William McGrath opened the door and strode into the saloon, expecting the reaction he got. Everything went still, and all eyes turned toward him. He paused just long enough to survey the room, allowing his eyes to adjust to the lower light. When he spotted his quarry, he walked to the far corner.
He stopped at a table with an older cowboy dressed in faded jeans with a button-down snapped smartly at his wrists. His short white hair had the tell-tale rim of a recently resting cowboy hat, but he didn’t look up from his drink as he drawled, “Did you really have to make quite so much of an entrance, William? And couldn’t you have at least changed out of that getup?”
William grinned broadly and looked down at his tunic, tights, and knee-high boots and raised his eyebrow. “What d’ya mean, Jedidiah? I find this very comfortable.”
Jed shook his head, then stood. “It’s damn fine to see you, Liam.”
William wrapped Jed in a hug. “It’s been too long, old friend.”
Jed said, “Sit down. Tell me what’s been going on?”
“First, we order a drink.”
When it came, they held their glasses up. William said, “Semper Fi.”
“Do or die.”
As they felt the burn of the liquid, they looked at each other, and William set his glass down. “So how’s the cowboy business? It’s gotta be better than getting shot at, eh? How’s Cooper?”
Jed shook his head. “The ranch couldn’t be stronger, thanks to Cooper. ‘Course, he’s turning into a lonely old man just like me. Works all the time. He hasn’t even had a date in a year.”
William shook his head. “Well, I know what you mean about the worry that he’ll not settle down. I’ve got almost the same problem with my Gabby.”
Jed shook his head. “Gabby? I thought you’d be swinging that Claymore of yours fending off the boys.”
William nodded. “I have my hands full with that part. She’s a beauty and no mistake. The problem is she doesn’t want any of them. I thought for a while that she’d take up with one of my jousters, but turns out they are just friends, and she’s twenty-eight. Her mother is starting to despair.”
“Too bad she can’t meet my Cooper.”
William looked up from his drink. “Why can’t she?”
Jed sat up a little straighter. “What do you mean?”
“Well, why can’t she. I’m assuming you employ people occasionally, take on seasonal labor, that kind of thing?”
“Well, of course, but…”
“Well, why can’t you hire an old friend’s daughter? I’ll tell Gabby I’ve gotten her a job for this stop, for the weekdays. It’ll be perfect. They’ll meet. They will fall in love, and both of our problems will be solved.”
Jed stared at his drink for a minute. “You know, it’s so crazy and simple, it just might work. And it’s not like we can’t use the help, so it can’t hurt. So… why not. This is the perfect plan. What could go wrong?”
“So wait, you did what?” Cooper leaned against the fence post he was repairing, and pushed his hat farther back on his head. He held his cellphone a little closer to his ear.
Jed said, “I hired my friend’s daughter to help out on the ranch for the next few weeks. Her father is an old Marine buddy of mine, and they are performing at the Renaissance festival on the weekends. It will give her a little extra money and do a favor for an old friend.”
Cooper wiped his brow. “Look, Uncle Jed, I don’t know about hiring a girl. I mean, we have a lot of guys on the ranch. What am I supposed to do with her?”
Jed said, “Just be nice to her and show her around, is all I ask. She’ll pull her weight.”
Cooper shook his head. “Nope, no way. You bring her on the ranch, you look after her. Just like all your other strays.” His uncle Jed had a habit of collecting anyone who needed a break. They would stay for a while until they were on their feet and then they would be on their way. Usually, they were boys, though, and at least useful on a ranch, even if they were more hoodlum than ranch hand.
Jed said, “Well, the truth is, I’m caught up here for a couple of days. Just look after her until I get there. She won’t be any trouble at all, I’m sure.”
Cooper had his doubts about that, but his uncle never asked for anything, so he said, “All right, Uncle Jed, I’ll look after her. When does she get in?”
“She should be there tomorrow. And Cooper, thanks. You’re doing a real favor for an old Nam buddy. He’s at his wits’ end with her.”
