Excerpt: The Cowboy and The Kid

Excerpt: The Cowboy and The Kid

Book 4: Tanner Brothers Series

Chapter One

Having a father was a big responsibility.

Becky Jones knew that better than almost anyone. She’d been taking care of her own father by herself — except for now and then, when Grandma and Grandpa and her dad’s best friend, Noah, lent a hand — since she was two months old, and she’d be eight in October. That was a long while.

Taggart — that was his name — was a pretty low-maintenance dad most of the time. He was thirty-two years old and in good healthy except for the pins in his knee and the occasional twinge left over from his bull-riding days. He didn’t yell a lot or smoke or spit or chew — which was better than most of the dads she knew. He took off his boots when he came in the house; he washed the dishes almost every night; he kept his room pretty neat and he let her make a mess in hers.

Also, he’d been around since she was born, and that was a big plus as far as Becky was concerned.

It was certainly more than her best friend, Susannah, could say. Susannah’s dad, Noah, hadn’t even known he had a daughter until two years ago!

That seemed pretty careless to Becky, but she could hardly talk since her own mother didn’t get any prizes in the responsibility department. She’d got fed up and left Becky and her dad more than seven years ago and had never come back.

At least once he knew Susannah existed, Noah Tanner had stuck around. He was even married to Susannah’s mother now. Susannah said he and Tess, her mom, were in love. Becky guessed they must be because they’d had another baby — a boy called Clay — right after Christmas last year and were going to have another baby this November! Pretty soon Susannah would have lots of brothers and sisters to share the responsibility with. With two parents, you’d probably need that.

Becky, however, was on her own.

Until two years ago that hadn’t been a problem. Before she started going to school full time, Becky had gone down the road with Taggart from rodeo to rodeo, and she’d done a pretty good job taking care of him and keeping him out of trouble. Other cowboys got drunk and chased girls and raised heck, but not her dad.

“Taggart’s getting pretty settled these days,” her grandpa often said.

And her grandma always nodded and ruffled Becky’s hair. “And we know why, don’t we?” she would say, smiling at her granddaughter. “Because of you. You take such good care of your dad.”

But she couldn’t prevent the accident. She hadn’t even been with him at the time.

She’d started first grade that fall and had stayed with her grandparents while Taggart had gone down the road without her. Becky thought that was dumb. She’d always learned a lot going down the road. Hadn’t she learned to read by sounding out the letters on road signs? Couldn’t she follow a map almost as good as he could? But arguing was useless. Sometimes her dad was as stubborn as the bulls he rode. She’d had to go to school anyway, and he’d traveled with Noah all that fall.

Noah hadn’t been able to prevent the accident, either. . .

On the day he was due to arrive she’d bounced out of bed early, wondering if maybe he was already waiting downstairs to surprise her. She’d rushed to pull on her jeans and shirt . . . so eager was she to race down the stairs and leap into his arms.

He wasn’t there. . .

Grandpa had come over and put his hands on her shoulders. “There’s been an accident, Beck. . . . A truck hit Noah’s van in the snowstorm. Your dad’s in the hospital in Laramie.”

. . . Becky knew all about hospitals. That was where they’d taken her great-grandma before she’d died. . . It was also where her friend Tuck McCall’s mother had been. She was dead now, too.

Becky felt like the time tuck had hit her in to stomach with his football. Only worse. A million, trillion times worse.

Her father wasn’t dead, they told her. He was in a coma. That was like sleeping, Grandma said. Only sometimes, Tuck told her later — which nobody else would — you didn’t wake up.

All the time her dad was in the coma, Becky had had that football feeling.

“He’ll be all right, you’ll see,” her grandma had told her over and over. Becky had seen the fear on her grandmother’s eyes and knew Grandma had the football feeling, too.

The next afternoon . . . he woke up. . . Grandma held the phone out so Becky could talk to him. . .

“Hey, Pard.” He sounded awful, like he’d swallowed Grandpa’s chew. But it was him; nobody else ever called her Pard.

She breathed again. “Daddy.” The football feeling was gone. She felt like she could fly.

“Sorry I missed your program, Pard.”

As if she cared about a dumb old Christmas program. “When are you coming home, Daddy? Soon?”

