A TEXAS BOUNTY
By Cathy Richard Dodson
A TEXAS BOUNTY
By Cathy Richard Dodson
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Copyright 2007 by Cathy Richard Dodson, all rights reserved. No portion of
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This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious
or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is
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Noah Francis stared out the window of the plane and thanked God he was flying a Super 80 with two seats on one side of the aisle, so he didn't feel quite so much like a sardine in a can. Which was about the only good thing he could think of to say about this fly-by-night trip back Bennett, Texas, the small town where he'd grown up and ran from as fast as he could. If it hadn't been for that fact that his Uncle Lyn, the man who'd raised him, had suddenly gone completely off his rocker--though he'd been slightly off for as long as Noah had known him--he'd be back in his office where he needed to be right now doing what he needed to be doingor maybe not.
He let his gaze fall on the teenaged girl slouched in the seat between him and the window, jamming to some rock/pop/bop song on her mp3 player, oblivious to his eyes on her and the clouds beyond. Talking to her didn't appear to be an option, and quite frankly he wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad thing. Noah wished he felt better about where he was headed--he hadn't seen his only other living relative in years, and regardless of the reason for this visit, the girl next to him, his daughter, deserved a chance to know both him and his uncle. He'd wanted to spend more time with Krissy for a long time, but this trip wasn't exactly the kind of father-daughter outing he'd had in mind.
One week ago he'd been hard at work in his office in Washington D.C., planning up upcoming fund-raiser for Harrison Stephens, a politician that PACT--People and Animals Coalition Team--the animal rights group he'd helped create, had high hopes of seeing elected to Congress in the fall. Others were depending on him--not only Harrison and PACT--but the people and animals across the country that depended on his organization to help prevent abuse, set standards for ownership and upkeep, and make sure animals weren't taken advantage of in testing and other kinds of 'research.' Noah felt strongly about his work, though some--his ex-wife included--had laughed--and cursed--him up one side and down the other when he'd left a high-paying and prestigious job as a campaign manager to pursue his passion. It went back to his roots though, and he felt his decision had been the best one he'd made in years. Unfortunately it had cost him his marriage and often, he felt, his daughter. He now moved in different circles than his rich ex-wife, and every other weekend when he saw Krissy, she seemed to be mad at him.
He studied his daughter again, taking in the young lady she seemed to have grown into overnight--not that young ladies these days looked anything like they once did. He thought back to a special one he'd known a long time ago, remembered tight blue jeans and white t-shirts, long auburn hair clipped back in a pony tail, and inwardly shuddered at this black-attired, blue-headed creature next to him. Fashion remained a complete mystery to him, almost as much of a mystery as women themselves. While he wouldn't mind learning more about the latter, he didn't have much use for the first. In the old days jeans and western shirts had been enough for him, then suits and ties, and in more recent years, khakis and polo shirts offered just about as much style as he needed on a daily basis. Women--on the other hand--had more serious agendas when they dressed.
Which brought his thoughts back to the fund-raiser and the hotshot intern. She'd been one pretty pissed off young lady when she'd found out he not only had unexpected parental duties for two weeks while his ex took off on a cruise with her latest paramour, but also that he planned to go to Texas to save his rich but eccentric Uncle Lyn from making a big mistake with about one million dollars worth of his money.
Normally an intern's opinion wouldn't have mattered a hill of beans to Noah, but Harrison Stephens had specifically asked that Mimi Richards be placed in charge of this fund-raiser and given kid-glove treatment. Evidently Stephens' owed a favor to someone in a position to help with his campaign in a big way, so ambitious little Mimi had become the beneficiary. She was smart enough and hungry for power and political clout--but for the life of him Noah couldn't see why she'd thought working for Harrison Stephens' campaign would bring her those things. Stephens was a long shot at best, and while Noah was used to the supporting underdogs--no pun intended--he couldn't see why Mimi, with her brains and good looks, would bother. She seemed totally committed though, and knew the right people to get to a benefit backing Stephens. She'd been less than thrilled at Noah dumping the entire she-bang on her lap at the twenty-fourth hour.
"It would really be nice," Mimi had informed him with some irony after his announcement, "if you could convince him to send that million dollars our way."
She was right, of course, but Noah knew no one could tell his Uncle Lyn to do anything he didn't want to do--and helping Noah win a political campaign probably wasn't at the top of his list. Lyndon Bass, with his love of animals and the environment, had instilled those same interests in his nephew. The problem was that Lyn was also an odd bird, and when he got something into his head, there wasn't much way of getting it out. His latest little fiasco was taking the cake a bit too far, Noah thought, a mid-flight frown crossing his brow again.