As he hung up, Cooper wondered just exactly what he’d been suckered into by his uncle and his old Nam buddy.
* * *
“What do you mean, you got me a job? I already have a job.” Gabby scrambled along beside her father as he stalked from the practice paddock through rows of empty shops for the North Texas Renaissance Festival toward the joust camp at the back of the property.
“I got you a weekday job, to bring in extra money,” William said, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
“But Da, I’m needed around here for help with the horses and training and all sorts of things. I tutor some of the kids, and… I just can’t take a job that far from the faire. It’s awfully nice of you to go to the trouble and all, but…”
William paused finally and frowned. “Gabriella, I think surely the camp can go along without you for a few days while you make some money for yourself.” He scrunched his eyebrows and pursed his lips, hands on his hips in the middle of the faireway. “I really think you should strongly consider this job. Jedidiah Harris is an old Marine buddy of mine, and he could use the help. It’s up to you, of course.” With that, he turned and left Gabby standing alone in the middle of the empty fairway.
She sat on a bench as she thought of this new wrinkle her father had thrown in her life. She felt a weight on her bench, and startled out of her reverie. “Oh, Leo, you scared me to death!” She hit his shoulder.
The big, blond knight clothed in simple tunic and tights said, “You were a million miles away, Gabby. Anyone could have startled you. Care to share?”
Gabby slumped. “Da wants me to take a job away from camp.”
Leo looked as shocked as she did. None of them had ever taken a job out of camp before. “He does? Did he say why?”
Gabby shook her head. “No, not really. It’s only for the weekdays. I mean, I’ll still be back for the weekends and all. I just… I’m needed here, or I thought I was?”
Leo put his arm around her shoulders. “Of course you are wanted here, Gabby. You will always have a place, but we can go on without you, of course. Go on and have fun. You never know what will happen.”
This was not exactly what Gabby wanted to hear, but she smiled and put her hand on Leo’s knee. “Thanks for listening, Leo. You’ve always been there for me.”
And indeed he had. Leo had been with her family’s troupe of jousters since his late teens and had been her best friend almost since their first meeting. He was the big brother she had never had. Many people had tried to pair them together since the tall, blond knight had joined her family’s traveling band, but they had been always been loyal friends and nothing more.
Leo stood and held a hand out to help her stand. “Anytime, kiddo. And like you said, how bad can it be. It’s only during the week. Say, you aren’t going to try to take all of your stuff over there, are you?”
Gabby put her hands on her hips. “I don’t have that much stuff, Leo.”
“Gabby, you have more stuff than any three other people in camp. I swear, it takes one trailer just to carry your belongings. You do know that we move from place to place, don’t you?”
Gabby tapped her foot. “Just because I like to be comfortable…”
Leo laughed. “I’m perfectly comfortable, and I know how to travel light, too. Come on. It’s getting late.” He held out his arm in a courtly fashion. “Shall I escort you to the fire, milady?”
“Thank you most graciously, kind sir.”
They crossed from the fairyland of the public area of the faire through the small wooded area to the employee encampment, a hodgepodge of RVs, tents, pavilions, and even a yurt. They had dawdled so long that the campfires were lit and some people were already sitting around in lawn chairs enjoying a beer or a plate of food. People wore an odd mixture of modern and faire clothing—t-shirts over tights with dangling suspenders with crocs as footwear, hoodies and gypsy skirts with sandals, lots of color and lots of laughing. She hurried to the campfire to help her mother serve up food to her clan of jousters, only to realize that almost everyone was already eating.
“Sorry, Mom, I got sidelined. I’ll help clean up.”
Her mother Moira, a beauty with the same riot of untamable dark curls, clad in a t-shirt and gypsy skirt, smiled. “Your father said you might be late. It’s no big deal. We have everything under control. Anything you want to talk about?”
Gabby grabbed a plate. “Did he tell you anything?”
