The Hardcastle Ranch
Chase climbed the ladder with the nail held between his teeth. Why she wanted bunting nailed to the porch eaves, he would never know, but what Lisa-Jo wanted, she usually got. He wasn’t about to fight with the mother of his child. Since little Hunter had come into their lives exactly one year previously, Lisa-Jo had developed what Chase could only describe as the Mom Voice.
It had the most unexpected and instant effect on both him and his son. When Mommy spoke, both boys’ ears pricked up, and they would listen. Not that Hunter could do much about it yet. He was only one year old, and that meant he was scooting around on his bottom making goo-goo noises. Chase, on the other hand, could respond quite well.
Raising the hammer, he hit the nail into the wood and wrapped the bunting around it. And on he went doing another three nails before moving the ladder over.
From inside he heard Lisa-Jo singing nursery rhymes to Hunter.
“Ba ba black sheep, have you any wool?” she sang.
Hunter gurgled and made a high cry that might have been Ma, or Da, or nothing at all.
The smell of roast chicken still lingered in the air, even though Lisa-Jo had turned it into sandwiches for the party they were setting up for. Chase realized he was rather hungry. Breakfast seemed to have been eons ago.
With the bunting up, he picked up the ladder and headed for the shed. The ranch was on the outskirts of Denver, and Chase had bought it for a steal. The previous owner wanted to move back east and had agreed to a very good price. Chase had turned it into a riding and survival school for the rich people’s kids, who had moved into the area. Denver was fast becoming a town full of very wealthy people.
As he made his way to the shed, he spotted Ray and Anita coming over the top field. They had their young daughter in tow. Lily was six months older than Hunter, and she was a handful and a half.
“I’m going to go to the station as soon as you are settled here,” Ray was saying to Anita.
She had a plate of food balanced on one hand, a bag slung around her body, and Lily on her hip. Ray was carrying a large box covered in bright paper. No doubt a gift for Hunter. It was his special day, after all.
“Hey,” Chase said waving. “Just let me put this away, and I’ll come help.”
‘You’re a darling,” Anita said.
Chase noticed that her stomach was swelling. He knew she was pregnant again, but it seemed she was expanding rather faster this time. Or was she further along than he thought? He couldn’t keep track.
Putting the ladder away quickly, Chase went to help them carry their things. He took Lily, who loved her Uncle Chase, because he would hold her and swing her around.
“Unca Tase,” Lily said. “Unca Tase, swing!”
“Not now Lily,” he said. “We have to get things ready for the party.”
She sulked for a moment until she caught sight of the bunting flapping in the breeze. Then she cried out and wriggled until he put her down. The little girl was fast on her feet with her black braids bouncing behind her.
They went inside and greeted Lisa-Jo and Hunter. Ray put the box on the kitchen table, and after kissing his wife, went to the door. Chase walked with him.
“Okay, so the train will arrive in about a half-hour,” Chase said. “You can be there by then, right?”
Ray nodded. “Don’t you start. I’ll fetch them. Where are they staying?”
“Here,” Chase said.
Ray sighed. “Good luck.”
Chase smiled. “Thompson has promised to behave, and since he’s not gambling anymore or drinking, he’s apparently much better. Found himself a good woman, or so my father-in-law says.”
“And your parents?” Ray asked. “Is it just your mother coming?”
Chase shrugged. “I guess so.”
Although he had written several letters to his father, none had garnered a reply. Even when Lisa-Jo sent pictures of Hunter, nothing. His mother had gushed and oohed over her grandson, sending him gifts and long letters that they had to read out to the infant. But from his father Chase got nothing. Not one word.
He didn’t know what more he had to do to mend the rift. He had apologized, explained his reasoning, and tried to set out his thoughts and feelings on paper in such a way that his father could finally see what was in Chase’s heart. Why he had chosen a life in the mountains and not in a major city.
If he could just get his father out there, he would see. He would understand how the beauty of nature could turn a man’s heart and head. But he would never come.