“You’d better believe it. They’re not keepin’ me one minute longer than they have to. You can come and get me, okay?”

” ‘Kay.” She gripped the receiver tightly, the way she would hang onto his neck if he were here. She listened to him breathing. It was the best sound she’d ever heard. 

“Love you, Pard,” he said at last.

“Love you, too.”

Her grandma took the phone back then. Becky ran out to the barn and climbed up on the top rail of Cedar’s stall to press her face into the sorrel’s main. There, for the first time since she’d heard about the accident, Becky cried.

Sometimes, if she thought about it now, she could get scared all over again. She knew it had scared her dad, too. Once he got better, Taggart said he wasn’t ever leaving her again. He and Noah decided that going down the road was just too hard on family men. . .

So they started a bull-and bronc-riding school. . . Now, a year and a half later, it was up and running.

Noah and Tess and Susannah had just finished building a house down the road. Becky and Taggart had lived with Grandma and Grandpa whole he and Noah got things going. But three months ago, Grandpa and Grandma . . . bought a house in Bozeman, leaving Becky and her father on their own.

Most of the time they were fine, just the two of them.

But sometimes, lately, she wasn’t sure.

This past summer, for example, when they’d gone down to the rodeo in Cheyenne, and he’d been trying to win her a stuffed bear in the shooting gallery, he’d missed five times! Not because he wasn’t a good shot. But because instead of looking at the target, he was busy watching some lady with tight jeans and long blonde hair!

Becky’s company hadn’t been enough the day they went over to the rodeo in Missoula, either. He spent so much time talking to that barrel racer from Oregon that he didn’t realize how much soda pop and candy Becky had eaten. She’d been sick all night.

She’d thought maybe he was just distracted when they were traveling . . . but lately even at the ranch things had been strange.

Like tonight when they were having dinner at Susannah’s. Becky and Susannah were playing chopsticks on the piano, and she turned around to see if her dad had noticed how good she was getting. But instead of watching her, he’d been watching Noah kill Tess. He’d had a funny look on his face, too.

“They’re making up for lost time,” Susannah explained. “Newlyweds do that.” She’d giggled. Becky had, too. Taggart didn’t even smile.

Becky left Susannah playing the piano and slid off the bend to go to where he stood propped against the windowsill. She leaned back against his legs and felt his fingers settle on her shoulders and tighten until they almost hurt. She reached a hand back and touched his. His grip eased and his fingers covered hers. His thumb rubbed the back of her hand.

Later that night when they were driving home, she had to ask him three times if she could drive the truck through the gate when he opened and close it.

“Huh?” he said at last. Then, “Sure, if you want to.” But it seemed to Becky as if he’d barely heard. He didn’t even tell her what a good job she did when he got back in the truck. He didn’t seem to notice at all.

“Are you missing Julie?” she asked . . . when he was tucking her into bed. Her mother, she meant. She never called her Mommy because no one else ever had.

He blinked, then frowned. ?Missing Julie? Of course not. What the heck brought that on?”

Becky gave a tiny shrug. . . .”I just . . . wondered.”

“Don’t be stupid. Then he ruffled her hair and dropped a kiss n her lips. “Night, Pard.”

“Becky’s arms came up and locked around his neck, tugging him down for another, harder kiss. “Night,” she said fiercely.

When he left, he winked at her, and she smiled, thinking she was imagining things and that everything was going to be all right.

But when she work up a few hours later, she could hear the television on. . . . Taggart almost never watched TV. Curious, Becky crept downstairs.

He was watching a movie. Not even a car chase movie, which, as far as she knew, was the only kind he ever watched. On the screen she saw a man and a woman talking, arguing. Talking some more. And then, when the music got really soppy and the lady sniffled and wiped her eyes, they started smiling at each other. And then they were touching. And kissing. A whole lot of kissing.

Taggart flicked the remote. Becky figured he’d shut it off. She was wrong. He played it back and watched it again. And again. 

For a long time, even after he shut it off, he didn’t move. He just sat there . . .while Becky crouched on the steps, watching. At last he got up — real slow, like when all his muscles hurt from bull-riding — and walked to the window. He stood with his hands tucked into his pockets staring out into the darkness.

Finally he turned, and Becky got glimpse of his face. . . He looked like Tuck had hit him in the stomach with his football. Hard.