A raucous screech woke Susan Stone out of her restless sleep.
Not her own screams, for once. The phone next to her bed buzzed. She fumbled for her glasses, checked the clock. Three in the morning. She pressed the talk button. “Dr. Stone.”
Her father’s wife. Another stroke? Or perhaps a heart attack this time. “What’s wrong, Jeanette?”
“Your father didn’t want me to call.”
The knot in her stomach loosened. Pop was alive, at least. “I’m glad you know enough not to listen to him.What’s happened?”
“He’s in a lot of pain, but he won’t take anything. I need you to talk to him.”
Susan switched on the lamp, tried to get her bearings. “Sure. But I need you to tell me what I’ll be talking to him about.”
“Oh, sorry. My nerves are shot.” Jeanette exhaled. “Sarraf threw him.”
“Sarraf ’s been dead for forty years.”
“This is a new one, a wild horse that your father says looks like his old favorite . . .”
Susan took a long drink from her water bottle. Late-night calls were routine—mostly overdoses and suicide attempts. And sometimes suicide successes, but she couldn’t go there, had to focus on what Jeanette was saying.
“. . . wandered in from the hills. Your father thinks he’s still a cowboy, can jump on any horse anytime and anywhere.”
“Where is he, and what’s his condition?”
“Hardesty Medical, down in Steamboat. His leg is broken.”
“Um. I’m not sure. Sorry, my head is fuzzy. I need some coffee. Which leg . . . does it matter?”
“His right hip is arthritic. That could complicate things.”
“No, let me think. I’m in the lobby, on my cell. He made me leave the treatment room, said I was a bigger pain than his broken leg. Okay, the left leg, that’s it.”
“Not the femur?”
“Is that the thigh bone?”
“No. It’s the lower leg.”
The femur would have required a cast up to his hip. Lower leg, he’d be hobbled but able to get around. “Did the doctors say anything about internal injuries? His spleen or kidney?”
“Just the leg. This is one nasty horse, tossed your father hard. I don’t care how beautiful that stallion is—Charlie shouldn’t be messing around with wild horses, not at his age.”
“Can you tell me exactly what happened?”
“I was in the upstairs bathroom, getting ready for bed. I thought your father was still downstairs, watching that cop show of his. Then I heard the cry from out back. It cut right through the wall, like the coyotes’ howls do sometimes. I ran outside, found Charlie in the far
paddock. Bouncing on his backside along the ground, every bounce setting off a yelp of pain. He was going to drag himself back to the barn, can you believe him?”
“I sure can.”
“The fool horse followed him, head hanging low like a kid who knew he’d gone too far.”
“Did they set it?”
“Not yet. They need to do surgery, put pins in to hold the bone together. But his heart is acting frisky. And of course, Charlie is refusing to cooperate. Saying to throw on a cast and let him go home.”
Susan rested the phone against her cheek, took another deep breath.
“What’s his doctor’s name? I’ll have him paged, see what can be done.”
“The orthopedist left for the night. He won’t do anything until the heart lady comes in. Meanwhile, they got your father in a blow-up cast. He’s the color of pea soup. And all sweaty, but it’s cold sweat. I hate to see him like that. You need to make him take the pain medication.”
Susan got up, went to the window. The lights of Boston glittered like fireflies in the fog. Rain coming again. So far, May had been a washout. “This happened tonight?”
“Ten our time. It was one of those magic nights, the kind you get only in Colorado. Moon rising up out of the mountains, air so clean it feels like it’s washing you inside and out. Even the birds quieted, like they just wanted to sit back and enjoy it.” Jeanette paused. “My battery’s
low, I’ve got to go.”
“I’ll call him, try to talk some sense into him.”
“No. You’d better just get out here. We need you—”
The phone went dead.
Eighteen hours later, Susan touched Charles Robinson’s shoulder as he dozed. His eyes opened, blinking. “Vannie?”
Susan bit the inside of her lip to keep from snapping at him.“Papa, it’s me. Susan.”
He shook his head. “For a moment there . . . your hair, cut like that. The way you hold your head, your chin up . . .”
She kissed him, keeping her face next to his while she let the moment pass. The stubble on his cheek was soft.
He pulled away and squinted at her. “What are you doing here?”
“Checking up on you.”
“Jeanette put you up to this?”
“Don’t you go giving her a hard time. Jeanette did the right thing.”
“I didn’t want you to be worried. ’Cause there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Maybe not. But I had to see that for myself.”Her clinical eye took in his condition—surgical splint, morphine drip, heart monitor. His color was good and his pulse strong, but his eyes were still dimmed from anesthesia.
“I read your chart. The surgery went well.”
“This morning. They brought me back to this room. Tucked me into bed. I was sweet-dreaming for hours, but they woke me up, forced some Jell-O down my throat, and then made me get in this chair. Something about blood clots. Can’t leave a body alone for one minute. Trying to justify the outrageous charges. Probably costs five bucks just to flush the toilet.”