All this flew through Chase’s mind in a moment, and when Ray placed a consolatory hand on his shoulder, Chase snapped back.
“Don’t worry,” Ray said. “My father will be here, and he will make up for anyone who doesn’t come. My mother too.” He sighed. “In fact, I think the whole tribe is coming.”
“Good,” a voice said behind them. “The more the merrier.”
Lisa-Jo came down the steps and put her arms around her husband. “It’s a lovely day. I think this is going to be an excellent party. If Chandler ever arrives with the ginger beer and lemonade.”
“He’ll be here,” Ray and Chase said as one.
Lisa-Jo laughed. “You’d better be on your way to fetch our out-of-town guests,” she said.
“We’re on our way now,” Ray said with a smile.
She smiled too and kissed Chase on the cheek. “I’ll see you soon.”
He nodded. “Don’t let the Thatchers eat all the food before we get back,” he said.
“I’ll keep a keen eye on them,” Lisa-Jo assured him.
Chase and Ray went to the barn and got two horses harnessed to the cart. Then they were on their way.
It was a lovely drive into Denver, about twenty minutes through rolling hills covered in tall pine trees. Chase and Lisa-Jo had chosen their land carefully to make sure they never lost the wonder for the land around them. Traveling through the forest each day reminded them that life was precious, and they needed to live well.
“What do you think Professor Thompson’s lady friend will be like?” Ray asked. “I can’t think of a woman liking him.” He shrugged with a naughty grin on his face.
Chase shrugged. “According to Arthur, she’s very strict. Like a schoolteacher with a naughty boy.” Even though he’d been married to Lisa-Jo for years, calling Professor Warrington Arthur was still new to Chase. Somehow it seemed less respectful than the man deserved.
“And he’s bringing the housekeeper?” Ray asked.
“Yes, Mrs. Whitford has been looking after him for years now,” he said. “And Lisa-Jo invited her. She’s part of the family too now.”
“It seems everyone is,” Ray said. “Did you know that Professor Thompson planned to take all the credit for finding the scrolls?”
Chase nodded. “Your father told me about that conversation he overheard between Rivkin and Thompson.” He sighed. “I wonder what made Rivkin side with Sarano. Was he really that greedy?”
Ray couldn’t say. Although they had walked and ridden miles with the man, neither of them felt they had known him at all. Not after he turned on them. Chase and Ray were both still a little sour about Rivkin being included as a contributing member of the party.
Soon they rode into Denver. It was another busy day in the town with people going about their business, walking on the sidewalks, talking, shopping, and getting on with their lives. Many were heading into and out of the train station. Chase was constantly amazed at how many people moved through the station, going on to Boulder and Black Hawk and Central City. It was wonderful to think of all the journeys they were on.
Their own journey, another job escorting a professor and his grad students to a fossil dig site near Central City would start in two weeks. Lisa-Jo and Anita wouldn’t be going with them, which was sad. After all, as the local schoolteacher, Lisa-Jo had all summer off. Anita wasn’t so lucky. As the apothecary’s assistant, she had to work all the way through.
Anyway, neither woman felt like living in a tent for months. Not with little children, and Chase could hardly blame them. Digs were no place for little hands that would pick something up they weren’t supposed to.
They stopped the cart outside the station, and tying the horses to a post, went inside. The train hadn’t come in yet. There were a lot of people milling about on the platform anyway. They had to be waiting for passengers too.
Chase and Ray smiled to a few people they knew. And then, suddenly, the unwelcome face of Butch Flinders filled his view.
“Chase Hardcastle!” Butch drawled. “Here to pick up an unlucky party?”
“No,” Chase said with a grin. “I’ve still got two weeks with my family.”
“That so?” Butch asked. He was looking a little rough around the edges. His hat and jacket looked well worn and his boots were dusty, and one had a tear in it.
“You doing, okay?” Chase asked.
