy N had exceeded their hopes. There had been a careful mixture of attention to their needs, and of leaving them alone. They had to fix their own drinks after dinner, for example, but the bar was fully stocked. All three women felt something tickle them inside as the man slowly rode up, more or less ignoring the group on the porch, as if they weren't there.

Their conversation had stopped when the rider came into view. This group had had their adventure, riding out on the range and being taught how little they knew about hard work. This was their last night in the big house that was a mixture of bed and breakfast, and working ranch house. Tomorrow they would go back to the real world, and none of the six were actually happy about that. They hadn't seen this man, though, while they were there. To the men, he looked dangerous, and the hair on the back of their necks stiffened. To the women he looked dangerous too, but in a different way, that made their hearts beat faster, and made their hands go to touch their hair.

"Evening," said the rider.

"Hi," said one of the men uncomfortably. "Can we help you?"

This ... offer, if that's the right term ... was born of the thing that made the Lazy N a place that people wanted to come back to, even though it was expensive. The staff made you feel like you were actually part of the operation, and the 'ownership' a guest felt at the end of a stay made them pine to come back again. Most did not, and the memory of the adventure they'd had in the wild west was all they had to reflect on in following years. A few did come back, most of them every couple of years, if they could swing it.

"Nope," said the rider.

He swung down from his horse, and the six people listened to that unique creak that only a leather and wood saddle can create when it's stressed. The man stood, bowlegged, almost like the ground felt strange to him. The dog sat down and looked around. She barked once, and the man looked down at her.

The man spoke, as if to a friend. "OK, if you're going to be that way, go on and find something to eat."

The dog bounded off toward the back of the house, and the man took overstuffed saddle bags off the horse, hanging them on the hitching post. Then, without a word, he turned and walked toward the barn. The horse tossed his head, turned, and followed the rider, like he was on a leash, even though the reins were draped across his neck.

"What do you make of that?" asked Frank Brown, one of the men on the porch.

"Beats me," said Hank Downing. "Maybe he's looking for work."

"I've got some work he could do," said Mary Brown, sighing. She looked startled as her two female companions giggled and began to give her a hard time. Her husband did too. They were all kidding her when Donna, the cook, came out onto the porch.

"You all need anything before I close the kitchen?"

"No, we're fine," said Frank. "A man just rode up, though. He went to the barn with his horse. Had a dog with him too. Haven't seen him around here."

"Big black horse?" asked Donna, perking up. "Dog that looks like she'd just disappear if she was in the woods?"

"That would be the ones," said Frank. "You know him?"

Donna didn't answer the question. "You say he took the horse to the barn?"

"Well ... yes ... I suppose so," said Mary. "The horse actually just followed him. He told the dog to go get something to eat and it took off that way." She pointed. "Is there a problem? Is he dangerous? He looked dangerous. Should we call somebody?"

Donna almost laughed. "No, he's not dangerous. "I have to go. He'll want something to eat."

"Wait!" Mary looked anxious. "Who IS he?"

Donna looked at the woman. She saw the same thing that she saw in the eyes of other women who visited the ranch and met Bob. His life was private, though, and these people didn't need to know his troubles.

"He owns the ranch," said Donna.

"You're kidding!" said Mary.

"No, Ma'am," said Donna. "He's been out on an ... inspection trip. Been gone quite a while now. I have to go. It's been nice having you here. Have a safe trip back home."

She whirled and, with a lot more energy than she'd displayed when she sauntered onto the porch, hurried back into the house.

Bob was halfway through a chicken fried steak dinner, with Donna hovering around him, when Rowdy appeared to wander into the kitchen. Bob looked up. Rowdy didn't wander anywhere. Donna must have tipped him off.

"Well," drawled Rowdy. "Look what the cat drug in."

"Nice seeing you, too, Rowdy," said Bob. He itched. The snowmelt made it too cold to take a bath up where he'd been riding, and his infrequent whore's baths, with a piece of rag, dipped in that cold water, hadn't really done much to clean him. He was looking forward to a hot bath.

"You back for more than a snack and to pinch some girl's bottom?"

Rowdy's face clouded up as he realized he'd spoken without thinking.

"Sorry, Boss," he said.

