Perfect Touch – Chapter Five
Agile lady, he said, giving her an appreciative glance as he got back in. Don’t tell me it’s yoga.
Below is the fifth chapter from my brand-new book, Perfect Touch.
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Within the next couple of days, we’re going to release the sixth and final preview chapter.
Perfect Touch – Chapter Five
While Sara watched Jay walk around the hood of the truck to reach the driver’s side, part of her felt like she was fifteen, wearing fashionably ripped jeans, a midriff top, teased hair, and purple eye shadow, standing in the movie theater parking lot with someone blasting trash rock from their cassette deck.
Back before I learned that having a man wasn’t as good as having my freedom to be and do what I want to do and be.
“That’s an interesting smile,” Jay said as he climbed in. “Just remembering how young I once was.”
“Bet the boys chased you.”
“You’d lose. I was plain as a fence post.”
The engine revved, an echo of his laughter. “You’ll have to show me pictures before I believe that.”
“I burned them.”
Shaking his head, he drove her the few blocks to the Lariat motel. When he saw the mess that someone had made of her room, his enjoyment vanished.
“I hope Cooke catches whoever it was,” Jay said.
“I’m not holding my breath.” She handed his jacket back to him and got to work.
With the efficiency of someone who spent too much time traveling, she put clothes and toiletries back into her suitcase, packed up the orphaned computer plug, and gave the room a final check.
“Do you have an uplink on the ranch?” she asked.
“Hard to do business without one.”
“Good. I’ll download what I need of my records onto my tablet.”
“You’re lucky it wasn’t stolen, too,” Jay said.
“It’s in my purse, along with my cell phone. Where I go, my purse goes.”
“I’ve seen smaller rucksacks,” he said, eyeing the big purse.
“Some people lift weights. I lift my purse.”
She reminded herself not to stare.
“I’m out of here,” she said. Pulling her wheeled suitcase behind, Sara headed for the door, eager to see the last of the motel room. Jay caught up with her just by lengthening his stride.
“I’ll take it,” he said, reaching for her suitcase.
With an easy motion he stashed the suitcase behind the driver’s seat of the truck.
“How far is it to the ranch?” Sara asked.
“Depends on which pass is open. Twenty miles if Wolf Pass is open, almost twice that if we have to take the long way.”
“And the winner is?”
“Us,” he said. “Wolf Pass is open. Or it was when I came in this morning. Around the Tetons, weather changes when you blink, especially in the high country.”
“You can’t scare me unless it’s a bear.”
“Usually we only get them at the outer edges of the ranch,” he said, “on leased grazing lands. Or sometimes up at Fish Camp, if the garbage smells particularly tempting before we get around to burning it.”
“No, we burn garbage. Burying it just gives the bears something to dig up, and they’re a lot better at digging than a man with a shovel.”
“You really do have bears.”
He looked at her big eyes. “Yes, city girl, we really do. Cougar, deer, antelope, elk, and Henry swore he saw wolf tracks during the melt. Does that change your mind about staying at the ranch?”
“Are the Custers there?”
“I’ll let you know after I see them.” He smiled. Sensation shivered up and down her spine.
Forget the bears, she thought. He’s lethal.
Good thing I spent my childhood raising my younger siblings, washing the smell of cow crap and baby barf out of my hair, and cooking for nine. I’m inoculated against his brand of rough-and-ready charm. I worked too hard getting out of the country to want to go back again for more than a brief visit.
Very quickly, the streets of Jackson bled into a strip of commercial development on either side of the road. A few minutes later buildings stuttered out and mostly grass grew. Trees lined small creeks and sagebrush thrived on exposed slopes. Barbed wire fences marked off small ranches, while narrow asphalt or dirt roads snaked off up the shoulders of ridges dressed in grass or sage and aspen.
After some miles, the top of the highest grassy ridges sprouted giant mansions placed above old ranch structures farther down the slopes. The old homes were all but falling down now. The new homes were supersized, decked out in finery that was sometimes restrained and more often looked like a TV reality show in waiting. She’d bet that ninety percent of the mansions were uninhabited.
Sara would have expected this sort of growth in upstate New York or even outside Atlanta, where she’d been decorating and appointing the inside of a house not unlike these. But not here, in the middle of ranching country.
I probably shouldn’t look at it this way, but are these new places really such an improvement on the landscape? Were the old ranch houses so bad that they had to be left to rot from neglect while empty mansions are built?
Nothing answered her question except the complex reality that life changed.
Below the ridgetops, the flat land was empty of all but ranch fencing, occasional cattle, and the grass that bent beneath the wind. Silver ripples gleamed in irrigation ditches.
“I don’t see many cows,” she said finally.