Butch shrugged. “Well, I didn’t get no great advertising like you boys did with that treasure find a couple of years ago, but … yeah, I’m okay.”
“Good to hear,” Chase said.
“You know I’m not expanding like you guys did,” he said, rubbing the corner of his mouth with a dirty-nailed thumb. “But business is business.”
Chase patted him on the shoulder. “Well, all the best for the season.”
“Thanks, yeah, you too,” Butch said.
Chase walked on towards the incoming train and then turned. It was never good to see a man down and out. “Hey, Butch.”
“Yeah?” the man asked.
“Can I send some folks your way from time to time? You know when all our teams are booked up,” Chase asked.
Butch’s face lit up like a Christmas tree filled with candles. “Yeah, yeah of course.”
Chase smiled. “That’s a relief. I’ve been trying to think what to do with them. I’ll give them your details.”
“Thanks,” Butch said. “I appreciate it.”
“That was a good thing you just did,” Ray said. “We have plenty, and he clearly has nothing.”
“Well, Lisa-Jo’s been explaining this karma idea to me and well … it seems like spreading the goodness around is a wise thing to do,” Chase said. “Anyway, this is way less fun without him.”
Ray laughed and shook his head. “You are a singular man. I’m glad you’re my friend.”
“Hey, you’re more than that, you’re my brother,” Chase said.
They grinned, waiting for the train to come to a halt.
The doors opened, and people flooded out. Chase and Ray searched faces waiting for the two professors, the housekeeper, and Chase’s mother to all disembark. The train belched steam, and the platform filled with people, porters, and luggage. It took a while before they could spot anyone, and then it was only thanks to Ray’s exceptionally sharp vision that they saw them.
It began with Professor Thompson. He disembarked out of the first-class section first. He had lost weight and was looking dapper in a good suit and cravat. A lady, poised and regal looking, stepped out behind him. She smiled brightly as the professor took her hand to help her, and all the poise and aloofness left her features. Now she looked warm and friendly.
Next came Professor Warrington with the housekeeper, Mrs. Whitford. As there was no Mr. Whitford, Chase assumed there wasn’t one. He hadn’t asked in case the question might offend the good lady, meaning to ask Lisa-Jo. Of course, as these things would, he had forgotten about it completely.
And then came his mother. She was as lovely and tidy as always. Chase smiled and waved, and she returned the wave with great enthusiasm, knocking a man’s hat from his head. She turned to apologize, and Chase’s heart stopped.
He stood dead still.
Ray turned back. “What is it?”
“My father,” Chase said, his voice catching in his throat. “She did it; he’s here.”
Nothing else filled his world but the sight of his father standing on the Union Station platform. It was overwhelming. Chase strode forward and without a word stepped up to his father and wrapped his arms around the man. He was older, grayer, more wrinkled, but he was family, and he was here. Chase felt tears tickle his eyes and fall to his father’s shoulder.
“Father,’ he said.
His father put his arms around Chase. “Douglas.”
“It’s Chase now, Charles,” his mother said. “Hello, dear. Where are Lisa-Jo and my grandson?”
Chase let go of his father and hugged his mother. She kissed his cheeks and smiled. “See, I told you I would get him to come around. Well, it was me and that darling child of yours.”
“I’m so glad you could come,” Chase said.
“Well, what is the point of having sons follow in your footsteps if you can’t let them take the reins every now and then,” his father said a little stiffly.
“What he means,” his mother said after an awkward silence, “is that your brothers are taking care of the businesses and we’re here. So excited. Evangeline is here too. Although that girl wanders off worse than you ever did.”
Chase’s sister was found in the dining car speaking to an old lady covered in jewels. It took some effort to part the two of them, and soon they were ready to get underway. Ray and Chase packed the cart full of luggage and people and set off for home.
Chase was ecstatic. He had never been so happy. With Ray sitting beside him on one side and his father on the other, he couldn’t ask for more.