Lyn's favorite pet wallaby, a female named Wilma--had gone missing a few days ago. Noah had been having lunch with Mimi when he'd gotten a call from an old friend informing him of his uncle's shenanigans. The young woman was already perturbed because he'd brought Krissy along after his ex, Janet, unexpectedly dropped his daughter by the office on her way out of town. Noah had enough to think about with his realization he couldn't let Janet continue to raise their daughter if she planned to continue such irresponsible behavior. He didn't like confrontations with his ex, but he saw one looming on the horizon. The jingle of his cell phone had almost been a welcome interruption from the glares both of the ladies at the table were sending him.
"Of course I remember you, Lesley," Noah said, letting the caller do the talking for the next few moments. Finally his frustration erupted without control. "He's done what?! That's crazy!" After listening another moment or two, he continued, "Yes, well, thanks. I'll have to think it through. It's a really bad time right now. Sure, nice talking to you too."
Noah hung up his phone then focused his attention back to the young women, both of whom now appeared more curious than angry. That was something, at least. "Blast from the past," he said, not really wanting to go into details about the caller's identity or connection to his past. Instead, he rushed headlong into the crisis of which he'd just been informed.
"A friend was calling about my Uncle Lyn."
Mimi, her anger momentarily put aside, batted her eyelashes and leaned forward with interest. "Isn't he the one in Texas, with the kangaroos and all that money?"
Noah eased away from her looming womanhood, not at all comfortable with the way she flirted, this girl barely older than his daughter. "I can't believe you remember me telling you that, but yes, that Uncle Lyn. Only they're not kangaroos, they're wallabies."
At that point, his daughter's curiosity peaked as well--she'd actually removed the ear buds that seemed a permanent part of her anatomy. "Is he dead?"
Noah shook his head, glad Krissy's scowl had disappeared, however briefly. "Not dead. But he's totally lost his mind. Lesley says he's offering a one million dollar reward for the return of his missing pet wallaby."
"So what happened to it?" Krissy asked.
"Evidently Wilma, who's his favorite, has disappeared. Lyn thinks she's been kidnapped and offering a reward will provide incentive for whoever took her to bring her back, plus the bounty will encourage people to help look for her. It's ridiculous, of course."
Noah's uncle had done some pretty outrageous things in the past, but this one took the cake. Growing up, he could barely get his uncle to fork over money for clothes, but he'd think nothing of paying one million dollars for the return of an animal. Still, Noah had to admit he'd had a soft spot for Wilma himself, back in his own Bennett days. But a million dollars--this wasn't the first time Wilma had disappeared. She'd always been a female with a mind of her own.
Mimi's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Couldn't she have just wandered off?"
"Of course she could have. That's the reason this is all so crazy."
"So how many of these wallabies does your uncle have?" Krissy ignored Mimi, to whom she'd taken an immediate dislike, and pressed Noah with sudden interest. "Does he raise them or something?"
His mind had flashed back to his uncle's ranch in Texas, with its hodge-podge of rescues and strays. He tried to hold back the tide of humiliation that threatened to engulf him, even now. "Fifteen or twenty, if memory serves. Lyn rescued them. Someone once thought they'd be wonderful pets and brought them over to breed them, but the venture didn't turn out to be successful. Lyn found out about it and took them in."
"That sounds really cool. Can we visit him?"
"No!" Noah and Mimi answered simultaneously but for completely different reasons.
Krissy wasn't about to be swayed from her argument. "Why not? Shouldn't you try to stop him from doing something stupid like giving away a million dollars for some dumb animal? I mean, that's an awful lot of money."
Of course that had been Mimi's comment as well, when he'd told her later he thought he should go and deal with his uncle, only she hadn't said it in a good way. People trying to raise money didn't view people throwing it away in a very favorable light. But it wasn't really the money that had sent him on the journey--it was his daughter's enthusiasm, the first he'd seen from her in as long as he could remember. Maybe it would be a good thing to take her back and give her a look at his roots. Maybe it would give them a chance to find each other again.
Then there was the 'other' reason, the main reason he and his heart hadn't been home in fifteen years. Guilt wouldn't let him go back, because then he'd have to face the woman whose heart he'd broken. But if visiting could bring him closer to his daughter, he'd been willing to go.
Sitting by Krissy on the plane though, he wasn't so sure if he'd even find her love again. Oh, he didn't think her interest had waned. She'd gone to the library and checked out books on wallabies while he planned the trip, and she'd asked a few questions here and there about Bennett, but now she'd pretty much relapsed into silence mode, and nothing he said or did seemed to draw her back out. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea. Going back to Bennett not only meant facing a lot of people he didn't want to face, but dealing with a past he'd put aside long ago. He wasn't looking forward to it, especially seeing the woman he'd loved and left. Focusing on the clouds again, Noah wondered if maybe he was just destined to piss women off, no matter what he did.