“It’s been a hard winter and a late spring. Price of hay was so high a lot of the small ranchers had to sell off stock.”
“Vermilion Ranch has its own hay meadows. We weathered it better than most.”
“You’re lucky,” she said, remembering. “My father had too much family and too few milk cows to make ends meet anywhere near the middle.”
“Hard work and plenty of it,” Jay agreed. “When I was young, I couldn’t wait to leave the ranch and see the world.”
“And you did,” she said, remembering fragments of previous conversations.
“Yes. I left when I was eighteen. Didn’t come back until a few years ago. A long time.”
“I’m still gone. Can’t think of anything that would drag me back. What changed your mind?”
She knew a conversation closer when she heard it, yet she said, “One of my younger brothers feels the same. He—Look out!”
Before the words left her mouth, Jay had braked and swerved to avoid the deer bounding across the road. He missed it by inches.
“Deer have to be the dumbest thing on hooves,” he said, quickly guiding the truck back into the correct lane. “Wonder what ran it out of daytime cover.”
“A bear?” Sara asked, her voice thinned with adrenaline.
“More likely stray dogs.”
His voice hadn’t changed. She had a feeling that it would take more than a kamikaze deer to lift his blood pressure. She forced herself to look away from his compelling features to the scenery outside. The road climbed, wound around, and climbed some more. For a time there were aspen groves in every crease and sometimes on the ridgeline itself. High-end houses disappeared. Though ranch fences remained, the country looked wilder. Some of the fences were very old, made of wood that had turned pale gray beneath relentless weathering.
When they left the highway, the surface of the road went from asphalt to graded gravel.
“How far does this road go?” Sara asked.
“About thirty miles before it dead-ends at Mitchell’s ranch gate. There are some nice moose bogs down in the bottoms along the way.” Jay slowed. “Hang on, hard turn coming.”
“Narrow road and a tourist riding my bumper. Damn fool is in a city car. If he keeps going, he’ll get stuck in the mud holes ahead.”
Despite Jay’s turn signal, the car kept riding his bumper. He said something under his breath as he turned sharply onto another gravel road. This one was posted as Vermilion Ranch, private property, no hunting, no trespassing, and no turnaround. A locked gate was set back just far enough to keep the pickup truck from blocking the larger dirt road where the tourist zoomed eagerly past, spraying gravel, unaware of the muddy bottomland and huge tow bill waiting a few miles farther on.
Jay swung down out of the truck cab, opened the combination lock, and pushed the gate wide.
“Want me to drive through?” Sara called.
“Thanks. Appreciate it.” She scrambled over the console into the driver’s seat, took the truck through, and then slid back into the passenger seat.
Agile lady, he said, giving her an appreciative glance as he got back in. Don’t tell me it’s yoga.
Laughing, she shook her head. “I ride horseback in the Sierra Nevada every chance I get. BLM and national forest lands are full of gates.”
“Hear they have bears, too.”
“Not where I ride. My horse wouldn’t put up with it.” Then, “Why are all the big estates up on the grassy ridgelines? There was flat land closer to Jackson.”
“City people like the view up there. When Liza hounded JD for more money, he leased off some of the more useless ridgeline pasture-lands to rich folks. Resorts, condos, miniature estates, whatever.”
“Leased, huh? That’s smart.”
“The only thing JD was stupid about was Liza. Every time I look at the fake rustic estates crouched on the heights, I see more proof that when an older man marries a much younger woman, money always changes hands. A lot of it.”
Jay drove on down the road at a good clip, slowing only when fence lines gave way to sunken cattle grates that worked as barriers for hoofed animals. Some dust rose behind the truck, but not much because it had rained the night before.
When Sara caught herself admiring his profile or lean, strong hands too often, she forced herself to look out at the land. She was here for the Custers, period.
Custer painted this land. What did he see that moved him to set up an easel? The shadows of aspens on a rough slope? The sharp angles of fence meeting fence? The racing line of the wind across the grass?
“Do you have many memories of Custer?” she asked after a time.
“Some. I was twelve when my mother died and JD married Liza. Custer took off about that time. He didn’t like kids much, especially when I got taller than him, which happened when I was about ten. From what I learned after I grew up, Custer had an eye for the ladies and they returned the favor.” Jay shook his head. “Never could understand it. Maybe it was the smell of oil paints and turpentine, or whatever the hell it was that he used for cologne. Or maybe he was hung like a prize bull.” Then, “Sorry, don’t mean to be coarse.”
Sara bit her lip against a laugh. “When I was twelve years old, I spent more than a few hours up to my armpit in a cow’s birth canal, trying to grab the second slippery little hoof so that dad could put a rope around both of them and pull. I know all about birds, bees, and how bulls hang.”