Susan glanced at her watch. “Why don’t I get you back into bed? They won’t bother you again, except to check your temperature. You can get a good night’s sleep.” She wrapped her arm around his waist and helped him up.
His skin was loose and silky, his muscles knotty.
“Don’t put any weight on that leg,” she warned. After a month, they’d replace the splint with a fiberglass cast. He’d face days of being in a wheelchair, weeks on crutches, months of physical therapy.
“I know, I know. They told me five times. I’m old but not deaf.”
She set the IV pole so Charlie could reach the button on the morphine drip, then pulled up the side rails.
“Don’t do that. I’m not a baby that’s gonna fall out of bed.”
“This way you can get at the call button.”
“They did their blasted surgery. Why can’t I go home now?”
“They need to monitor the swelling in your foot overnight. Also, give you some therapy to teach you how to use the wheelchair.”
“Wheelchair! Just give me crutches, I’ll get about. Or tell them to put on one of them walking casts.” His pout was almost comical.
“You’ll get that in a few weeks. Just relax and get better. Don’t rush it.” Her father shifted in bed, his brow creased with worry.
“Are you in pain, Pop? Just push the button on the IV. You’ll get the right amount of medicine.”
“No, that’s not it.” He rubbed his face. The back of his hand was spotted and the skin translucent. “I don’t remember the last time I used the bathroom. Maybe I’d better get in there before I hunker down for the night.”
“No need to. You’re catheterized.”
“What?” He lifted up the blanket. “I didn’t even feel this. Why did they do that? I don’t need—”
“Whoa, hold on there.” Susan grabbed his hand before he could tug out the tube. “This makes things easier for you overnight. Plus it lets them monitor your urine, make sure there’s no blood in it. You took a nasty fall.”
“I hate being like this. When I’m an old man, don’t ever let them put me in those diapers. I’ll jump out a window before I let them—”
Like an electric current to her spine, it struck Susan.
. . . the radio said there was a jumper, a young man, right outside your apartment building. I worried it was one of Christopher’s friends, but he’s still in Colorado, right? Dr. Stone, are you all right . . .
Charlie fumbled for her hand. “Gee, oh Susie, I didn’t mean to say . . .”
Susan turned away, hand to her mouth. Focus on something, anything. The drapes were an institutional beige, with nine folds each. The tile was grouped in diagonals, blue squares alternating with black. She counted the squares, pushing the pain deep, clinging to her methodical
breathing and meaningless counting. Six tiles, seven tiles, eight tiles.
“I’m sorry, baby. I just . . .” Charlie’s hand brushed her back.
“Shush. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Oh Christopher, I was so wrong . . . Oh God, let me take it back.
She smoothed his hair,willing her fingers not to tremble.“Be patient, okay? Tomorrow will be a better day, Pop. I know it will.”
He clutched her hand. “Today’s good, Susie. Now that you’re here.”
She kissed his forehead, then sat by his side until he fell asleep.
It was almost midnight when Susan arrived at the ranch. She tossed her suitcase onto the twin bed she had slept in as a child, hoping for nothing more than a better night’s sleep than the one before.
But Jeanette had asked her to put on jeans and sneakers and come
to the barn.
“Thanks for coming out here,” she said.
“I’m so sorry I missed your wedding.” Susan cringed. What a stupid thing to say. Her father had remarried almost four years ago. Yet even that couldn’t induce Susan to come back to Harken.
“I meant, out to the barn.”
“It’s almost midnight. Are you sure this can’t wait until morning?”
“You should’ve known before, Susie.”
Susan’s nerves crackled with fatigue. “Can’t you just tell me?”
“You’ve got to see for yourself.”
As they crossed the drive, the size of the blue spruces startled Susan. They had been three feet or less when she left for college, immature saplings. Now they were fully mature and beautifully shaped, a graceful barrier between house and barn. As they passed through them, the yard lights came on.
Susan gasped when she saw the barn—sparkling new and large enough to accommodate at least twenty horses. “When did this all happen?”
Jeanette cleared her throat. “A bit over a year ago. Charlie was planning for the future, something to pass on to his grandson. That was before . . . you know . . .”
Of course she knew.
“He wouldn’t let me tell you, and he swore Christopher to secrecy. Knew you wouldn’t approve.” Jeanette opened the door.
The scent of leather hit Susan first as they passed the tack room filled with harnesses, bridles, and saddles. In the main part of the barn, it was all horse—the clean odor of pine shavings mingled with a sweet, musky smell.
Horses drowsed lazily in the stalls, some on their sides asleep, others curious at the intrusion. A gray gelding pushed against his gate, looking for a treat. Susan instinctively patted her pockets for carrots. After thirty years, she thought. Still a habit.
She flipped on the stall light and was surprised. “Dude horses. What’s up with this? Is my father giving trail rides again?”
Jeanette nodded. “He needs the income.”