* * * *
Lou Ann Miles sat across from her sister, Lesley, in their usual red leather booth at the Waterin' Hole Café. The Waterin' Hole was the place to have lunch in the small town of Bennett, and today's crowd of local residents was typical of its normal clientele. Lou Ann had spent her whole life in Bennett, and she'd managed to convince herself she wouldn't trade living there for anywhere else in the world. It had taken a while, but she was happy, or at least a reasonably good facsimile of it. She'd been out there, visited big cities and even gone to college over in Austin, but when it came right down to it, the more people you put in a place, the more things got complicated. Here, life stayed simple, and she liked it that way.
Thelma Ray, who'd been a waitress at the café for as long as either sister could remember, sauntered over to with their lunch, served on beige plastic dishes that looked as old as the establishment itself. Kind of like Thelma Ray, actually. Not only had she worked there forever, she hadn't changed one iota in all that time either. She still sported a teased-up bleach blonde hairdo, 'hot lips' pink lipstick, and the starched pink and green uniform that all the waitresses wore, but that Thelma Ray wore the best, leaving those top three buttons open just enough to show some cleavage, where she sprayed a hefty dose of Opium perfume. She was one of a kind, for sure.
"How do you think she does it?" Lou Ann whispered to her sister after Thelma Ray had deposited their plates. "She never ages a bit, and I seriously doubt she's going out of town for plastic surgery."
"Maybe she's just got good genes," Lesley answered as she opened her oversized cloth tote bag and pulled out a plastic container. She doused her salad with a gray-colored liquid as Lou Ann watched with distaste. Thinking of that lettuce being poisoned made her reach for the steak sauce and slosh a hefty portion on her meat.
Lesley wrinkled her nose. "How you can eat that stuff is more than I'll ever understand. Do you know what those poor animals go through?"
"Do we have to have this conversation every time we sit down to a meal, Lesley Ann? I happen to like beef, and you don't. End of story."
"Don't call me Lesley Ann."
Lou Ann waved her fork at her sister. "Then quit commenting on my eating habits. How you eat that stuff is more than I'll ever understand. Just because you've decided to go the unnatural food route doesn't mean the rest of us have to follow suit." Lou Ann sliced a off a big piece of meat and popped it in her mouth, savoring every bite, a woman of deep passions.
"It's totally vegan dressing, no animal by-products whatsoever. This is about as natural as food can get."
"Yes, but does it have a taste?" Lou Ann asked between chews.
Lesley shook her head and sighed, then turned to daydreaming out the window. Lou Ann studied her sister, wondering where exactly she got her strange hippie ways and ideas about eating, but figuring it probably had something to do with her being a vet. Maybe people who worked with animals on a daily basis really did develop a deeper sensitivity to them, but to Lou Ann's mind Les took things a little too far. Her little sister had always been that way though; when she wrapped her mind around something, there pretty much wasn't any changing it. Being stubborn just ran in their family.
"Lou Ann, do you ever think about Noah?"
Lou Ann choked slightly on her meat, grabbed the quart size jar of tea and gulped. "What in the Sam Hill made you ask that?"
Lesley toyed with her salad, evidently oblivious to her sister's upset. "Oh, I don't know. I just wondered how you'd feel if he suddenly showed up one day."
"I very much doubt there's a snowball's chance in hell of that happening." Lou Ann returned her steak while Lesley nibbled, rabbit-like, at her own food. Noah Francis was a subject she fought to keep out of her mind every day since he'd left Bennett. She'd always thought they'd go to the same college, get their respective degrees, then come back here, get married, and have a barn load of kids. Things had started out that way, but Noah had bigger plans for his life. They'd had a parting of ways, and it hadn't been very pleasant. She sure as hell didn't want to reminisce about it.
Apparently, however, Lesley did not intend to drop the subject. "Remember how we all used to skinny dip in Uncle Lyn's pond? We were so naughty."
Lou Ann put down her fork, her enjoyment of the food suddenly spoiled by happy memories going from bad to worse. "We were ten, Lesley, and the way I recall it, we never even took our underwear off."
Lesley shot her sister a sly glance. "But you two went there later, didn't you? I mean, after you were older? You did it with him, didn't you?"
Shifting uncomfortably in her seat, Lou Ann tried to resume eating, but her heart just wasn't in it now. "I did a lot of things with Noah, and none of them are any of your business, little sister. Why are you so interested anyway?"
Lesley dove back into her salad, suddenly intent on its culinary delights. "You really should try this, Lou. Seriously, you'd never know it was vegan."
Watching her sister with suspicious eyes, Lou Ann didn't buy any of it for one minute. Lesley was up to no good, but she knew if her sister didn't want her to know about it, wild horses weren't going to drag it out.
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