Bob waved a hand, chewing, and concentrated on the taste that flooded his mouth, instead of on the image that came to mind because of Rowdy's thoughtless comment. She was gone. He'd thought about following her - had taken his pistol for exactly that possibility - but hadn't used it. Two reasons were that the dog and horse were with him, and he coldn't abandon either of them, up in the mountains, like that. Life had to go on. His, anyway. He had no idea how he'd manage that, but getting back to work would be a start.

"Things OK?" he asked between bites.

"Well," said Rowdy, uncomfortably. He felt foolish for his stupid remark. He loved this man like a brother, even though he'd never admit it out loud, and the last thing he wanted to do was prod an unhealed wound. "The place didn't fall apart without you, but I imagine the boys will be glad you're back."

"You been riding them hard ... as usual?" Bob took another bite.

"I am hurt!" said Rowdy, his voice casual. "All I do is try to keep things running, and then you come along behind my back and spoil them ... paying for their health care, and giving them bonuses. It's bad enough that you give them pay on top of their room and board."

"We still in the black?" asked Bob, ignoring the barb.

Rowdy sighed. "While you were out gallivanting around, your net worth went up another two hundred thousand. Price of cattle is up sharply, and we're booked solid for the next year and a half."

"Maybe I should go out for another two months," commented Bob.

"We need you here," said Donna. Both men looked at her and she blushed. "Well ... we do!"

"It's nice to know somebody missed me," said Bob. He eyed the cook. "Kind of interesting that you had a chicken fried steak dinner all ready to go when I got back."

"She's had one ready to go every night for the last month," snorted Rowdy. "And every night, when you didn't show up, one of the boys has come up here and eaten it." He grinned. "I 'spect the boys wouldn't mind if you went back out for a while, at that."

"Yeah, well ... I think I got it out of my system." Bob leaned back in the chair. "As much as I ever will, I guess."

"There's nothing wrong with missing her," said Donna, twisting a hand towel in her hands. "We all miss her, Bob."

"Yeah." Bob didn't add that nobody could miss her as much as he did.

"So you're back? For good?" Rowdy sounded relieved.

"Yeah, I guess I'm back," said Bob. He looked over a the liquor cabinet, and then away again. "Right now, though, it's a bath and bed for me."

"Crystal's going to want to see you," commented Rowdy. "She's been pulling her hair out."

"I thought you said we were booked solid for a year and a half," said Bob. Crystal had taken over as booking clerk and hostess after the avalanche.

"We are, but she's all worried that she doesn't have every "t" crossed." Rowdy grinned. "And the Johnsons are scheduled in two weeks."

Rufus Johnson, his wife Kaye, and their three teenage girls were well known at the Lazy N. Kaye was shameless, walking around in next to nothing, and her daughters took after her, wearing tank tops with spaghetti straps on horse rides, their unfettered breasts bouncing for all the men to ogle at. The girls tried their best to find a way into the bunkhouse too. In that, they also copied their mother. Rufus didn't seem to mind at all that his whole family was trying their best to get real live cowboy seed in each and every one of their bellies. He came for the fishing, and often disappeared into the wild for most of the week they spent at the ranch every year. It hadn't been so bad when the girls were in their early teens, but now the oldest would be nineteen or so, the youngest three years younger. All three easy on the eyes, and the men, who were under strict orders not to fraternize with the guests, could only be expected to resist so much. Kaye, for that matter, had seemed intent on sampling Bob in the past. He groaned at the thought that Dannie wouldn't be there to run interference this time.

"We need to hire some gigolos to take care of that family," said Bob, only half joking.

"This ain't Nevada," grinned Rowdy. "Even if it was, we'd probably have to pay overtime anyway. Those are the horniest wimmen I ever seen in my whole life."

Donna sniffed, and Rowdy grinned at her. When she had arrived at the ranch, seeking work, she had been a too-plump nineteen year old girl, with bad skin and limp dried out hair. She'd been running from somebody, or something, but had never talked about it. Four years of clean living and hard work had cleared up her skin, and even though she was the best cook in four counties, she'd lost weight, instead of gaining it. When a storm had driven a tree branch through her bedroom window, in the big house, and rain had soaked everything, she'd calmly moved into the bunk house with the men. They didn't complain, and she'd never moved back into the house. Bob didn't ask any questions, but he doubted seriously that she was sleeping alone these days.

"Tell her to pick some of the older men to ride herd on them," said Bob. "The older men will have more control."

"OK, but I warn you, she's been crying about you being gone so long and she aims to see you when you get back."

"Tomorrow," said Bob. "Tell her tomorrow morning."

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