“So, you’ve made quite the name for yourself,” his father said.
“Well, I learnt from the best,” Chase said.
“And Ray here is your partner?” his father asked, looking across at Ray.
Chase and Ray both nodded.
“But he does all the paperwork,” Ray said with a grin. “I do all the tracking because Mr. Hardcastle, your son can’t track to save his life.”
Chase nodded. “It’s true. We’d still be stuck under that mountain if it was up to me to get us out.”
“That so?” his father asked. And the conversation rolled. It was a little stiff and strange, but Chase felt it was good. He couldn’t expect things to change overnight. Just having his father there was a great start.
By the time they reached the ranch there were a lot of people there already. The crew that had been on their adventure with them were all there. The Thatcher twins were carrying plates of food out to the two tables under the oak tree. Chandler had taken over in the kitchen, and Wallace was helping to corral the older children.
It seemed most of Ridgetown, which was only a mile away and the town where Lisa-Jo ran the school, had shown up.
Ray’s family was also there and his parents, Sobita and Nitika, Mitena, and all the rest were enjoying themselves on the lawn.
Chase and Ray took everyone’s luggage into the house. Chase was glad he and Lisa-Jo had planned for a large family, building four extra rooms onto the house, or they would never have managed to fit everyone.
When that was done, they could finally go and enjoy the party. Lisa-Jo had set up games for the older children to play, like hopscotch, pin the tail on the donkey, and there was a treasure hunt. Even though little Hunter couldn’t participate, he seemed to have a marvelous time, moving from his mother to his grandmother to Olathe to Anita and back to his mother again.
Chase introduced his father to everyone. After a while, he wondered if his father would remember anyone’s name, and yet a little while later, he found the man in deep conversation with Chief Tapuche, calling others by name.
They ate and drank and had a wonderful party. There were sandwiches, potato salad, green salad, beans, and corn because Chandler couldn’t cook without those ingredients, and a huge birthday cake to follow. Chandler even brought some of his own special ice cream. Sarano didn’t hold a candle to Chandler.
When the shadows grew long, and the birthday boy passed out from sheer excitement and too much fun, people began to head home. The crew offered to wash the dishes and were making a racket doing it. Lisa-Jo was putting the little birthday boy down to bed, and Ray and Anita had taken Lily, who was throwing a tantrum, home.
Chase stepped out onto his porch and found his mother standing there watching the sunset.
“It’s lovely out here,” she said. “You’ve certainly found yourself a little slice of heaven.”
“Thanks,” Chase said putting an arm around her shoulders.
“Well, you always were a bright one,” she said. “Of all my children, you were always the one to watch, the one who was going to break the molds as it were. And you have.”
“How did you get father to come with you?” Chase asked.
She looked at him, a frown crinkling her brow. “I didn’t. He asked to come. Seems he’s been reading all your press and your wife’s book. Couldn’t put it down. He’s read it twice now about what you went through and how you two found each other. I think seeing you through her eyes made all the difference. You see that young woman loves you for you. She doesn’t expect you to be anything more than you are. And I think that opened his eyes. He realized he was missing out on time he could be spending with a most remarkable young man.”
Chase smiled and hugged his mother. “You gave him the book, didn’t you?”
She hugged him back. “Of course, I did. How else would he ever know to read it?”
“It seems I have two special women in my life,” he said.
“And don’t you forget it,” Lisa-Jo said.
Chase let go of his mother and drew Lisa-Jo to him with an arm around her shoulders. This was the best day he’d had in a long, long time. He had his folks, his little sister, and his family with him. Nothing could make him happier.
“Oh,” Lisa-Jo said. “I wanted to tell you when we were alone, but that isn’t going to happen any time soon.” She cast a look into the yard where her father and Thompson were walking side by side, deep in discussion.
“What?” Chase asked.
“Well, I’m pregnant again,” she said.
Chase broke into a grin that didn’t fade for days.