Moira said, “He mentioned something about a job opportunity for you. What did you think?”
Gabby shrugged. “What did you think?”
“I think you might enjoy some time away from here. It’s worth exploring.”
Gabby shrugged again. “I don’t really want to be away that much. I mean, I like it here. I have a lot to do, and I’m needed.”
Mom put her hand on Gabby’s shoulder and said, “You will always be needed and loved, but this is a chance to get out and see some of the outside world. Something not in a tent. It might be nice for a while.”
An hour later at the campfire, Gabby walked over to her father. “All right, Da, I’ll try out this job. Perhaps on a probationary basis, say one week? Since it’s for an old Nam buddy and all.”
“That’s all I’m asking, Gabby. Just give it a try. Who knows, you may end up liking it so much you become a cowgirl.”
“Seriously, Da, you say the craziest things.”
* * *
“Recalculating.” The voice on the GPS managed to sound like getting lost was Gabby’s idea.
Gabby pounded the dash and turned her car around in a three-, okay, five-point turn.
Mumbling under her breath, she waited for the stupid device to spit out new directions. Glancing at the blue dot, she tried to figure out where she was on her own.
Just as she looked back at the road, an agile creature jumped into her path, causing her to swerve in order to miss it. That brought her into the lane of an oncoming red truck which blared its horn, startling her into overcorrecting back across her lane and off the road through a fence, finally coming to a rest against a water trough. Her engine gave one last chug, then died, right there in the middle of a field.
The world went eerily silent in contrast to the mayhem and destruction caused in such a short time by the goat, the truck, the car, and the fence. Gabby really blamed the truck the most. If it hadn’t startled her so badly, she might have salvaged the little maneuver. After checking to make sure she hadn’t sustained an injury, Gabby climbed out to survey the damage to her car through the swirling dust. As she walked to the front of the car, the steam rising from the front grill didn’t inspire confidence. One thing was certain—with two flat tires, she couldn’t go anywhere fast without help.
She’d barely had the thought when a disturbance to her left caught her eye, and a pig approached her. She tried to move as slowly as possible, but a shout to her left caused the pig to bolt to her right. He ran toward the newly created opening in the fence. Gabby lunged for him but only managed to land herself face first in the dirt, while he disappeared down an embankment across the road.
About that time, a raving lunatic of a girl charged toward her, spouting a string of filth she didn’t even care to process, and that she wasn’t sure was anatomically possible in some cases. When the girl kept advancing, Gabby clambered to her feet, and squared her shoulders to face this new attack. As the girl neared, some of the ranting became coherent and a little bit cleaner. “What in the hell were you doing? Trying to get everyone killed? You shouldn’t even have a fucking license! I’m going to call the sheriff is what. He’s a friend of mine and if there is any justice, he’ll throw you under the jail for attempted vehicular homicide!”
She moved to take Gabby’s arm, and Gabby snapped out of her transfixed state. She jerked her arm away, which infuriated the other woman so much she slapped Gabby’s face. Gabby put her hand to her cheek, then the fight was on. They rolled in the dirt a bit, both spouting obscenities and shouting threats of a seriously litigious nature.
As they fought, Gabby started hearing voices of people who had come up on the ruckus. “Here now, what’s all this? You stop that. Both of you. Rufus, you get a grip on that one, and I’ll get Susan.”
Gabby realized that multiple people must be witnessing her humiliation, but by this point, she was mad. She thrashed, trying to avoid the hands she felt grabbing her from behind, but eventually she was lifted out of the dirt and set on her feet. She struggled blindly, but eventually, she was subdued. As she gained consciousness of her surroundings, she realized that law enforcement was involved, and that a surprisingly strong older man held her arms pinned to her sides… and he smelled like he hadn’t had a bath in a while.
The sheriff facing her said, “What’s going on here?” He shook the girl in his arms slightly. “Susan?”
Gabby spouted out, “Oh, sure, of course she speaks first. She told me you were a friend of hers?”
