A little bit more from my current WIP, Everlasting Echoes (Justin and Beth’s story), next up in The Echoes of Orson’s Folly series.
The prompt this week was lies, but try as I might, all I could squeeze out was one little “lie.”
Justin moved closer to Abe so he could give Beth a boost into the saddle but she stood, unmoving, near the daffodil garden, her camera resting in the palm of her hand. He smiled as he watched her cock her head to one side, looking like one of the sunny yellow blooms bobbing in the wind.
“Hey, Daffodil Gal, you ever gonna come over here so I can help you get on this horse?”
Instead of answering, she kept her back to him and held up a hand, one finger extended in a wait-a-minute gesture. She leaned toward the cabin, her head still angled.
“Do you hear that?” she asked softly.
Justin closed the distance between them and listened but all he heard was the wind kissing the flowers. He shook his head but before he could form the words to his negative reply, he did hear something, a faint squeak from the direction of the dilapidated cabin.
“Something loose inside maybe,” he acknowledged, ready to turn away.
But Beth laid a hand on his arm. “No, it’s something alive. It’s crying.” She stepped in the direction of the cabin, leaving Justin to catch up with her.
Moving quickly, he did catch up with her, and grabbed her arm to stop her just before she stepped on the ruined porch. “Beth, no! It’s not safe inside.”
“But we have to help whatever’s crying in there.”
Justin frowned at the house. Odds were, if Beth was hearing the cries of an animal, it was a raccoon or a rabbit. If it was injured it would be best to leave it, let nature take its course, or at most put the animal out of its misery. He cast a sidelong glance in Beth’s direction. She was a city gal and a tenderheart. She wouldn’t react well to either option.
“You do hear it, don’t you?”
Reluctantly, he nodded. “I might have heard something. But it’s not safe for us to go inside.” When she opened her mouth, no doubt to protest, he held up a hand. “Oh, I’ll go in, but you need to wait out here.”
Emotions began to pluck at his heartstrings like a harpist’s fingers. She’d drive halfway across the country in a van that should have seen its last roundup years before, probably without a second thought, but she balked at the thought of letting him enter a rundown shack because he’d said it was dangerous. The gal was an enigma.
And the puzzle of Bethany Rushton was one Justin planned to decipher. The high-pitched squeaking came from the cabin again and hang it all if the sound didn’t carry the eerie hint of something crying.
Justin scratched his jaw and gave a shrug. “Well, if anything happens, then you get on old Abe there as best you can, and head him up that trail right over there.” He waved his hand to the trailhead to the right of the cabin. “Give him his head and he’ll take you back to the ranch, and you look for Gus and tell him where I am.”
Beth stared, first at him, then at the cabin, then back at him again. Finally, she let out a long breath and gave a quick nod. “Okay.”
Justin took off his hat and handed it to her. “I’ll be right back.”
Beth offered a wobbly smile. The breeze teased a wisp of golden hair into her eyes but she didn’t seem to notice.
So Justin skimmed it back from her face for her. “Don’t look so nervous, Daffodil Gal. I’m like a cat on his first life.”
Her smile faltered, then widened and some of the tension left the set of her shoulders.
With a half-grin, Justin grabbed his gloves from where he’d left them hooked on the saddle. His gaze fell on the Winchester in the holster but he decided against taking it with him. Beth was freaked out enough without adding to her angst. Besides, more than likely it was a catbird nest, which meant the most he was likely to run into was an irate mother bird.
He made a show of confidence as he strode toward the cabin. As Beth’s giggle filtered across the distance between them, he figured he’d managed to overshoot his mark. At the door, he turned and shot her a grin. The door was nothing more than a slab of decayed wood barely hanging by one rusty hinge, which groaned when it moved. With that push forward, the aged iron hinge gave up its hold on the door, and Justin scrambled for the edge, missed and watched as the door splintered and crashed into a pile of kindling on the floor of the cabin’s interior. Dust rose from the heap of broken lumber and played in the sunbeams slanting through the collapsed roof.
He poked his head through the doorway. “I meant to do that.”
She was already halfway to the cabin but he motioned her to go back. She stopped but held her ground, sucking on her upper lip as she continued to watch him.
Justin turned his attention to the interior. When he’d played in the cabin as a kid it hadn’t been near as close to collapse. He took a step along the outer edge of the room, wincing as the floor seemed to moan beneath his feet. As the dust settled, the smell hit him full in the face. It was only by the blessing of a favorable wind they hadn’t been assaulted as they ate.
Something in the ruins of the homestead was dead.
He took another cautious step, then another and elicited a rattling sound that ended with a creak. Each footfall into the room brought him closer to the pungent odor. Justin managed to cross the room to the fireplace without falling through the floor. As he lifted part of the fallen roof, the odor punched him in the gut. At the same time, the squeaking he’d heard earlier returned only this time he could discern the plaintive cries of a desperate baby animal. A flash of white caught his eye and he crouched to ease the brittle plywood aside.
The mother dog was dead. There was no doubt about it; just as there could be no doubt that what had killed her was a small caliber bullet wound to her right hindquarter which had festered. From the smell she hadn’t been dead long. Plenty of flies but no maggots. She was a skinny old girl, a black and white border collie and she looked vaguely familiar. Beneath her, four—no five pups, little miniature copies of their mother, squirmed and cried. He picked one up, crooning to it as he settled it in the crook of his arm. By some miracle, the pups were all fat and healthy, although their fur was matted and they carried the stench of death. Their cries grew louder as he picked them up to carry them out. He did a quick check to make sure none had been left behind and then began the perilous journey to the door.
Beth met him at the front porch, a soft cry on her lips, a look of distress in her eyes. She reached to take two of them from Justin but he shook his head. Bad enough he was covered in the smell of death. “I got this covered. These guys really stink.” He walked toward the horses, and stopped where they’d eaten their lunch. There, he laid the puppies on the ground and crouched down to examine them.
The pups all huddled together as they had in the nest. In the light of day, he could see they were about two weeks old. Their eyes were open and they looked fairly healthy considering their beginning. The littlest one, a male, was missing part of his right rear leg. Justin ran his thumb over the stump. The leg simply ended at the knee but there was no sign of trauma. It appeared he’d been born with the deformity. That sucked. No one would want a dog that couldn’t work. Not in this ranching community.
“What happened to him?”
Justin grunted. “Birth defect. It happens sometimes.” What in Sam Hill was he going to do with the little guy? Or with the whole litter, come to that?
“Where’s their mother?” asked Beth, a wary look settling across her features.
Never had Justin hated delivering bad news more than in that moment. He decided not to pull any punches. “Dead. Probably going on twenty-four hours. Not sure what I’ll do with these guys.”
“Do with them?” Wariness turned to horror on Beth’s features.
“They’re still suckling. They’ll need to be fostered or bottle fed.”
“How on earth did they survive?”
Justin looked down at the little clubfoot pup nestled in the palm of his hand. “Only God knows,” he admitted.
The mechanical click-whir combination of camera shutter and auto-advance broke the silence, and Justin glanced up in time for Beth to snap another picture. He shook his head; he could only guess at his expression. Pictures taken of him tended to come out showing an intimidating scowl on his face.
“What happened to the mother? Could you tell?” Beth glanced at the cabin.
Justin studied the woman in front of him as he considered how much to tell her. She leveled a steady look in his direction, squinting against the glare of the bright afternoon sun. Each time the breeze ruffled her hair, tiny threads of gold glinted. Tenderheart. “Not really, probably a fight with another animal,” he hedged. Considering humans as animals, that wasn’t a bald-faced lie.
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