He glanced away from the road and smiled. “You’re one surprise after another. You sure you live in San Francisco?”
“Very sure. I love it there—the taste of so many different cuisines, the color of faces from white to black and every shade in between, fog like a cold cat winding around my ankles, the horns of cars and big ships, clothes and goods and art from all over the world. It’s exciting, energizing. Always something new to discover. And the only cows are hanging in upscale butcher shops.”
“Yeah, I used to feel that way.” He shrugged. “I changed.”
“Did Custer love the land?” she asked.
“Love, hate . . . there’s a real fine line between. I don’t know. He and JD fought like old marrieds. Custer always lost. He’d tear out and go painting and not be around for days. Sometimes I wonder if he didn’t fight just to get his blood up to paint.”
She tilted her head. “Another nugget from the personal history of an artist. You’ll have to write down your memories.”
“No time for it. The ranch is two full-time jobs and then some.”
“Another thing I hate about cows. No time off for good behavior.” Jay gave Sara a glance that looked casual and missed nothing.
She is really something, he thought. Strong handshake, slender female body, yet plenty tough. She didn’t scream at the deer or leave town because of a small-time burglar. She’s smart, too, or the rest wouldn’t be nearly so appealing.
Too bad she’s a city girl and there’s nothing left in the city for me. My roots are planted in Wyoming, and that will never change. The land is part of my DNA. How stupid I was to fight my roots most of my adult life, only to realize in the end that the ranch is exactly the challenge and peace that I need.
“I’m really eager to see those paintings,” she said. “The only Custers I’ve seen in person were his later works, after his move to Roanoke.”
“When I was old enough to think about adults being people like me,” Jay said, “I wondered why he went that far away. Nobody knew him in Virginia, and Custer was a man who liked to be known.”
“Maybe he got sick of the West. Whatever the reason, he was sure done with everything western, including landscapes. Odd, though. His later paintings were more technically polished, certainly more accessible, but they all lack the raw energy and emotion of his earlier ones.”
“You want raw energy, look over there,” Jay said, gesturing with his chin.
She looked to her right. The wind had stripped most of the clouds away from the Tetons. They thrust into the air, jagged and bright with ice on the north slopes. The south-facing slopes gleamed with water in patches where the snow had melted. The forest was a dark, dark emerald where trees grew, with ghostly streamers of naked aspen trees running up the ravines. At lower elevations the grass was fiercely green, supple as water beneath the wind.
“I always thought the coastal hills above our farm were as ghostly and wild as anything on earth,” she said. “This is more. Much . . . bigger.”
“Make you feel small?” he asked.
“No. Should it?”
“Not everyone likes this much openness.”
“Then they’d hate the Pacific Ocean,” she said. “Now that is one wild and restless place.” He smiled.
She looked at the mountains again. Clouds formed and re-formed as she watched, tossing like the manes of countless wild silver horses.
“Custer must have painted that,” she said. “It’s the kind of powerful collision of land and sky and cloud that he loved.”
“We have a painting like this of his.”
A chill snaked over Sara’s skin at the thought of seeing Custer’s earlier—and in her opinion—far superior works.
She watched the clouds and wind for a long time. They looked free as only things of the air could be. Below the arching sky, where the Tetons zigzagged down into tall hills and rolling hillocks, wind rushed over the pastures, green and grassy and rumpled like the back of an endless herd.
“Custer must have painted that, too,” she said. “There are so many ghosts and echoes in his work. That’s why it fascinates me.”
“Plenty of ghosts and echoes in you, too,” he said.
Startled, she looked away from the scenery to him. “What do you mean?”
“You’re a city girl who rides horseback in the mountains for fun and you remember helping a cow give birth.”
“That’s why I’m a city girl. No cows.”
“No horses, either.”
“Nothing’s perfect,” she said.
“Except the name of your company.” She laughed. He’s quick. I really like that in a man. Or a woman, for that matter. Too many people just stumble through life, eyes fixed on the ground.
Jay’s cell phone made a sound like a bawling calf. Slowing down, he pulled the phone out of his pocket. As he moved, his pants pulled across his crotch tight enough to strike a match on.
A quick mind isn’t all he has. I like that in a man, too. A lot. Sara felt like fanning herself and settled for blowing out a soft breath.
“What’s up?” he said into the phone.
“Where the hell are you?” Henry demanded. “I got back to the ranch near an hour ago.”
“I’m a few minutes out.”
“Well, take your foot off the damn brake. Liza’s here and she’s mad as a skunk in a bubble bath.”
Though the news of Liza made Jay want to turn the truck around and head back to town, he said, “On my way.”
He shoved his phone back in his pocket and started driving like he was alone.
After a few hard bumps, Sara braced herself and hoped the ranch wasn’t too many more miles away.
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