The sheriff pinned her with steel blue eyes and said, “Now you just simmer down over there, miss. We’ll sort this out, and you’ll have your chance to speak, but right now I’m going to hear out Susan here because that’s what I decided.”
Gabby subsided, but she rolled her eyes. Susan started into a diatribe describing her mad careen into the other lane, omitting the goat, detailing the crash through the fence and her disturbance of the pig, inciting it to run from his own home in terror.
As the woman’s story started cycling through the second time, the sheriff held up his hand and said, “That’s enough, Susan. Let’s hear what the lady has to say.”
Gabby shrugged her shoulders, trying to shake off the arm pinning her in place and looked over her shoulder with a withering glare. “Do you mind?”
The man holding her said, “I’m not letting you go until I’m sure you’re not going to go tearing into somebody, so just say your piece.”
Gabby huffed, but started speaking. “I was driving down the road, minding my own business when a goat jumped out of nowhere, and I swerved to miss it. Granted, it was into oncoming traffic, which I might add was going way too fast, but when she blared her horn so long and loud, it startled me and I overcorrected into the fence. I’ll pay for damages, of course. Nothing of hers was damaged as far as I can tell, so I don’t know exactly what her complaint is except being frightened, unless she owns the fence or pig… and if she owns the goat, she should control it better. Anyway, I saw the pig and tried to calm him, but this… woman… started screaming and the pig ran off.”
The sheriff looked to the man holding her. “Is that true, Rufus? Did Mabel jump into the road?”
Rufus admitted, “I suppose she might have. Sorry about that, Sheriff. No need for anyone to fix the fence. I’ll see to it. It’s just a few boards.”
Gabby said, “I pay my way, sir, I’ll fix your fence. And I’ll help you find your animals.”
Susan said, “You ought to be locked up as a menace to society is what.”
The sheriff said, “Susan, that’s enough.”
Gabby drew in a breath to retort, but the wiry old man behind her cleared his throat warningly, and she subsided.
The sheriff continued. “Susan, since there’s no damage to your truck, I think we’ve had enough of a statement from you. Why don’t you go on now.” He turned her toward her vehicle and released her with a swat to her behind and a warning. “No more fighting… and watch your language in public from now on or I’ll cite you for public profanity!”
Susan scurried to her car, but gave Gabby one more dirty look over her shoulder as she pulled away.
The sheriff shook his head as she pulled away, then turned to Gabby and said, “Now as for you, what are we going to do about you? First off, what’s your name?”
Gabby said, “Gabriella McGrath. I’m on my way to work for a Mr. Jedidiah Harris?”
Rufus let her go at that and spun her around. “You William McGrath’s girl?”
Gabby nodded and Rufus said, “Well, shoot, we served together. You can’t be Gabby?”
Gabby smiled and said, “Yessir, I am.”
Rufus said, “Rufus Sawyer, and this is Dave Sheridan. Dave, this here is the daughter of an old buddy of mine.”
The sheriff shook her hand and said, “It’s nice to meet you, Miss McGrath. I must say though, I doubt Mr. Harris or your father either would be very happy about your getting involved in a fight or the language I heard a few minutes ago. We don’t really allow that kind of thing in public in this town, so keep that in mind while you’re here, and we’ll get along all right. I know Susan provoked most of it, so I’m not going to write any tickets or anything, just take it under advisement.”
Gabby colored under the scolding, and dropped into her automatic ‘dealing with cops’ mode, learned over years of being an outsider. She put on her blank face and said, “Yes, sir.”
Dave said, “Do you want me to call a tow truck for your car?”
Gabby looked at her beloved little car and wanted to just cry. She didn’t know what else to do, and the last thing she wanted to do was call her dad, so she just looked at the policeman with her ‘cop face’ and repeated, “Yes, sir.”
He sighed and said, “Do you need a ride somewhere in the meantime?”
Dave got tired of waiting and said, “Tell you what—I’m going to take you to Jed’s place and let him sort it out.”