The all-too-familiar ache of frustration crept into Susan’s throat.
“After the stroke, he promised.We had an arrangement.” She should have known better. Her father’s promises were as good as the winter wind. Ever-changing, impossible to pin down.
“He got them at auction two years ago, cleaned them up, fed them well. Don’t they look good?”
Susan peered into the adjacent stalls. “They do look good, but that’s irrelevant.What happened to the retirement fund I helped him set up? It should have kept you both for the rest of your lives.” The crash of the eighties had impoverished her father, almost cost him the ranch. Charlie had barely survived bankruptcy by selling off his stock at pennies on the dollar. With Susan’s help, he made it through, switching from breeding to trail rides. When he developed cardiac issues four years ago, he had sold his dude horses, kept one for occasional riding, and was supposed to be retired.
Jeanette looked down at the floor. “The retirement fund is gone.”
“Why didn’t you tell me, Jeanette?”
“I respect my husband’s wishes, even when they’re prideful.”
Susan wanted to shake her. “What’s he up to? He didn’t empty out that account to buy some over-the-hill dude horses.”
“Come see.” Jeanette steered her to the back.
The last two stalls were double-sized. The one to Susan’s left was empty, but in the other one a horse lumbered to the gate. Susan’s breath caught in her throat. “She’s . . .”
Jeanette shrugged. “Charlie says she is. I pray every night that he’s right.”
“What’s her name?”
“Rayya the Regal. Rayya for short.”
Susan kissed Rayya’s muzzle, softer than satin against her skin. The horse’s breath was sweet from alfalfa. She was a bay, with a rich mahogany coat, and black mane, forelock, and tail. Her eyes were huge, her forehead broad and flat. Her ears were set perfectly atop her crown—small, tight, and beautifully shaped. Her nostrils were huge and her heart would be strong because Arabians were bred for endurance and power as well as grace.Her long neck was set high on deep and sloping shoulders. Balanced and well proportioned, she would be as perfect in motion as she was at rest.
“Where did she come from?”
“Your father’s old poker buddy, Ray Field. He got into something so deep he couldn’t dig back out with a bulldozer.”
“Gambling debts, I assume.”
“Las Vegas bookmakers. Charlie said she was a bargain, but more important, that she was special. He was afraid some rich weekend rancher would buy her for his kids to trot about in the show ring, never realizing her true value. So he emptied out the retirement and bought her.”
“There was a quarter million in there. She couldn’t have cost that much.”
“She was fifty thousand. Got her cheap, Charlie said. Most of the rest of the money went for this barn.”
A weariness settled on Susan. “He already had a barn.”
“Not good enough. Or big enough. I couldn’t stop him—it’s his money, not mine. He wants things back like they used to be. When the Robinson name was known all over the country for the best Arabians.”
Rayya pushed against her, wanting more patting. Susan flicked on the light over the stall and went in. “Oh my. She’s in foal?”
“Due to deliver sometime this month. The sire is Magnum Psyche.”
“I’m sorry, Jeanette. I haven’t followed Arabians for years.”
“He’s the top horse in the country. Maybe even the world. Charlie bought an entire breeding package. He expects Rayya to produce many champions, restart the industry single-handed.”
Susan leaned her face against Rayya’s neck. She was a quiet horse, but Susan could feel her well-formed muscularity, could easily imagine what it would be like to ride her, the power flowing from horse to rider, the respect going from rider to horse. “If you emptied out the account, how are you making ends meet?”
“Trail rides. Melissa helps out as a guide, plus she gives lessons.”
Susan struggled to keep her expression neutral. “I didn’t know Melissa still worked here.”
“She believes in what Charlie is doing. Now this—Charlie putting himself out of action with tourist season about to start.”
Susan tore herself away from Rayya. “How much do you need?”
“No, no! Your father would die before taking money from you.”
“I have more than I’ll ever need.” Between the nest egg Paul had left her and her own lucrative practice, she had plenty of money. And no future, not anymore.
Jeanette took her hands and looked deep into her face. “You’ve got your father’s eyes. All these years and I still don’t know what color that is. Too many gold highlights to be hazel.”
Susan turned her face away. “What can I do for you?”
“I know you swore you’d never come back.”
“It’s best if we leave the past where it belongs, Jeanette. Of course you understand.”
“Of course I do. But Susie, could you stay for a while? Maybe until the foal is born. Then everything will settle out like it’s supposed to. Just a few weeks. Please.”
Jeanette couldn’t be serious, couldn’t possibly expect her to stay after all that had happened. Ancient history or recent history, it was all the same. Bitter and ugly. Susan would do the right thing—pump some money into an emergency account, hire a manager to run the tourist rides and a good vet for the mare. But to expect her to stay was too much to ask. Jeanette had to know that.
And then Rayya nickered, anxious for more attention.
Thirty years of resolve crumbled. “Of course I’ll stay,” Susan said.
“I’d be happy to.”