Gabby stood silently for as long as she could, realizing that she was about to have her first ride in a police car. Could this day get any worse?
She nodded and said, “Yes, sir. Just let me get my suitcase and backpack.”
* * *
The sheriff didn’t visit Cooper very often, so when the police cruiser pulled up in front of the barn, it caught Cooper’s notice. The sheriff stepped out. “Howdy, Coop.”
“Hey, Dave. What brings you around?” He shook Dave’s hand as it was offered.
The sheriff gestured to the backseat of his car. “Well, this girl claims she hired on here with Jed. That true?”
Cooper eyed the girl in the backseat. “Yes, sir, I think it might be. Why don’t you let her out.”
Dave opened the back door, and a girl with dark curls climbed out. She brushed at her clothes, but that only smeared the dirt and didn’t do much for her torn sleeve and untucked shirt.
Dave cleared his throat. “Uh, Cooper, this is Gabby McGrath. Gabby, this is Jed’s nephew. By the way, where is Jed?”
Cooper kept his eyes on the girl. “He’s out of town for a few days.”
Dave shook his head. “Well, I was hoping to talk to him about this one, actually.”
Dave saw the girl stiffen and her face hardened. She crossed her arms.
Cooper said, “What about her?”
Dave rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, to be honest, it wasn’t all her fault. She had a bit of a run-in with Susan right off the bat, but seeing as Jed is to be responsible for her, I figured he’d like to know about it.”
Cooper looked at the girl, who looked about ready to shoot flames out of her dark brown eyes, she was so incensed at being spoken about like a child. “So what happened?”
Dave shook his head and sighed. “Well, this one dodged Rufus’ goat Mabel and swerved into the lane in front of Susan, then crashed. Susan jumped out of her truck and started her normal spouting off. This one took exception, and they started brawling in the dirt, shouting obscenities and such. Rufus and I had a time pulling them apart.”
Cooper frowned at the girl in front of him. Obviously, he had one of Jed’s ‘projects’ on his hands. He looked at her again and had the thought that she was the prettiest of his projects, though, even with the attitude. She met his eyes then, and Cooper’s world tilted just a bit. No, he couldn’t be this attracted to one of Jed’s delinquents.
“Thanks for dropping her off, Dave. I’ll take care of it from here. Does she have any gear?”
Gabby spoke up then. “Yes, she does. If you’ll pop the trunk, sheriff, I’ll grab my stuff.”
When she went to grab her suitcase, Cooper reached in and hauled it out for her, handing her the smaller backpack. “This all of it?”
Gabby jerked her head in a nod and shouldered the backpack. The men shook hands, then the sheriff climbed back in the car. Dave rolled down the window and said, “Nice to meet you, Miss Gabby, and welcome to town. I hope you’ll enjoy your stay here.”
She stuck her hands in her pockets. “Thanks for the ride.”
Cooper came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. “Yeah, thanks, Dave. ‘Preciate you makin’ sure she got out here safe.”
The sheriff gave a wave and said, “No problem, Coop, Miss Gabby. See y’all around.” He gave a wave and pulled off onto the dusty road toward town.
* * *
Gabby stood there very aware of the hand on her shoulder and the height of the man behind her. He had to be at least as tall as her father—6′4″ or so.
Cooper said, “So I’m guessing you haven’t had the best day so far.”
His kindness at this point surprised her, and she glanced up at him.
His eyes crinkled, the most beautiful blue eyes she had ever seen. “Come on, I’ll show you where you can get cleaned up, and you can drop your stuff.”
He took her to a small room in the barn that contained a bed and a small bathroom. He left her then, saying, “When you’re ready, just come on out to the office in the front of the barn. I’ll have some paperwork ready for you to sign, and we’ll have a talk.”
He walked away, and Gabby sank down on the little bed. Something about the way he said the word ‘talk’ reminded her of when her father said it when she was in trouble.